You’ve built your company website and you feel confident that it provides all relevant information (and functionality), looks great, and is easy to navigate. Now, how to entice search robots to present it to would-be site visitors when they enter an appropriate query?
It comes down to "search engine optimization" (SEO), a set of techniques for ensuring that a site appears high in the list of results returned when a term is entered into a search engine. That matters, because people tend to scan only the first page of search results and click through to the sites that appear on that first page.
One challenge of SEO is that Google and other search engines are constantly refining their search algorithms, so that the things you did last week to enhance SEO may not be the things you should be doing this week.
The good news is that, according to many experts, the key to outsmarting the machines is to forget about the machines.
“If you improve your site for human users, you will improve its performance in search rankings,” says Kaysha Kalkofen, co-founder of Tsunela, a digital marketing consultancy. A good rule of thumb? “Think of your own behavior on websites--and particularly what makes you switch off.”
The biggest mistake most entrepreneurs make when it comes to content is being boring, says John Rampton, an online marketing expert and former editor at Search Engine Journal who is now an entrepreneur and advisor to start-ups. “They’re just writing material because someone said they need content.”
Case in point: blogs or news releases that tout all the bells and whistles of a new product, rather than laying out the common problem that inspired the product and explaining how your company solves it. The best content play, Rampton says, is to focus the information you provide around the questions and concerns customers typically have, so that it provides value, and get to your product or service later in the game. That often requires a company to unlearn what it thinks it knows about marketing. The concept of "subtler is better" can be hard for some companies to appreciate, he says.
The most valuable form of content you can provide, Rampton says, is a snappy three- to five-word phrase that captures what your company actually provides. Put it at the top of each page to grab readers' interest and pull them into the content that is presented below it.
Which keywords are really key?
One way to boost traffic to your site is to identify the "keywords" that users are likely to enter into a search engine, and make sure you build them into your URL, headlines, and other areas of the site. Companies typically emphasize the use of what they believe are the words most relevant to their business--but often they get it wrong.
For example, business owners often choose the technical terms they would use--such as “cardiac” for a healthcare company--rather than the common parlance (“heart”) that a customer is likely to use, says Kalkofen. And “unless you emphasize the keywords a customer would use, you’re not going to fare as well in search results.”
To improve your results, try to listen with a fresh ear to the words, including slang, that customers use when they describe their needs and interests.
Finally, avoid cramming too many topics onto a single page, as that dilutes the search engine value of each topic. “If you can split topics out into individual pages you’ll do better,” says Kalkofen. A company that offers cardiac care services, for example, should create multiple short pages that focus on specific conditions, rather than longer articles that address multiple, related conditions.
What’s in a (domain) name?
Questions about how search engines actually search have prompted some entrepreneurs who are keen to move away from clunky "dot-com" website names and instead adopt new domain extensions (such .expert, .agency, .coffee, .bike and many others) to worry that such a choice might negatively impact search engines results.
If that’s the case for you, worry not. Google addressed this question in a recent FAQ post for small business owners. The upshot: “New domain name endings are not treated any differently than traditional domain name endings like .com or .org,” according to Google. While there may be a transition period as you move from one to another, as soon as Google robots find you again “your new domain name is expected to work just like your old domain name.”
Kalkofen agrees that the choice of domain names is not a limiting factor in SEO. However, subdirectories, or the words after the backslash within a URL, are likely to affect search engine results, so “they should be keyword rich and ideally also make sense,” she says. Choosing a “not-com” domain is a great way to build a highly relevant keyword for your business (.photography, .florist, .legal, .marketing, and many more) directly into your URL.
Faster = better
The faster your website loads, the better it will do in search engine results. Why? No search engine worth its salt wants to give high scores to sites that appear broken or poorly administered. The challenge is that “fast” is getting faster every day.
"Google crawls every web site and can tell if it loads fast or slow compared to others," Rampton says. And as far as user behavior is concerned, “You have about one second or less for your page to load before someone is mentally gone.”
An easy way to speed things up is to optimize graphics: make images smaller and cut down on pixel count (not necessarily for the primary images intended to dazzle, but certainly for secondary images that play smaller on your site, and also for icons such as social media and other logos, which definitely don’t need to be presented at high resolutions). Also, use a still image to host a "Play" button for videos, versus designing the site to load and start videos automatically.
Be strategic about inbound links
Companies often spend a lot of time trying to get a mention and associated link back on media sites or other high-traffic sources because it can result in a big jump in site traffic, and an accompanying SEO boost. In fact, some people feel that any form of link back, from any site, is worth whatever effort it takes to secure.
But, for the most part, “pursuing inbound links can be a very time-consuming way to improve SEO,” says Kalkofen. Though they’re worth pursuing if you can land a link back on a media site, time spent chasing anything other than a major win is probably wasted. “We have found that, in general, if you build a good website with unique content, those links will come on their own,” Kalkofen says.
Instead, think about ways to leverage the power of social media. When you create content that stimulates shares across social media you attract a larger audience, which triggers the Google search bots in a positive way. They’ll view your brand as an authority, because traffic from any external links, including those from the social media universe, validate your brand. So if you can get even 10 people to share your content, that’s a victory in the bigger SEO battle.
Mobilize for mobile
As of spring 2015, Google began to factor "mobile-friendliness" into how well your site ranks. That's in large part because search queries originating from mobile devices far outnumber those from desktops. According to a Google blog post last year, “more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries, including the U.S. and Japan.”
What does it mean to be mobile-friendly? Like most searchers, mobile website visitors expect speed above all else. "The goal is that it loads in three seconds or less," says Kalkofen. But they also expect every page to be easy to navigate with a fingertip, with the most relevant information--things like reservation links and click-to-call phone numbers for a restaurant, or ER directions for a hospital--front and center, to a degree that may not be reflected on a site only designed to be viewed on a desktop device.
It’s also important to realize that SEO success doesn’t happen overnight, no matter how perfect (or aggressive) your strategy.
“Credibility is a huge factor today,” says Rampton. “If you buy a domain and start blogging on it, Google is not going to trust you right away, and when it does, it’s not going to trust you as much as someone who has been writing on a topic for years.”
But be persistent--and keep your website current and interesting--and you will undoubtedly move up in search results and build a bigger and more loyal web audience.