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And The Hits Just Keep on Coming

As more and more people use Google to seek out goods and services, leaving them a digital trail of breadcrumbs is vital to modern marketing
By Jonathan Oke

There are millions of people searching for products, services and information on the worldwide web every day. According to ComScore, a global leader in digital marketing intelligence, 75 percent of the U.S. population alone uses online searches, resulting in nearly 18 billion total searches each month. So why do some companies come up in search results and others don’t? And how does Google determine what lucky names appear on the first page of results? According to Brenda Pacher, marketing director of WebMAD Internet Marketing and Design, it’s all about keywords and search engine algorithms. “Website design is important, but the best design does you no good if no one finds your website,” says Pacher, whose Oakville- based company specializes in online marketing and lead generation for Ontario businesses.

Pretty pictures and aesthetics should be a secondary concern in website construction, echoes Heather Angus, president of Dundas-based WritingSEO.com. “Your site’s design should be based on information architecture, or IA. If graphic design is the skin of a website, IA refers to the bones of the site,” says Angus, whose company offers website audits, analysis, rewrites and ongoing consultation on search engine optimization. “That means the site’s navigation and classification of pages and URL structure, so that it all looks logical and legit to the ‘Google-bots’ when they crawl the site to see where they might rank it in the search result pages. A website designer does not always have the required IA skills to understand the search engine optimization (SEO) implications of site design, so companies need to be sure to look for that skill set. The particular type of web content management system (CMS) that you use, or the colour scheme or logo, or whether you choose a one-column or two-column format...none of that is nearly as important as SEO-friendly site architecture.”

“You want traffic to your website, but more importantly, you want targeted traffic,” notes Pacher. “That means visitors who are actually looking for your products or services. If you only serve a certain geographical area, for instance, like carpet cleaning in Oakville, then you don’t need traffic from Alberta or California. If you offer dance classes for kids, you don’t want to appear in results for pole dancing or nightclubs.”

So how do you reach your target market through the net’s various search engines? There are two types of search results: organic and advertorial. The paid advertisements— Google Adwords, for example—appear on the right side of the search results, and sometimes at the very top or bottom of the page. Adwords are pay-per-click ways for businesses to generate leads and get onto the first page of search results. The cost-per-click for the advertiser can vary depending on how competitive a keyword is—from as low as a few cents up to $50 or more for each click. For example, the keyword phrase “truck repair Oakville” costs $0.05 per click, whereas the keyword phrase “online car insurance quotes” will fetch an estimated $56.83 per click. Whether the lead converts (into sales) or not, you pay Google every time someone clicks on your ad when using Adwords.

Organic search results, on the other hand, are not paid ads; they come up naturally or organically through search engine results pages. These results appear on the left side of the page and generally account for almost 90 percent of all clicks from searchers. These trusted organic results are served up based on the strength of your website compared to that of your competitors.

So how do you strengthen your website to rank in the organic searches? “Before we build or optimize a website, we do a lot of research,” says Pacher. “Everything you ever wanted to know about your industry and competition is available online—if you know where to look and what to look for. We go onto the main online competitor sites and ‘reverse look up’ their code, keywords, back links, page rank, traffic, etc. We can see how they are getting traffic, where their strengths and weaknesses are and use that knowledge to gain a competitive advantage for our clients.”

The system works, says Burlington Mortgage Broker Marcelle Tiqui. “My website never came up in searches and I was getting no traffic. WebMAD optimized my site and, in addition, does my monthly blogs, directory listings and other stuff. Now I’m coming up for a lot of different search terms for mortgages, and clients are finding me on the web.”

The importance of keyword research cannot be understated, notes Angus. “Hiring a consultant, or getting a junior staff person or in-house intern to invest a few hours discovering keywords is critical in order to know which words to then use— not just in writing the web pages, but in the navigational elements of the site, the metadata behind each page, the names of images and more.”

There are keyword research tools available, as well—many of them free—enabling surfers to discover which keyword phrases people are typing in and how many searches there are on those words and phrases every month. For instance, if you sell kids’ shoes, there are 6,120,000 searches worldwide every month for “kids shoes” (based upon December 2010 data), with 90,500 searches in Canada.

“You are not guessing at the market or what people are looking for—Google gives you a monthly average of how many people typed that exact phrase into the browser which Google bases on their Adwords data,” explains Pacher, an MBA with a traditional marketing background. “Before, it was a matter of guesswork. You based marketing on what you thought people wanted. Now, you can see exactly what people are looking for based on online searches. You can also look at estimated ‘cost per click’ to see how competitive a keyword phrase is, and how much advertisers are willing to pay for those leads.”

To build an effective keyword list, Pacher suggests you start by compiling a list of your products or services, along with areas or locations you are trying to reach (local, provincial, national, international). “Build your keyword list to reflect all your services and products, as well as the areas you are trying to reach. These are your online target markets.”

Once you know what people are searching for, you need to look at the other side of the coin: how many competitors, or search engine results, come up for that keyword phrase? “By going into Google Search, you can view how many competitors are vying for any particular keyword phrase. It will be extremely difficult to rank on keywords with millions of competing pages, but ‘longer tail’ or more specific keywords will usually not be as competitive and typically convert better.” For example, while it would be very difficult to rank highly on “shoes,” it would be less difficult to rank on “kids shoes,” and easier still to rank on “kids orthopaedic shoes.”

