February 2008 - SEO Dos and Don’ts

A baker’s dozen easy-to-implement tips to enhance your natural search rankings

By Tom Dellner

In a sense, search engine optimization (SEO) is a sophisticated cat-and-mouse game, played by two worthy adversaries. On one side, you have the search engines. Their goal is to provide the consumer with a ranking of the most relevant search results, free of manipulation by the websites being ranked. They have an advantage in this game, because they get to set the rules, many of which are never revealed to the websites and which can be changed at any time. On the other side, you have the SEO experts, the hired guns employed by the websites with one charge and one charge only-obtain the highest ranking possible.

The strategies required to play this game are highly technical and fast-changing. If you’re a marketer who’s playing this game to win, you’d better have an SEO expert on your team. That said, there are some basic Do’s and Don’ts you can act on to immediately enhance your natural search rankings.

DO a bit of quick research to get a feel for where you stand. Make your first stop www.google/trends. It’s a free service that helps you learn the terms and phrases that people are actually searching on. Spend some time researching category descriptors and product names relevant to your e-commerce site. Chances are, you’ll be surprised at what you learn, says Greg Jarboe, co-founder of SEO-PR, which has offices in San Francisco and Boston. “Often, terms that generate lots of ‘buzz’ are not those that are being used in searches; media hype sometimes does not correlate with actual human search behavior.”

Now that you know the hot terms relevant to your business, do a standard Google search on those terms to see where you fall in the natural results. “This is often a depressing moment,” says Jarboe, “because you’ll probably see the names of all your competitors. But it’s important to come to grips with this and realize what you’re up against.”

DON’T immediately throw all your time, effort and resources into optimizing for the hot terms you discovered in your preliminary research. It’s essential that you optimize for the correct keywords and the keyword discovery and research tools like Google Trends are just a starting point. “Those ‘hot’ keywords or phrases may or may not be ones that work for your site,” explains William Leake, president and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Apogee Search. “We’re big fans of choosing keywords based on conversion-rather than reach or visibility-metrics. The best way to approach this is to cast a wide net through pay per click. Run a pay-per-click campaign for a month or two for 500 or even 1,000 words. You’ll soon learn which five or 10 keywords matter for your site. These should be your SEO keywords. Optimize for the words that actually put dollars in your pocket, not what some online tool says.”

Dooptimize your title tags. According to most experts, the title tag-the HTML code in the header of each web page that specifies the title of the particular page-is the single most important on-page element in SEO. It’s also the source of common-and costly-SEO mistakes. “Many of today’s content management systems force e-commerce sites to use one title tag for each main template of a site, but you really need to describe the content of each page well-and uniquely,” says Lisa Wehr, president and CEO of Oneupweb, based in Traverse City, Mich.

“Surprisingly, many firms include only the firm name and maybe the product name in the title tag,” adds Leake, “but your site is most likely going to rank for those terms anyway. You need to include the relevant category name, then the product name.”

DON’T have your web pages default to Flash. “Google can read Flash, just as it can read Word documents, PDFs and Powerpoint files, but it doesn’t read it as well as HTML,” says Leake. “If you have to use Flash, use it as a demo that runs inside of an HTML frame. You want to make your site as easy as possible for Google to crawl, especially if you want to rank on a particularly competitive keyword or phrase. Plus, in my opinion, it makes for a better user experience. There’s nothing worse than going to a web page, waiting for the Flash to load and then have it start talking to you. Put the customer in the driver’s seat.”

DO caption all photos. “Photos aren’t readable by search engines, which are text oriented,” says Jarboe. “They will show up as a black hole on your page. So be sure to caption each one with a bit of useful information.”

DON’T let the data gathered by your analytics software gather dust. Sure, maybe you occasionally look at traffic statistics or conversion rates. But Jarboe suggests that you take a look at the referrors. “This will show you where your traffic is coming from. You learn how much is coming from each of the search engines. And, you might uncover some interesting surprises: Maybe you get a lot of traffic from a local newspaper or from a particular blog-some blogs are generating more than a million unique visitors each month.” Once you discover these unexpected sources of significant traffic, reach out to these sites and build a relationship with them. Take advantage of their reach and influence.

