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Hit Me! Make Search Engines work for your company
If your corporate Web site isn’t getting noticed, read on

Word Count: 1,500  Article#: BBSE1  Backbone  (November 2004)

By Paul Lima

Go to Google. Type “ice painting” in the search box. Hit enter. The number one ranked site at press time was Jet Ice, an ice and specialty paints manufacturer. Google “Canadian tax law information” and at number one Google returned www.taxpage.com, home of Rotfleisch & Samulovitch, a tax and business law firm. Google “Canadian actors.” Number one result? CanadianActor Online, an education and information resource for aspiring Canuck thespians*.

[*Results subject to change.]

How does Jet Ice, a Newmarket, Ont. based manufacturer of ice paints, rank number one? How does CanadianActor Online beat out all Canadian actors, Canadian actor fan sites and Canadian actors’ unions and associations? How does Rotfleisch & Samulovitch, a Toronto-based law firm, surpass all other tax law firms? All three Web sites have been optimized for optimal search engine results. This means they have:
  • defined keywords, the words and phrases search engine visitors use when looking for information,
  • embedded keywords in site content, hot links on their sites and in hidden tags that show up in search results, 
  • asked stakeholders with related Web sites to link to their sites, and
  • registered their Web sites with all the major search engines, even paying for listings and ads where marketing conditions warrant.
They have, in short, designed sites that are search-engine friendly and can be easily read by the automated programs, called ‘bots or spiders, that add Web pages to search engine databases.

There are hundreds of millions of pages on the Web, all vying for hits. While behemoth corporations such as Microsoft, AOL and Nike can draw audiences with only the weight of their brand and marketing muscle, small and medium businesses draw most of their online traffic through search engines.

Search engines are the starting point for most Web surfers. Almost 85 per cent of the Canadian Internet population conducts at least one search each month, according to comScore Networks.

Canadian surfers run about 575 million searches, or 40 searches per user, per month. More than 75 per cent of the online U.S. population used a search engine in January 2004, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

“The majority of our new clients have found us through Web searches,” said Julie Stender, marketing co-ordinator for Jet Ice. However, before the Jet Ice Web site was optimized, “people could type our company name [in a search engine] and we were nowhere to be found.”

But that is not that unusual. “The JupiterMedia search engine optimization stats are scary,” said Garry Grant, founder and CEO of San Diego, Calif.- based Search Engine Optimization. Only about three per cent of Web sites are properly optimized. “That’s like setting up shop in a corn field. Only the crows know you are in business,” Grant said.

GETTING HITS
To show up in search engines results, a Web site must be submitted to the search engine or indexed by search engine ‘bots. Indexing can take several months from the day the site is launched. 

To rank well in results, the site must be optimized for relevant search terms. And rank matters. “Traffic drops significantly by rank,” according to the Atlas Institute, the research and education arm of Atlas DMT, an advertising technology provider. The first site listed in search results receives three times the hits of the fifth site; the first 10 sites (generally the first page of results) are visited 78 per cent more than sites listed 11th to 30th.

All that begs the question: How does one tweak a Web site for optimal search engine results?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is all about relevant content and link popularity, said Barbara Coll, the founder of WebMama.com and a speaker at JupiterMedia’s Search Engine Strategies 2004 conference held in Toronto. “The more times your site uses key words and phrases, and the more links there are to your site, the higher your ranking.”

SEARCH ENGINES LIKE LINKS
CanadianActor Online (CAO) had no marketing budget. So the site creators asked actors, actors’ unions, associations and other entertainment industry companies, to provide links from their sites to CAO. In return, CAO provided reciprocal links. This is critical as Google and other search engines see links to a site as a validation of content.
 
The more validation, the higher a site shows up in search engine results, Coll said.

Beg and borrow links to your site, SEO experts agree, as long as you do it legitimately. Some companies have been caught setting up numerous domains that link back to a main Web site. The content on all the sites is similar or the same. If search tools identify these bogus links the original site can be deleted from the search engine database.

