SEO – What is Search Engine Optimization and How it Can Benefit Your Business

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search Engine Optimization, which is also known as SEO, is the process of increasing the volume and quality of traffic to a website from search engines via organic or search results. The higher your company’s website ranks on Search Engine Result Page (SERP), the more searchers will visit your site.

As a marketing strategy for increasing site’s relevance, SEO consultants consider how search algorithms work and what people search for. A SEO process may involve a site’s coding and structure, content and copywriting, site presentation, as well as fixing other problems that will prevent search engines from indexing your company website. If your company’s website is not indexed by search engines, there will be no chance at all for your site to get high visibility rankings on search engines. Therefore, it is extremely important for businesses to take note of SEO and make sure that their websites are properly indexed by search engines.

The term “SEO” can also refer to “Search Engine Optimizer”. This is an industry term that refers to agencies and consultants that carry out search engine optimization process on behalf of their clients, and by employees who perform SEO services in-house. Every agency and consultant has their own SEO methodology; therefore they may use different methods to achieve high organic rankings for websites. In most cases, in order to have effective SEO, it may require changes to the HTML source code of a site, SEO tactics will be incorporated into website development and design. That is why almost all credible SEO agencies and consultants will first look at the design and back-end architecture of a website before starting any SEO process. This will ensure that SEO is carried out effectively.

Search Engine Optimization as a Marketing Strategy for Businesses

So how should businesses use SEO as a marketing strategy? The primary objective of implementing SEO to a company’s website is to drive targeted traffic to it. Eye tracking studies have shown that searchers scan a search result from top to bottom and left to right, looking for relevant results. Therefore, if your site is near the top of organic listings rankings (organic listings refer to the web results that are listed on the left hand side of the SERP), it will most likely increases the number of searchers who will visit your site.

A successful online marketing campaign may usually involve SEO, but it also consists of the use of paid advertising on search engines, building high quality websites to engage and persuade site visitors take action either through enquiries or online sales, setting up analytic programs to allow site owners to measure their successes and improving a site’s conversion rate.

Benefits of SEO for Businesses

Businesses can benefit from SEO in a lot of ways, be it to increase brand awareness, get sales leads or increase sales revenue. The following is a list of benefits that businesses can get from SEO:

o Get more targeted traffic. SEO can increase the number of visitors to your site who are actively searching for your product or service.

o Increase brand awareness. SEO can give your brand a high international profile. You can also use SEO to create brand awareness for any new service or product by optimizing related product/service key phrases to rank higher on search engines.

o Marketing your brand 24/7. With SEO, your website will get exposure 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – without stopping.

o Higher sales. As SEO brings you targeted traffic, it can mean increased sales of your product or service.

o Long term positioning. Once a properly optimized & designed site is in place, rankings on organic listings should be consistent whereas the cost for Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Advertising is ongoing.

o More value for dollars. Once your company’s website has achieved high organic rankings for various key phrases, you will not have to pay for each visit. Whereas for PPC Advertising, to enjoy high ranking visibility on search engines, you need to pay for each click or visit to your site.

However, to make sure that you have a successful SEO implementation, you need to make sure that your dedicated SEO agency abides to the guidelines of search engine when optimizing your site…

White Hat SEO VS Black Hat SEO

When it comes to SEO, there are 2 schools of thoughts – White Hat SEO vs Black Hat SEO. White hat SEO is techniques that search engines recommend as good practice and black hat SEO is those techniques that search engines do not approve of. For SEO consultants who practise white hat SEO, they tend to produce results that last a long time. Black hat SEO techniques may get a website to rank well initially, but the site will eventually be banned either temporary or permanently once search engines discover what they are doing.

So it is very important for you to know the best practices in the SEO industry and make sure that the SEO agency that is handling your account uses techniques that conform to the search engines’ guidelines and involves no deception.

White hat technique is generally summed up as creating content for users, not the search engines. The content that is created should be easily accessible to search engine spiders, rather than intending to trick the algorithms from its intended purpose. So, the general rule of thumb is to stay on the safe side by creating content that is relevant to your target audience. Search engines value relevancy – they will definitely want to rank a site higher their organic listings if the content on the site is what searchers are looking for.

Black hat technique usually involves techniques that attempt to improve rankings that are disapproved by search engines, or involve deception. One common black hat technique is to use hidden text, either as text coloured similar to the background of the website, or positioned off-screen. Another common technique known as cloaking is to load a different page depending on whether the page is accessed by a human or a search engine spider.

Search engines will penalize sites which use black hat techniques, either by reducing their organic rankings or even eliminating them from their database completely. This is a very costly mistake on the business point of view as you will lose out a lot of grounds as your competitors are enjoying free organic traffic from search engines due to their high rankings for major key phrases. One infamous example was in February 2006, whereby Google removed BMW Germany from its database for use of black hat methods. However, the company has quickly apologised and cleaned up the offending pages and were eventually restored to Google’s database.

Therefore, it is very important to make sure that your SEO agency is moving away from black hat methods. You will not want to be blacklisted by search engines which will translate into loss in sales and profits.

Keyword Research – The Key Factor to Successful SEO Implementation

Major search engines like Google, Yahoo, MSN Live and AOL get a lot of searches every day. Before you implement SEO to your website, you must know what key phrases or keywords your target audience is using to search for the product or service that you offer.

Whether you like it or not, there is a good chance that many people have never heard of your company. These people might be your customers, if only they can find you on search engines and buying from you. It is well accepted that building awareness is the first step to land a new customer. For example, when someone sees a TV advertisement about that new car, you hope that he or she is in the market for a car at the moment. However, relatively few people are in that situation at any one time. Majority of people who saw the TV advertisement have no interest in buying a car at the moment. But someday they will. So advertisers know that the messages – the model of the car and company name in their commercials will stick in viewers’ minds, who might remember the message later when they are ready to buy a car. It is the same for SEO.

Searchers might not know that your company offers a particular product or service unless they see your site listed on the Search Engine Result Page (SERP). Unless they see your listings, they will not think of you. Most of the time, searchers looking for a product or service for the first time might not be aware of any specific company or brand name as they are just gathering information. However, according to a research done by search marketing consultancy iProspect, more than 55 percent of searchers expect to see big brands listed at the top of search results. The same study also shows that over 66 percent of searchers believe that sites that are listed at the top of search results are the top companies in their field. So can you imagine how this affects your company’s brand awareness? If your company’s website is not listed at the top of search results, they will not see your company as a “big brand” in their mind. Therefore, it is extremely important for you to optimize keywords or key phrases that your target prospects will use to find the product or service that you are offering.

So what types of keywords or key phrases should you choose? Businesses should target keywords that are relevant to the content of their websites. Basically, keywords can be categorized into 3 types, which are: “Too Hot Keywords”, “Just Right Keywords”, and “Too Cold Keywords”. Too Hot keywords are single word search terms like “Aircon” and “Translation” which do not seem to be targeted enough to get conversions. These keywords usually bring in high search volume (which is naturally tempting to optimize) but the conversion may not be as ideal as targeting keywords which falls into the “Just Right” category. (For examples: Aircon Servicing, Translation Agency Singapore”) By optimizing those “Just Right” keywords, businesses can get more targeted traffic to their websites and increase the chance of conversions.

Choosing the right keywords is the real beginning of any SEO effort. After you have determined the right set of keywords to target, you can start the work of search engine optimization.

Why do you need to outsource SEO?

SEO is a very time-consuming process as continual fine-tuning and monitoring need to be done. Therefore, it is advisable for you to hire a search engine optimization agency to plan out the optimization plan for your company.

A professional SEO agency will look at your site and make recommendations to increase your search engine ranking and website traffic. Once they start to optimize your website, they will provide recommendations and monitoring reports for you to know the progress of it.

Last but not least, in order to achieve successful optimization results, it is very important for your SEO agency to work closely with your website designer if you have your own IT department. This is because your company website needs to be both visually appealing and search engine friendly in order to achieve high organic rankings, as well as conversions.

Questions to Ask Your Potential Search Engine Optimization Company – Part 2

Last month, I went over questions that you should ask your potential search engine optimization company regarding its tactics. That set of questions is critical, as before moving forward with any of the myriad of search engine optimization companies out there, you should always determine whether or not they will put your site at risk of penalization in the major search engines (leaving your website worse off than when your campaign started).

However, many people researching search engine optimization companies are unaware that potential penalization is even an issue – they are primarily interested in the results that the search engine optimization company can achieve. This installment of the three-part series will focus on questions to determine the competence of any search engine optimization company that you are considering. To find out whether any particular company is worthy of your trust in terms of results, consider asking the following:

“Do you require that I make changes to my website content?”

