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Google is your friend: Search Engine Optimization for the rest of us

Internet Content, SEO, Technology | February 14th, 2010 6 Comments

In this the latest installment of my regular technology tips series, I must begin by extending my apologies to all those who are already Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts. What follows is not for experts, or even experienced amateurs. Instead it’s merely some very simple tips for getting started, specifically aimed at all those who feel completely bewildered or overwhelmed by the challenges of getting found on the web.

A good overview of linking can be found here:

http://www.bloghints.com/14-Link-Building-Strategies-Small-Businesses.html

SEO: The only acronym you really need

The last thing anyone needs is another acronym, and tech geeks the world over (yes, yes, that includes me) are guilty of polluting our vocabularies with a vast array of incomprehensible short-hand for equally incomprehensible terms and concepts.

But as a small or medium-sized business that doesn’t have a globe-crushing brand (yet), those three little letters, SEO, are absolutely critical to your future success.

You see we live in a culture plagued by information overload and one of the many consequences is that (a) nobody knows who you are and (b) most of these nobodies couldn’t find you if they wanted to.

But we also live in a culture in which the web provides unprecedented access to other markets, and a vehicle for you to deliver your message to your customers. SEO is essentially a way to turn information overload to your advantage.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Simply put, SEO is about making yourself discoverable by the legions of people who are using search engines to find information. It is different from (but related to) Search Engine Marketing (SEM), which usually refers to paying for contextually relevant advertising that is displayed as “sponsored links” when people search Google and the other search engines. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with SEM, but it’s not the topic at hand here, and in fact before embarking on a SEM strategy, you’d be very well advised to think first about optimizing your website.

The goal of SEO is to have your website or blog display high up in Google’s rankings for search terms that your customers are using to find businesses like yours.

You might console yourself by typing the name of your business into Google and discovering that you’re already on the first page. Job done, right? Wrong. How many of your potential customers are searching for your name? (Approximately zero is the answer, by the way.) No the real goal is to rank well for words and phrases that relate to what you do (”sports therapy”, “vancouver veterinarian”, “best coffee in Chicago”, and so on). Try typing in a generic phrase that describes what you do, and unless it’s something incredibly obscure, chances are your website won’t show up in the first 10 pages, let alone on page one.

Estimates vary, but the generally accepted number is that well over 100,000 new blogs are launched every day. Over the course of a year that’s over 35 million new websites competing for attention, which in itself isn’t the scariest thing. No, it’s more that once you start researching the issue of how to get found by Google et al, you realize that legions of experts have devoted themselves to this goal for years. How to get started when surely it’s already too late?

The good news: SEO is about knowing your story and telling it well

SEO isn’t about tricking Google into displaying your website ahead of other, more legitimate results. In fact Google has legions of very smart people devoted to ensuring their results are a fair reflection of which websites are most relevant to the intent of the person searching.

Your first job is to make sure that your website is correctly set up to be found by Google, and that the content on your site does the very best job possible of telling your unique story. The great thing about this latter point is that everyone who reads Carrie & Danielle’s website is almost by definition quite in touch with who they are and what they want from life; the same self-awareness is required for your business and its goals. Perhaps we should coin a new term, “holistic SEO“, or “know thyself and Google will, too“!

So without further ado, here are my tips for utter beginners seeking to be discovered by Google.

My SEO tips for the rest of us

  1. Find out what your competitors are doing by seeing where they rank on Google for search terms directly related to your industry. The really good news is that the odds are quite strongly in favor of the answer being “they’re nowhere to be seen”. If you’ve had success in your business without worrying about SEO, then it’s unlikely that most of your competition are stealing away all of your customers with intelligent optimization. The even better news is that YOU may have the opportunity to steal away THEIR customers.
  2. Develop a long, long list of keywords and phrases that are directly relevant to your business. Distill this list into the things that just make sense. Start in the “center” (that is, if you sell garden supplies, start with “garden supplies”). Most importantly think about how YOU would go about finding your own business on Google. Particularly for small businesses, people sell their products and services to others who are quite similar to them but strangely don’t often put themselves in the shoes of the customer. When it comes to search here’s an easy opportunity to do just that.
  3. If you sell local, think about local search. To start with that’s as simple as ensuring your list of words and phrases contains geographically specific keywords like the name of your city or neighborhood.
  4. Find a few people who don’t know much about what you do for a living, show them your website and ask them to answer these questions as honestly as possible: “if you arrived on any page, would you understand what I did in 30 seconds”; “would you recommend my site to a friend”; “from a scale of one to 10, with one being bored to tears and 10 being utterly captivated, how would you rate my site”. Most small and medium businesses still have terrible websites (sad but true) so the chances are that your answers will be in the order of “no”, “no” and “4″ (only because anything lower would seem rude).
  5. If you can’t write well (most people really can’t, so don’t be embarrassed or afraid to admit it), hire someone who can.
  6. Hire an independent web designer who specializes in blogs and will promise never to build you a site that is built entirely in Flash. Ask to see other sites in his or her portfolio, and make sure they use modern, standards-compliant xhtml / css. Run them through the SEOmoz crawl test (free registration required) to ensure the public pages are being properly indexed.
  7. Work with your writer to decide what makes you unique in your industry and why people should spend time on your site vs. those of your competitors. If you can’t come up with reasons why you and your business are unique, try harder! Write the pages of your website in such a way that you convey this message somewhere on every single page. Include relevant keywords and phrases that you came up with in your long, long list. Don’t include them in a way that compromises readability; write naturally.
  8. Work with your designer to build the new site, and make sure you include a blog. Writing your own blog is one of the single best things you can do to rank well in search engines because it allows you quickly and easily to publish a constant stream of relevant content. Write about your business and write about what you know, again paying attention to the list of keywords and phrases you developed. Don’t worry if not many people are reading it at first; the long-term search benefits WILL pay off.
  9. Remember that as your SEO efforts begin to pay off, many more people will arrive at your site from search engines than by typing in your homepage. And many of these people won’t arrive directly at your homepage. So look at your website and make sure you can answer this question: “No matter which page people arrive at, is it immediately obvious what my site is all about?”
  10. Keep doing your homework. Sites such as SEOmoz, Search Engine Journal, SEO Roundtable, Stuntdubl and many others offer lots of great (and free) content about best practices, all of which is regularly updated to make sure it stays ahead of the curve.
  11. This last one is so important that I turned my top 10 list into a top 11 just to make room… Don’t trust anyone who says they can “guarantee” you’ll show up on page one of Google. Anyone who tells you this is (a) lying or (b) not lying but will implement tactics that get your site removed from Google’s results altogether or (c) a combination of both. There is nothing better than learning the basics yourself, getting your site established in the rankings, and then if you feel you need professional assistance to get to the next level, pick a search optimizer who can provide you with testimonials and references from other credible businesses.

Last words: Getting started now is the single best thing you can do

If you worry about waiting until you’ve learned everything there is to know, then you will never get started. Far better to jump in and learn as you go. Time spent learning without doing is, in this case, wasted time.

There’s lots, lots more to SEO than I’ve covered here, particularly how you go about presenting your on-page content in a manner that will be most easily interpreted by Google, et al. But more on that in a later post.

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