To score links, ask companies you do not compete with, trade associations, vendors, suppliers, resellers and other stakeholders, to link from their Web site to yours. Set up a page of industry links on your site and reciprocate.

But as good as links are, the real magic lies in providing search engines with content that relates to relevant search terms.

MAKE TEXT WORK
“Web pages should include words and phrases clients typically use,” said Richard Morochove, the Toronto-based consultant who optimized taxpage.com. The tax site is filled with tax tidbits, articles and resources — all of which include key words relating to taxes and tax law.

The keyword work extended to the name of the site. Rather than create a site called RotfleischandSamulovitch.com, David Rotfleisch opted for www.taxpage.com. Very few folks, if any, seeking tax information would search for Rotfleisch & Samulovitch.

Keywords are central. “Sites that are heavily dependent on images are not well suited for search engine optimization, since the search engines can’t translate pictures to words,” Morochove said.

Grant agreed. He has seen way too many Flash nightmares. While the technology, a Web animation standard, is eye-catching, “Flash is an object. There is nothing [for the ‘bots] to read.” That does not mean Web sites should contain text only. Text can be used in conjunction with graphic images, Flash animation and Java applets.

For instance, a site with a Flash home page can include keywords in a text-based navigational structure below the animation.

“Design for your target market, but optimize for search engines,” Coll said.

Below images, use captions that include key words the ‘bots can troll. In addition, embed key words in the code used to display images so ‘bots can capture relevant text associated with images.

THINK THEMATICALLY
Other hidden text, known as meta tags, can also give a bump to search rankings. Meta tags embed the titles of pages, a site description and key words into Web design code. Search engines do not place as much emphasis on meta tags as they once did, because of abuse such as the use of sexual terms on sites not related to sex, but ‘bots still eat up this information.

“When creating meta tags, think thematically,” Grant said. Rather than starting a page title with the name of the business, start with the type of business: Bookkeeping and Tax Returns for Small Businesses in Halifax — SharpPencil Accounting. Or include key words in the site’s meta tag description: "Specializing in small business bookkeeping and tax services in Halifax, SharpPencil Accounting..."

Use only relevant words relating to the theme in the site’s key word meta tag, otherwise your site may drop down in search engine results, Grant said. “If you lose thematic focus, it’s as if the search engines no longer know what to make of your site.”

In addition, make sure all links to internal Web site pages are in sync with the keyword theme. Instead of “Click here for more information on our services” use more descriptive words in hyperlinks: “Direct Mail Brochure Design and Writing Services.”

“The ‘bots will pick up the key words,” Grant said.

SUBMIT TO THE ENGINES
Once a site is optimized it needs to be submitted to search engines such as Google and Yahoo. However, submitting a site does not guarantee a listing, and greasing the wheels with a fee can pay off.

“You can pray for clicks or you can pay for clicks,” Coll said. At minimum, budget US$300 for a listing in the Yahoo! Directory.

Google and other search engines spider the Yahoo! Directory so the investment, in effect, is spread over several search engines.

“Pay for Yahoo? Absolutely do that,” Grant said. “Your Web site becomes more credible when it is in the Yahoo! Directory.

Google picks it up as a huge link to your site and that influences your rank.”

POUND FOOLISH
The bottom line, according to SEO gurus: It costs money to create an impressive Web site. It does not cost a whole lot more to optimize it for search engines.

If SEO is ignored, there is a good chance that visitors will not find your Web site. Not for lack of trying. As the stats prove, visitors are out there, using search engines to help them find needles in the haystack known as the Web. The question is: Are you making it easy or difficult for visitors to find your Web site?

To make it easy, think SEO. It takes a little time to do and it costs a little more if you farm it out to an SEO firm. But the alternative, your needle at the bottom of the cyber haystack, is untenable for any company that wants to conduct business on the Web.

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