“These searchers know what they are looking for and are often further away from the ‘general inquiry’ beginning search and closer to the ‘ready to buy’ phase—or further down the sales funnel,” Pacher explains.

There are geographical considerations as well. With the new Google Caffeine, a major upgrade in Google algorithms and search functionality, more emphasis is being placed on local search results, or results based on the location of the searcher. If you are searching for something in Niagara, Google will recognize the region you are searching from and serve up more relevant results from Niagara Falls, Ontario, instead of Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Google, of course, is not the only search engine on the internet, but it’s the biggest by far, with an estimated 65-70 percent of all searches, versus 15-17 percent on Yahoo, 10-12 percent on Bing and 2-4 percent on Ask. Google’s web ‘bots’ or ‘spiders’ crawl the entire internet every three to four days—impressive, considering there are an estimated 234 million websites and 25 billion web pages! The ‘bots’ allow Google to process information based on their algorithms, which affect website rankings and search engine results. So what do the bots see and how do you improve your website for the search engines?

According to WebMAD, the strength of a website will depend on two factors: onpage and off-page optimization. “Anyone who has a website that hasn’t been designed or optimized in the last two years probably does not have a fully optimized site,” says Pacher. “Table-based or ‘old code’ websites won’t be in a format that is preferred or easily readable for the web ‘bots’. Websites should have the on-page optimization lined up before the promotion begins.” That means bringing your keywords into your text and code and building pages for each segment you are trying to target. These keywords, combined with the website encoding, tell the search engines what your site is all about. These factors will help you rank on those keyword phrases in search engine results. The second step is to get the off-page optimization in order, which means building links. According to Pacher, “Google and other search engines want reassurance that your site is what you say it is. They want social proof in the form of links or referrals from other sites. Links can come from online directories, PR articles, video sites, blogs, articles, web 2.0 sites, bookmarking, social media, etc. While the quantity of links is important, their quality is more important.”

Many companies fall short in this department by not uploading fresh, unique content on an ongoing basis, contends Angus. “New material tells the ‘Google bots’ that it is a viable, going concern, and therefore worthy of ranking on Page 1 for related searches.

“Blogging is a simple and popular way of meeting this objective; every new blog post is a new page of fresh content,” Angus adds. “Many companies haven’t put new content up on their site—specifically, new pages—in a long time, which is a big mistake.”

A good first step in building links is to list your business in directories. “There are thousands of online directories, but look for ones that are particular to your industry or area,” Pacher advises. “Writing blogs and articles with links back to your site is important, but consistency is key. Every page of your website should be pulling in its own targeted traffic. The more quality links to your website, the more the search engines consider you an ‘authority site’ and raise you up in the search results.”

Companies, however, can’t forget about social media sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook in their online marketing. Facebook also offers pay-perclick ads similar to Google to allow advertisers to reach a targeted audience. But is it crucial for a business?

“Social media is becoming increasingly important to businesses, and a Facebook business page is becoming a must-have,” says Pacher. “Since Yahoo teamed up with Bing and together have a large investment in Facebook, search results are taking into account how others interact with your company online. Social votes and popularity are beginning to have more of an impact on search engine rankings.” Keep in mind, though, that with online engagement of your customers comes the need to manage your company’s online reputation by monitoring and mediating the online conversation about your company.

Another vital tool for online promotion is video. “Video is underutilized by most companies, but is highly effective,” says Pacher. “You Tube is now the No. 2 search engine on the net. Businesses that think it is just for funny cat videos are missing out on You Tube’s incredible reach and clout. Videos tend to rank high in search engine results, and the quality of link-back to your website makes it extremely worthwhile. Even if you don’t have the funds or equipment to invest in company videos, you can convert a PowerPoint presentation or use online tools to create videos.” Once again, any online promotion comes down to keywords. “Use your keywords in your video titles and blog titles, etc.,” Pacher says. “Keep it consistent and keep building on variations of those keywords. Search engines always value fresh content and mixed-search results. If you stop caring about your website, so will the search engines.”

The internet is a great levelling field, where small to medium-sized businesses can compete head to head with large corporations. Even some larger firms with IT departments don’t have an understanding of online promotional tools and search engine optimization, Pacher notes. And while some entrepreneurs have heard of—or tried—Adwords or other online pay-per-click advertising, they often waste money and miss their target market without a good understanding of keywords. “If potential clients are searching online and not finding your business, they are finding your competitors,” says Pacher, who cites the tracking nature of the net as one of its greatest appeals. “Unlike traditional marketing, online marketing can be measured. We put a tracking code on our client’s website and send them a report each month. The analytics show the total number of visitors, how long they stayed on the site, how many pages they viewed, the traffic per keyword, number of visitors from referring sites, and so on. You can actually watch the traffic grow from month to month and see your return on investment.

“The web is dynamic and the players and rules are constantly changing,” Pacher continues. “Businesses that understand search engine optimization and online promotion can reach customers across the world 24/7 at a low cost. There is no recession on the internet—online sales just keep growing.”

WebMAD Internet Marketing and Design offers packages for building optimized websites or upgrading and optimizing existing ones, and online promotion. BIZ readers can get a free website analysis (up to ½ hour) by calling the Oakville company at (905) 582-4357.