Creating an online presence that stands out from the countless websites jostling for space on search engine results can be a daunting challenge for small business owners. Unlike their big competitors, most smaller companies may not be able to afford a state-of-the-art website with hundreds of pages, and might lack the advertising budget to pay for sponsored links that would guarantee visibility on the leading search engines.
But the best website from a marketing perspective need not be the largest and most heavily promoted. One relatively cost-efficient way to help drive traffic to your website is to fine-tune its design so that search engines place it near the top of search results when surfers plug in words relevant to the products or services your company offers. Known as search engine optimization, this strategy not only has the possibility of bringing more visitors to your website; it can also help improve the chances that those surfers most inclined to buy from your company will actually find your website in their searches.
While it is possible to hire online marketing firms to “optimize” your company’s website, many of the services offered by these professionals may be replicated by someone with a basic understanding of HTML code. As a business owner, your in-depth knowledge of your company’s products and sales objectives might be more valuable in achieving better search engine positioning than the technical skills of a professional. Even if you lack the requisite HTML skills to handle the task on your own, you should give some thought to your online marketing strategy before teaming up with an IT specialist to develop a search engine optimization plan.
How Search Engines Work
To create a more visible website, it is essential to understand how search engines go about providing search results to users. Search engines use programs known as “spiders,” or “crawlers,” to scour the internet for web pages; these programs copy and save all or parts of pages in the search engine’s database, or index. The crawlers revisit these web pages at regular intervals, checking for updates or alterations. When keywords or phrases are entered during a search query, the search engine scans its index for web pages that appear to have the desired content. The search engine then uses algorithms to calculate the order of search results presented to the user. Depending upon the search engine, these algorithms may take into account the quality and popularity
of the site, as well as the location and prevalence
of relevant keywords.
Some webmasters and designers have resorted to underhanded tactics in an effort to achieve placement in a search engine index that is not merited. Some tricks include misrepresenting the content of a web page, overusing certain keywords, and adding redundant links. These are commonly called “spamming” or “spamdexing.” Search engines use programs to catch these practices, and they may remove from their indexes or otherwise penalize sites suspected of engaging in them. To avoid being kicked off a search engine or relegated to a low spot in the rankings, it is best to avoid using deceitful techniques when optimizing a website.
Why Keywords Are Key
Identifying the optimal keywords and phrases for each page of a website is the first step toward pursuing a higher place in search engine results. These keywords should be featured prominently in the hidden HTML “meta tags,” which aid in indexing, and in the text that appears on the screen. Start by thinking about what words your customers would likely enter if they were seeking to access information about your products or services. To gain better insight into the different ways that people search, ask your associates what terms they would enter in a search query that would lead to your company’s website.
If your business trades mainly in a limited geographical area, is highly specialized, or has few direct competitors, coming up with search terms that get your website noticed will be relatively easy. It is much tougher, however, to come up with distinctive keywords if your potential market is broad and the general terms that describe your company and its products already appear on thousands—or even millions—of websites. If this is the case, try to formulate very specific key phrases that characterize your business. For ideas, go to the websites of your closest competitors and access the hidden HTML source code to view the keywords contained in the sites’ meta tags. You may also wish to make use of online keyword suggestion tools that provide a range of related keywords, along with the numbers of web pages that already contain those terms.
The most important keywords should appear in the title tag of each page. Because it can be seen by visitors, the title tag should take the form of a headline that entices people to view the web page; it should also include the most pertinent keywords. Using multiple title tags to squeeze in additional keywords may be tempting, but this could be interpreted as spamming by some search engines.
A greater number of keywords can be entered in meta tags invisible to the user. While it is acceptable to include variations on the same phrase in a hidden meta tag, avoid excessive repetition of words and do not include words that are not relevant to the contents of the page on which the meta tag appears. A description meta tag, which some search engines display in search results, should consist of a brief, clearly written description of the contents of the site. Important keywords should appear toward the beginning of the description.
The visible text on the page can also influence search engine results. Ideally, the first sentences of the copy appearing on each page should be in HTML code, and they should contain the keywords and key phrases most likely to attract visitors. If a page features images as well as written content, appropriate keywords can be entered in
image alt tags.
Linking Your Website
To help the search engines’ crawlers find the content of your site, add HTML hyperlinks to the home page that take the visitor to each section of the website. Including a site map page with text links to all the pages of your website will guide search engines through your site; it is also useful to visitors looking for specific content.
Certain search engines rank websites in part by the number of links they have to quality websites with similar content. To identify which links could improve your ranking, enter the keywords relevant to your site in each of the search engines and note which websites appear first. Unless competition would prohibit cooperation, consider contacting the webmasters of the most popular websites and asking them to provide a link to your site in exchange for a reciprocal link from your company’s site. Webmasters may be more likely to link to your site if it features content that could be of interest to their visitors,
such as articles or tools, rather than just
To Submit or Not to Submit?
The necessity—and even the advisability—of submitting a new website to search engines is a matter of debate. Because the volume of submissions to the major search engines is enormous, your website could be falsely identified as spam and rejected by some of the engines. Instead of submitting a website to each individual search engine, you can submit a description of the website to a directory of sites selected by people rather than algorithms. Since search engines draw upon these directories for search results, these listings can help your site find its way into the rankings. Links to other sites already in the search engines’ databases will also point the search engines’ spiders in the direction of your website. If you do submit web pages directly to the search engines, avoid resubmitting them frequently, as this could be interpreted as spamming.
Search engine positioning can, at first glance, appear to be a highly technical task. There are, however, many guides to steer you through the process, including books and free or low-cost online tools. Because pursuing a prominent position in search engine results may lead to increases in sales and raise your company’s profile, you should consider familiarizing yourself with how positioning works, and develop strategies for working towards dynamic search engine results for your website.
The opinions voiced in this material are for educational and general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.
This article was prepared by Liberty Publishing, Inc.
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