Demystifying Search Engine Optimization: Part 1

Monday Mar 17th 2008 by Jennifer Shaheen
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Search engine optimization can be a confounding and inexact science, but learning fact from fiction can help you make the most of your Web marketing efforts.

Every small business owner with a Web site should, at this point in the game, understand that having your business listed on – and found through – the major search engines is an important piece of an effective Web-marketing strategy.

On any given day you can open your e-mail inbox to find an SEO pitch promising to get you to the top of Google, Yahoo, MSN and every other search engine out there. How is it then that some of these companies promise you first-page ranking at such a low cost while others charge thousands? Is there really a difference between them?

Many of my clients mistakenly believe that there's a secret formula for getting ranked on the first page of a search engine. This myth leads to confusion about what it takes to achieve that goal. Let's clarify the myths and talk about what really makes your Web site rise to the top.

Keywords and Keyword Phrases
These are the words and expressions you think your customers are most likely to type into a search engine when they're looking for products or services that you offer. Choosing the right keywords is a very important decision in building a successful SEO strategy.

Those low-cost companies typically suck you in with offers like, “Get ranked on the first page of the search engines with 10 keywords for a low price of $49.95”. While this seems like a great deal, these companies generally use lower-quality, less competitive words that fewer people actually use when searching.

These “factory SEO services” create a system and apply it to all the companies that fall into the same industry with little interest in your business or your customers. Instead of offering their expertise, they rely on you by asking; “What keywords do you want people to use to find you?” How are you supposed to know? Isn’t that why you reached out to them?

Michael Coppola of Path Interactive, a New York City-based search-marketing firm, explained that choosing the right keyword phrases is the most critical part of any SEO campaign. "First you need to map out your audience. That drives your search optimization efforts. Company’s focus on keywords and misunderstand the big picture – the customer,” he said.

Simply put, if you're optimizing your Web site with keywords used by shoppers who aren't your audience, your business may rank on a search engine's first page. However, if it's the wrong audience, you won't see the return you were hoping to gain from your position.

The point, Michael said, is to go back to the basics. Before you hire an SEO company or taking on the project yourself, look at your true goals and ask yourself, who is your market? Who are you looking to attract? This is how SEO should really begin, not by throwing keywords at your Web site.

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Keyword Placement: Location, Location, Location
Now let’s talk about what to do with those words once you've found them. You need to place keywords in various areas on your Web pages. According to Dov Weinstock of SalemGlobal Internet, “Keyword-rich pages with strong Title Tags, Meta data and content are very important.”

But as Kathy Fealey of KF Multimedia & Web, Inc. noted, “Every title, description and keyword tag needs to be different on each page of your site.” You also have to make some important strategy decisions during this process because you can't optimize every page with every keyword or keyword phrase. You need to focus. "

Fealey believes that by doing things correctly, the search engines will reward you. Providing good quality content on your site will result in better organic ranking and more people will click on you." In some cases," Fealey said, "the search engines semantics to tell if your page is truly about the content or if you are just pandering for the engines.”

Experts agree that though many clients think they have some secret formula this is not an exact science. You’re dealing with machines and algorithms. The search engines themselves are in the business of making sure the search customer has a good experience with their search tool, therefore, they make changes to ensure your search results are relevant.

A Little Code Goes A Long Way
A bit of technical know-how can make a difference when it comes to search engine optimization. It's important to understand the way your Web site is coded. By this I mean how your designer, developer or WYSIWYG application adds the code to your Web pages.

Typically people and programs use the font tag (<font>) in HTML to change the color or size of words or headlines on a Web page. However, you'll get better search engine results if you use heading tags (<h1>) instead. “Engines give greater weight to keywords that are emphasized in heading tags,” said Fealey.

Making your site SEO friendly isn't just about picking the right keywords. You need to address page code, site structure, and you need to understand what path names are in your URL.

Site structure refers to the way in which you set up your Web pages. For example, use text as links instead of buttons. By using styles you can still make the site visually appealing but more search friendly. “Write headlines that are keyword rich,” Fealey added. This will improve SEO results as well as help the humans reading the content.

Your Web site's URL is also called your domain name. After the yourname.com/ portion of the URL, you'll see pages, folders and even numbers (if you have a large site). “The search engines give your page titles and URL the most weight,” said Dov Weinstock. He recommends that you create folders and page names with keywords.

Creating a SEO campaign that delivers the results you want means planning, following best practices and committing to the journey. In Part 2 of this article, we continue exploring SEO and the best ways to drive traffic to your site.

Jennifer Shaheen, the eMarketing and Technology Therapist, has more ten years experience working with small to mid-sized businesses on their eMarketing and Web-development needs. You can learn more about her by visiting her Web site, TechnologyTherapy.com

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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