DO integrate social media into your SEO efforts. “Social media marketing is fast becoming a huge component of natural search,” says Wehr. “Google Universal Search [which now displays attention-grabbing video, news items and images together with the standard website links, as opposed to forcing you to search separately for these items] hasn’t had a tremendous impact yet, but it soon will. Blog sites, YouTube, the social networks and these types of sites are all contributing more and more to strong positions in natural search. It’s essential that you become a part of this. I’ve been beating this drum for some time now; there are so many benefits of social media as it relates to natural search.”

Leake agrees, and believes many direct marketers have a leg up in this regard. “Many companies, especially those in direct response-have already sunk lots of money into video production, so milk it for all it’s worth by leveraging sites like YouTube and Google Video. Upload highlights or snippets of infomercials on YouTube. You’ll generate some traffic and some links pointing to your site [which will improve your rankings] and it’s another way to appear as video in Google’s Universal Search.”

DON’T take the product information given to you by manufacturers and simply drop it into your site verbatim, advises Jarboe. “Every one of your competitors is probably doing the same thing. Instead, take advantage of the opportunity by taking the information that’s most valuable to your customers and adding value to it. Discuss the item’s popularity or offer a tip for using it. Customize it; make it your own.”

Do make sure that every page of your website is within two clicks of the homepage. “This is a tip that’s especially important for large retailers with many SKUs,” says Leake. “We’ll hear from clients with 25,000 product pages who complain that Google only seems to find about 300 of them. If a site becomes too large, it becomes difficult for Google to deep index it. Just make sure all pages are within two clicks of the homepage. A site map linked from your homepage accomplishes this nicely.”

DON’T rush out and pay sites to link to yours. Buying links is a tactic that Google disapproves of. “In the old days-and by ‘old’ I mean September of last year-you were able to go out and purchase incoming links,” says Jarboe. “Incoming links are essentially endorsements of your site and can greatly enhance your natural rankings. But Google is now able to detect many of these paid links or false endorsements, and has wiped out many of them.”

DO attract incoming links by developing compelling content and through your public relations efforts. “Content is extremely important, but it needs to be about quality, not quantity,” says Wehr. “Don’t write 10,000 words of copy, filled with keywords, and expect your rankings to improve. Instead, think about what sort of information is really useful to someone shopping on your site and write compelling copy that addresses those issues and which prompts an action from your consumer. This is copy that’s likely to be linked to by other sites, and which can also improve conversion.”

Reach out to relevant media outlets and blogs. Build relationships and make them aware of newsworthy content. “The incoming links that have the most value are those that are deemed to be independent, credible sources,” says Jarboe. “News organizations and chambers of commerce are great places to start. Do good work, be newsworthy, be civic-minded and a good corporate citizen and work hard to establish relationships with these people.”

DON’T undertake a site re-design without considering the implications to your search positions. “You need to look at the positions you hold on the various search engines and which of your pages are responsible for holding those positions. There are ways to make sure these migrate over to the new design, but they vary case by case,” says Wehr. “You absolutely should contact an expert in this situation. You don’t want to be in a position where you have to start over. Chances are, the competition is much stiffer today and you’ll be forced to make a significant investment just to get back to where you were.”

Above all, DON’T do nothing. “Many e-commerce marketers are so ROI-driven. Since they can’t spot an immediate return with SEO, it’s off the table,” explains Wehr. “But SEO is essential for the long-term health of the website and online brand. If you’re not doing natural, you’re not in the search results and you’re missing out on the traffic that goes there.” Keep in mind that 70 percent of online consumers prefer natural results. “But not only do you miss out on the sale, you also miss out on the opportunity to build a relationship with that customer, leading to return sales,” continues Wehr. “All that has gone to your competition. And with dramatically rising costs, it’s becoming increasingly expensive to maintain traffic volumes via paid search.”


No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment