August 2006 - Website Optimization

Search Engine Optimization: A Plain-English Guide for the Non-Technical Marketer

By Tony Sziklai

Internet marketing is full of technical jargon, which can make it both confusing and intimidating to traditional DRTV marketers. There are so many acronyms, buzz words and new business models that it is not surprising that many accomplished television marketers shy away from Internet campaigns. Nowhere is this more applicable than search engine optimization (SEO), which practitioners tend to cloak in a veil of mystery and technical mumbo jumbo.

As a search engine optimizer myself, I understand how even web-savvy people can become baffled by terms such as backlink, page rank, and Google dance. While developing a technical vocabulary is probably useful on some level, I will avoid such jargon in this article and explain search engine optimization in plain English.

For the uninitiated, search engine optimization is the process of fine-tuning a website so that it is not only found, but loved by the search engines. The goal is to appear at the top of the search results (specifically in the non-paid section) for desirable keywords. For example, if you were selling red cars, you would want to be at the top of the search results if someone typed in the phrase “red car.” Popular search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, MSN and AOL use special programs to crawl the web and index sites that they like. Websites that are search engine optimized tend to be better indexed and ranked so that they respond to more keywords. In short, if you develop your website the right way, it will do really well on the search engines. If you develop it the wrong way, no one will find it.

Search engine optimization is not black magic, but it does require work. If you are not technical, or if you are busy and don’t have the time to research keywords and tweak your website, you should hire someone to help you. Following are some of the concepts, in layman’s terms, that you should arm yourself with before signing any SEO contract:

  • Keyword analysis - This is the process of researching which keywords are appropriate for your product. There are online tools that you can use to see which keywords people are searching, such as Overture’s free search suggestion tool ( searchinventory/suggestion). As a general rule of thumb, narrower, more specific keywords tend to do better than broader, more generic keywords. For example, if you sell red cars, don’t use the keyword “cars.” Use “red cars.” Broad keywords tend to be very competitive and you will probably not be able to out-optimize the larger, more entrenched sites that already “own” these words. The one exception to this rule is your company or product brand name. You should always try to secure your brand, especially in situations where online affiliates and distributors are cutting themselves in on sales that should rightfully be yours.
  • Source code optimization - This is the process of tweaking the source code of the site so that the search engines will like it. Websites are often coded in a manner that is not search engine friendly. For example, they may use animation or frames (bordered areas within a page) that block the search engine programs from crawling or searching the site, or they encase important text in images that can’t be read by the crawlers. The internal link structure and organization of the website are also important considerations. Another key aspect of source code optimization is making sure that the title and description meta tags on each page are properly seeded with the right keywords. I know that the term meta tags is a little jargony, but picture a legend on a map. Like legends, tags tell the search engines what each web page is about. You need to avoid stuffing your meta tags with too many keywords, or repeating the same keyword too often. Contrary to what some people may say, meta tags are still important and need to be designed carefully.
  • Content optimization - The process of making sure that the content or text of the website hangs with your meta tags and contains the right number of keywords is called “content optimatization.” Headers and sub-headers should contain keywords wherever possible. Bullets and bold font should be used to make important concepts stand out. But don’t get too creative. Many overzealous search engine optimizers try to outsmart the search engines by repeating the same keyword over and over, or by making optimized text invisible or really small so that visitors will not see it. Beware! Search engines are smarter than you think, and may blacklist your site if they detect these kinds of tricks.
  • Directory submission - This is the process of submitting your website to well-regarded online directories. Listings in directories such as and Yahoo! ( can accelerate search engine indexing and improve your ranking for certain keywords. I prefer to manually submit to only a few good directories, and discourage people from using shotgun submission programs. Even though you can, I never submit directly to the search engines themselves, and rely more on external links to guide the search engines to my sites.
  • Link building - The process of building external hyperlinks from other websites to improve your ranking is, not surprisingly, called “link building.” Google’s original search algorithm was based on the premise that websites that have a lot of hyperlinks pointing at them must be popular or useful; and therefore, should be ranked higher than other websites. Their algorithm has become more sophisticated in recent years, but links are still important. The best kind of link comes from a well-regarded site with high visitor traffic and subject matter germane to your site.

Everyone debates the best way to generate links. I prefer to build links one at a time via sites, where I have an existing relationship with the owner. Sometimes, I buy a link on a good site that does not sell a lot of links (the more links there are on a web page, the less credit will be given to your link by the search engines). I discourage people from using reciprocal linking building services, mostly because they have a tendency of creating too many low-value links too soon and can cause the search engines to downgrade your website.

People often confuse search engine optimization with search engine pay-per-click advertising, which is also referred to as PPC or paid search. With search engine optimization, you are developing your website so that the search engines know how to find and index it. Once you have optimized your site, all of the leads you get from the search engine are free.

Search engine pay-per-click advertising, on the other hand, is the process of advertising on the search engines and paying for performance. Very similar to per-inquiry advertising on television, pay-per-click advertising goes one step further by allowing advertisers to specify which keywords they want their ad to respond to. For example, you could specify that you only want your ad to appear for the phrase “red car.” This kind of targeted advertising reaches a smaller audience, but presumably has a much higher conversion-to-impression ratio than say banner advertising.

Major search engines, such as Google, have easy-to-use online tools for setting up pay-per-click ads. The price for an ad click is typically determined by what others are willing to pay for the same keyword. In this auction-like environment, advertisers compete with each other for better placement of their ads (e.g., at the top or upper right-hand side of the normal search results, where people tend to click the most). The good news is that you only pay when someone clicks on your ad and goes to your website.

Of course there are many subtleties to planning and executing a successful pay-per-click campaign, but I feel that it is important for marketers to jump in and get their feet wet. Start by visiting and clicking the Advertising Programs link. Set up a Google AdWords account and create a text ad-the step-by-step instructions are easy to follow. You should also visit the AdWords Help Center at to read its frequently asked questions and glossary. If my grandmother can set up a Google pay-per-click ad for her Mahjong club, you can too.

Search engine optimization is essential if you intend to generate web sales. More and more infomercial viewers are going to the web to make their initial purchase. Often they go to a search engine first and type your product’s name or a related keyword to find your website. If your site is not properly optimized, chances are that these consumers will either stumble upon a web affiliate or distributor, who may be undercutting your retail price, or worse, upon a competitor. It does not take that much effort to optimize your site so that it responds well to your brand name. If a search engine optimizer tells you that this is a big deal, find another.

Search engine optimization is not only good for sales, it is also good for branding in general. You want your brand to be as visible as possible, especially if you are selling to the big-box retailers. Being displayed at the top of the search results for a desirable keyword is strong validation that your company is a recognized leader in its category.

I recently worked with ERA to help it improve the association’s search engine presence. While the ERA site was doing well for a select set of keywords, staff members wanted to expand their brand footprint and compete more aggressively for other industry terms. One of the first things my team did was remove the frames on the ERA home page that were preventing the search engines from indexing the site’s content.

We also created more external links and helped them develop a link building campaign. These kinds of simple tweaks can have a measurable impact on your search engine results. I advise all DRTV marketers to get past the technical jargon and recognize what search engine optimization really is-an affordable way for more people to find your product and see your brand.

Tony Sziklai is director of information services for Moulton Logistics Management, a leading fulfillment company based in Van Nuys, Calif. He can be reached at (818) 997-1800, extension 246, or via e-mail at [email protected].


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