Small Business

How to Make SEO Work for You


To gain an edge over your competitors online, follow these tips to push your business's site to the top of the major search engines' results pages

It's a question Smart Answers readers often ask: How can I increase the Google (GOOG) ranking for my business? To get a good ranking on Google, or any major search engine, you have to make sure your Web site is "search-engine optimized." Search engine optimization (SEO) just means your site is as accessible as possible to the search engines to improve the chances that they will serve it up when your potential customers type in specific search terms. The more easily search engines find your site, the higher up it appears on their results pages.

Constructing your site the right way is important. "Structure your site properly, code it cleanly, and use necessary keywords," says Andy Leff, an entrepreneur and lead blogger for INCplace.com. "Sites that have the proper architecture in place, and are not slapped together, have a better chance of getting picked up by the major search engines." Search engines "crawl" the Web looking for the keywords that their users enter, so sprinkling those keywords throughout your site means your pages will be picked up during searches.

Too Much of a Good Keyword

What keywords should you use? Think about what your prospective customers type in when they are looking for you. "Try to think from a user's perspective," says Jeff McPherson, director of client services for SilverTech, an interactive marketing firm in Manchester, N.H. "You may sell hats, but your customers may call them caps, lids, or fedoras." If you're not sure, ask your clients how they got to your site.

When you have a good set of keywords, put them into the URLs, page titles, and content of your Web pages. "There are lots of little tricks to this," says McPherson. "For example, the most effective page titles are about 75 characters long and include the most important keywords at the beginning. On each page, keywords and phrases should represent 2% to 3% of the total content." Don't overdo the use of key search terms, however. "If a search engine's algorithms interpret your site as a keyword hog, it will pass it by," Leff notes.

Next, you'll want to link your site to other sites, which will both increase traffic overall to your site and boost your search engine rankings, since the search engines pick up on the number of times people link to and from your site and rank you higher accordingly. So do things like listing your site with online business directories, even if you think no one will find you through them. "Those links may not produce any direct leads, but they could bump you up in the search engine rankings, especially if they are popular or highly visited sources," McPherson says.

You should also formally submit your site to the major search engines, which allows them to index it. Include at least Yahoo (YHOO), Google, and MSN (MSFT), Leff suggests, but don't necessarily limit it to those three. People searching the Internet don't all use the same search engines. "Research shows that older audiences still like AOL (TWX) and professional audiences tend to like MSN and Google, while younger audiences often like Yahoo. Only about one-third of users use one search engine consistently," McPherson says. Knowing your audience will help you decide which search engines to optimize for. Go to their home pages and search "how do I submit my site?" to get easy instructions.

Flash Won't Help Rankings

Use plenty of text on your site, even in your drop-down menus, your headers, and your footers on each page. Text is what the search engine crawlers are looking for. Text within Flash-based components won't help, however. "This text is not accessible to the search engine site crawlers, and will not get picked up. Flash looks great, but it won't help boost your search rankings," Leff says.

Search engine optimization is technical and can be time-consuming, since the major search engines are constantly changing their methodology to stay ahead of competitors. That means you have to keep jockeying for position so your site gets noticed. You can hire a professional to keep your site optimized (BusinessWeek, 7/6/06), do it yourself, or contract with an Internet-savvy student looking for part-time work.

Virtual Tour Guides

If you engage an SEO firm, consider the cost and the return on investment, remembering that moving up in the search rankings is a gradual process that may take several months. Chances are, if your corporate competitors control the top 10 search engine results spots, it will be costly and perhaps even impossible to dethrone them.

The good news is that search engine rankings are free, and online searching is the third-most-frequent activity for people who are online: Only checking e-mail and Web surfing rank higher, McPherson says. "Search engines not only help users find you, they play virtual tour guide by taking users directly to the page with the information they're seeking."

Another plus that McPherson points out: Studies show consumers trust user-generated search engine rankings more than paid advertisement rankings by a wide margin, as much as 70%. And optimizing your site gives you a huge competitive advantage. "Even now, only 25% of the Fortune 100 businesses have completely optimized their sites in this way," McPherson says. "If you act now, you'll have an edge over competitors who haven't optimized their sites."

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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