Any search engine optimization companies that answer “no” to this question are either using shady tactics or are only scratching the surface of true search engine optimization. Certainly, there are some elements that can be changed on a website that are largely transparent to the user, including title tags, meta tags, and alt tags. While making changes to these elements can create a boost in rankings, it will not give you the search engine dominance over your competitors that you desire. Remember, search engines are interested in matching content (what appears on your web pages) with search queries (the phrases that people are typing into search engines).

The problem with a search engine optimization company only manipulating the largely unseen elements is that search engines recognize that these elements are determined by the owner of the website and may not actually reflect the real content that appears on the pages. In order to perform well across the most popular engines, you must make certain that your search engine optimization company accurately addresses popular search queries within your pages. And this almost always requires changes to your content.

“Will you be adding additional pages to my website?”

If a search engine optimization company answers “no” to this question but answers “yes” to the question above, it likely means that it will be employing what I call the “shoehorn” approach to optimization. This means that the firm will try to shoehorn keyphrases into existing pages on your website, rather than expanding your website to include new content.

The trouble with this approach is that your existing pages are unlikely to directly address the search query. When search engine optimization companies shoehorn in keyphrases, they may achieve high rankings for you, but you probably won’t have many long-term visitors. For example, assume that your company makes widgets and you have an “about us” page on your site that gives a brief history of your company, as well as contact information and driving directions. If your search engine optimization company optimizes this page for “custom widget pricing,” and you subsequently achieve high rankings for the phrase, it does not necessarily mean that you will see much benefit. One can deduce from the query that people are looking for actual pricing information, not information on where your company is located or when it was founded. Another web page that directly addresses their search query is just a click of the back button away.

Adding new, informational pages to your website is a standard approach for the inclusion of quality search engine optimization phrases. Think of it this way – your search engine optimization company should not be thinking, “Where can we shoehorn this phrase in?” Search engine optimization companies should instead always be thinking, “How can we best address this query with a new page?” The difference in results can be dramatic.

“What will you be doing besides working on my site directly?”

If a prospective search engine optimization company tells you that it will only be making changes to your site itself, this means that it will not be spending any time working on your site’s link popularity. Link popularity plays a tremendous role in determining rankings in every major search engine. Simply put, sites that have a good number of quality and relevant incoming links are held in a higher regard than sites that do not. This is because a link from another site is considered a “vote” for your site – but all votes are not equal.

Quality search engine optimization companies will spend a great deal of time looking for industry-specific directories and portals where a link to your site can be added. They will also review all of your existing incoming links and make certain that the website owner has configured them in such a way as to give your site the highest chance for high search engine rankings.

“Will you be adding additional pages and targeting additional keyphrases over time?”

This is a very important question. Even search engine optimization companies that have a reputation for providing quality initial results can fall short on this, but it is one of the most important aspects involved in improving your optimization results over time.

When your campaign is kicked off, your search engine optimization company will target an initial list of phrases. Although good search engine optimization companies will rely on readily available software to determine which phrases are being searched on most often, and common sense to determine which of those phrases will bring buyers and not “tire-kickers,” it is in all honesty an educated guess.

Forward-looking search engine optimization companies treat the initial keyphrases as the “testing” phase of the campaign. They track these individual phrases and find which ones are working (bringing in the people that actually buy something or take the point of action on your site that leads to a sale). Armed with this knowledge, such search engine optimization companies will regularly expand your campaign to include phrases similar to the ones that are working the best. Without such expansions based on real data, you are merely relying on the best educated guesses from the initial campaign, and not the hard data that comes from true metrics as the campaign progresses.

“Can you give me references and case studies?”

This one seems obvious, but there are search engine optimization companies out there who claim that their clients all wish to remain anonymous, so that it is impossible to provide any specifics. This is usually a smokescreen designed to defer proof of concept. Certainly, there are businesses that hire a search engine optimization company that wish to keep it a secret, but these are generally in the minority. Forward-thinking companies generally enjoy showing off their success stories, so you should insist on seeing some real (not anonymous) case studies and talking with some references.

When dealing with references, find out how long they have been working with the search engine optimization company. If all references are less than a year old, it may mean that the company has been unable to demonstrate value over the long term, which is certainly something to consider. After all, long-term value is what you should be trying to achieve from a search engine optimization company, and search engine optimization is not a one-time endeavor.

Armed with these questions, you should be able to determine whether a certain search engine optimization company is worthy of both your time and your marketing money, or whether you instead will wind up with empty pockets and a useless site. Remember, high rankings don’t always mean good leads, and great keyphrases are not helpful unless they are used properly on your site.

