In the early days of the Web, smart small Internet businesses could compete with just about anyone by working to make sure their Web pages were found first on search engines.
Fast forward 10 years. Search engines have become increasingly sophisticated. Paid search listings have exploded into the picture. Large corporations are now every bit as sophisticated and savvy about using search tools to direct traffic to their sites.
What’s a small business to do to compete? The good news is that search engine optimization, or SEO, which got its start long before paid search placement burst onto the scene, offers every business a way to level the playing field. SEO is as much an art as a science and requires a solid understanding of how search engines work and how consumers use them.
“SEO is still a great way to level the playing field and compete with the bigger boys,” said David Wilbanks, owner of the Willo Design Group, which has won its clients by producing consistently high search results rankings.
Those who want search engine optimization have no shortage of ways to get help, from marketing firms to Web design companies. Increasingly, businesses are buying SEO services as part of a bundle of online marketing and presence services, where all aspects of a Web site can be aligned to help bump a Web site up the search results rankings.
Monica Hodges, General Manager of Retail at Register.com, said a growing number of the thousands of businesses that use Register.com to buy domain names and build and host their Web sites are now seeking consulting services in the area of search engine marketing and search optimization.
“Small business owners have all kinds of misunderstandings about what it actually means to have a Web site,” Hodges told the E-Commerce Times. “Some think by virtue of the fact they are in business they should be showing up in Google, and others can’t understand how they ever got into Google in the first place, since they didn’t ask permission or pay a fee. It’s a big mystery to them.”
In fact, she said the vast majority of the calls that come into the support services Register.com offers with its packages start with the same question: What is a keyword? “Businesses are reaching out for help. They’re hungry to learn how they can become more visible and drive better traffic to their site,” she added.
Sanjay Kalinani, a product manager at Register.com, said many businesses that try to figure out keywords on their own fail to be successful because they grab “a lot of broad, general keywords and then they get lost in the whole online world.
“One of the biggest tools we can offer to help them is selecting the best keywords,” he said. From there, Register.com also helps work those keywords into a Web site’s design, meta-tags and other areas. “If everything is working together, there’s a much greater chance of success.”
Kalinani said the focus should be on three things: product, place and intention. Clearly stating what a product is may seem obvious, but carefully refining that is the key. Including or excluding geographic areas can make a huge difference as well. “If I’m a car dealer in New York City, I don’t want to attract people searching for cars in Dallas,” he said.
Small businesses especially can benefit by targeting geographically focused searches. Kalinani cited the example of a New Jersey-based personal trainer whose page appears on the first page of results on both Yahoo and Google when specific place names are entered along with “personal trainer.”
“She didn’t want to get traffic from beyond that area,” he said. In fact, even if she could have been ranked higher for more general searches, any extra traffic would have been unlikely to result in sales, since she worked with clients in person.
From there, Register.com also helps businesses understand why they are or aren’t converting traffic into sales, which is an often overlooked element of search engine optimization.
Pay to Play?
Even the best SEO experts say focusing only on natural search is probably not the best strategy for most businesses today. Some spending on search engine marketing can complement search strategies.
In fact, Kalinani said there are times when paid search keywords can be a jumping-off point for search engine optimization work. “It’s a way to try out keywords that you might be thinking of optimizing a site for,” he said, noting that sites can only be optimized for so many specific keywords and still rank high. “It’s a way to test theories about what’s going to work.”
“SEO and paid search go hand in hand very nicely,” said Tom Breur, a principal with XLNT Consulting. “If you’re good at one, you own the insight to do the other really well, too. Once you know what the keywords are [and what] your prospective visitors are searching for, then you can do both.”
Most small businesses will flounder without help, however, since selecting the right keywords is rarely as simple as it seems and since the difference between being in the middle of a pack of search results and the top can mean the difference between business success and failure.
Some recent developments, such as Google Page Rank, can work against small businesses, which have traditionally been able to use SEO to their advantage, said Miki Dzugan, an SEO consultant with Rapport Online.
“Not only has the entry of big business into the sponsored listing arena made life more difficult for the small business, natural or organic search results tilt toward the large player too,” Dzugan said.
Dzugan recommends targeting niches rather than the same main keywords that major corporations are also likely to be interested in owning and controlling. “You can create a niche in search engine marketing by selecting keywords that are popular enough to get you traffic, but different enough that major corporations are not competing fiercely for them.
The bottom line is always to find ways to the top of search results pages, since only a tiny fraction of Web users ever click beyond the first page of results. “Unless you’re at the top,” said Breur, “you’re nowhere.”