"If you build it, they will come" might have worked for Ray Kinsella in the movie Field of Dreams, but any e-tailer can tell you that it takes a lot more than Hollywood magic and a snappy catch phrase to drive people to a Web site. Once you build your online shingle, you need to send up a flare to let the multitudes know you exist and, in Internet terms, that flare is better known as Search Engine Marketing, or SEM.
The race to attract search engine spiders, and thereby earn a high page ranking on Internet search results, is rife with confusion, deception and manipulation. For example, sketchy SEM companies promising to deliver thousands of hits to your site for a price that's too good to be true proliferate on the Web faster than mushrooms in a cow pasture after a heavy rain.
So what's the best way to approach SEM, and how can you take advantage of free marketing to drive traffic to your site? We spoke with Steve Lazuka, CEO, of InfoSearch Media, a Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based company that specializes in content-based search solutions, who offered his take on SEM and how to make it work for you.
Paid Versus Organic Results
There are two ways to approach SEM, according to Lazuka. The first is through sponsored ads, the kind you see on the right-hand side of a page on a Google search, for example. "Basically you buy your way in, by going to Google Adwords or a similar service on other search engines, and bidding on keywords and placement," he said.
But as Lazuka tells it, 90 percent of people don't click on paid ads. He recommends going for a high ranking in the organic meaning free results. "To rank in the first page of a search engine result is the Holy Grail," he said. "Ninety percent of people click on a result on the first page. You get almost 10 times more traffic than you would with a paid ad, and it's free."
Search engines base organic page rank on relevancy and use complex algorithms to find and rank pages appropriately. "There are potentially millions of dollars at stake," said Lazuka. "People search and find you at the moment when they're ready to buy. A high rank can make or break your business."
Consequently, he added, "an entire underground exists that uses deceptive tactics to try and make their pages appear more relevant than they are. It's a cat and mouse game between the Web masters coming up with new ways to get around the system and the search engine developers creating better spiders to detect and remove all the garbage."
Content is King
Lazuka said the two most important things you can do, legitimately, to make your site more relevant and thereby attract the spiders and increase your page rankings is to use lots of high quality content and keep it fresh. "You need to offer in-depth, updated, comprehensive information. You want your site to be an informational resource, and you want it to be the best one out there," he said.
The spiders are very intelligent. "They detect quality signals and compare your site to your competitors," said Lazuka. For example, a site selling DVD players, that offers 10 pages of content won't rank as high as a site that has 100 pages of content with updated terms and articles.
Lazuka suggests that following these four steps will help your site rank higher and receive more traffic.
1. Research the appropriate keywords
"It's critical that you find the keywords that people actually use when searching for the type of product or service that you sell," said Lazuka. "Those terms tell you what people are interested in." He recommends two sites to help with your research. The first is WordTracker.com, a paid service, and the second is the Overture search term suggestion tool (now owned by Yahoo), which is free.
2. Write one page about each search word or search phrase
Once you've determined the keywords and phrases people use to search, Lazuka recommends writing one informative Web page for each word or phrase. "You want the page to provide helpful information," said Lazuka. "But most of all, keep the writing natural. Natural writing is better because it truly helps people. Write for humans, not for the search engine spiders."
He said the mistake most people make is trying to stuff as many keywords onto a page as they can resulting in what's known as keyword density. "Don't fall into that trap," Lazuka warned. "The spiders are programmed to look for natural language."
3. Apply basic optimization principles to each page
Certain elements on a Web page (often called on-page factors) influence search results. Lazuka suggests paying close attention to title tags, meta tags and the overall word count of the copy you've written.
"Title tags are very important," he said. "Write a clear, concise summary of the page and put it in the title tag. A title tag should be between five and 10 words in length.
"There's some debate about the effectiveness of meta tags," Lazuka acknowledged. "However, I think they still have value. Consider them optional, but if you use them, write a slightly longer page description; about 10-to-20 words.
"Overall, the copy you write for each page should be between 200 and 600 words. Any more than that and people lose interest; it's hard to read and retain any more than that online."
4. Consider off-page factors
External, or off-page, factors influence the success of your site as well, with "link popularity" leading the way. "This refers to how search engines look at the Web and sees who links to your site," said Lazuka. "It shows some sense of your site's usefulness and relevance. The spiders detect lots of links and, essentially, think it must be a good site."
Of course, the search engines can detect link farms, which have earned a very negative reputation. "Spiders look for natural linking patterns," said Lazuka. "They want to know that people linked to your site because the content is good, not because you bought your votes. In fact, if you engage in link farming, the search engines will penalize your site or even ban it altogether. And that can absolutely kill your business."
According to Lazuka, the best way to develop quality, in-bound links is to provide good content that makes your site a valuable resource. "Don't fall for gimmicks or tricks," he said. "Avoid anything that's too easy or too good to be true. If an SEO firm offers you 1000 links for $50, run away."
Whatever you do, Lazuka warned, don't hire a rogue SEO company. "It's buyer beware out there. You need to talk to the company and find out how they conduct business. Ask for customer references. Do your homework before you sign a contract."
If you should fall victim to an unscrupulous SEO firm, you do have recourse. "You can e-mail a re-inclusion request to the major search engines. Tell them you made an honest mistake by hiring a bum firm, and ask them to let your site back in."
Most of all, said Lazuka, be patient. "You won't rank number one tomorrow. That's just not how it works, especially when you're competing with more established sites. It takes time. Don't go crazy. Get the word out and work on developing your content. Write a new, informative article every day."
Finally, Lazuka recommends WebmasterWorld.com as a resource for anyone who runs a Web site.
Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com
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