In the third and final part of this series, I will discuss the assurances that search engine optimization companies offer – or fail to offer – from guarantees to exclusivity agreements.

How To Choose A Search Engine Optimization Company

Search Engine Optimization Philosophy

This is arguably the most critical factor when deciding which company to work with to improve your online business or brand identity. Employing a search engine marketing or placement company that only utilizes ethical search engine optimization techniques or “white hat” methods will ensure that you minimize the potential risk of being dropped, removed, penalized, deleted, or banished from the search engines. Nobody enjoys waking up glassy eyed to the unfortunate reality of being “Google sacked” for breaking or bending the search engines’ implicit rules or explicit terms of service.

Search Engine Optimization Methodology / Specific Expertise

Can your expert SEO Company only optimize static websites constructed in basic HTML? An upstanding SEO company will have experience working with websites in all the common programming languages and technologies, PHP, ASP, ASPX, HTML, Cold Fusion, Flash etc.

Does your SEO Company have experience optimizing both static and dynamic websites? Can your SEO Company optimize using various e-commerce packages and interfaces such as Monster Commerce, Yahoo Stores, OS Commerce, Storefront.net, Volusion?

Depth Of Optimization / Piecemeal Services

The most basic search engine optimization companies around don’t actually perform search engine optimization at all- they are merely submission services which either manually or automatically submit your site to various search engines or directories. Submission companies are typically very inexpensive since no actual coding, linking, or content development takes place on your actual website. Typical pricing runs around $19.95 to $399 per month for these submission type services.

A mid level optimization company gets their hands more firmly on the marketing handle by editing code, analyzing keywords, building links, and adjusting / writing fresh content for your site. They also may do a pinch of off-site optimization, such as press releases, article submissions, and blog writing. Typically, firms of this middle level range charge between $399 and $850 per month.

The highest level search engine placement firm performs the duties described for mid level optimization companies, but also is responsible for conversion tracking and analysis. The emphasis on off-site optimization is also much greater and time consuming. This means that high level optimization firms are essentially responsible for discovering what is working and what is not working throughout the entire customer experience – from initial search through conversion. More man hours per month also means a higher fee that search engine firms must charge to cover their costs. The usual pricing range for these firms’ are $850.00 all the way up to $10,000 per month, but on average, you’ll be looking at fees above the $1,000 a month range.

A piecemeal marketing company is one that treats various parts of an optimization campaign as separate entities. For example, an optimization company may charge distinct fees only for “linking” or “content construction.” This piecemeal approach can be detrimental. Successful optimization is the synergy of multiple efforts on multiple fronts, sometimes simultaneous, and sometimes in succession. Piecing together different aspects of an optimization campaign typically reaps poorer results than a comprehensive strategy.

System Of Evaluation / Reporting

The majority of search engine optimization companies cringe at the thought of empowering their clients to evaluate their work. An ethical search engine optimization company does the opposite. There are four tools we recommend using in tandem to evaluate a search engine optimization company’s work / performance.

1. Real Time Statistics / Conversion Analysis Software

Being able to see traffic gains and conversions in real time can be a useful window in evaluating how your SEO Firm is performing. Having the ability to see who is coming to your site, from what search engines they are coming from, and the exact keyword phrase used within the search query is an essential tool.

2. Positioning or Visibility Reports

Being emailed bi-weekly positioning reports on the specific keywords that you are interested in ranking highly for can be incredibly useful. A visibility percentage, which is the percentage of people that are finding you for keywords that are important for your business – on the Major Search Engines – Google, Yahoo, AOL, and MSN is also important. Make sure your firm doesn’t overdue the automated search engine queries however, the search engines may consider this spamming their databases.

3. Alexa Rating:

You can download the Alexa Toolbar right now from alexa.com. This gives you a solid summary of the general traffic trend over the last three months for your website when compared to other existing sites. If you have a brand new website, odds are you will not even have an alexa rating or visible data at all. The alexa rating also shows you, in general terms, how your website stacks up- traffic wise- in comparison to your competitors or industry affiliates. The lower your alexa rating the more traffic your site is generating when compared to other sites in the alexa universe. Please note, if your site has an alexa rating of “1” this doesn’t mean you are the most visited site on the internet- it most likely means you are operating a Yahoo Store- in such a case, it is identifying Yahoo’s overall traffic, and not your individual site. A general tool like this can give you a quick overall impression of traffic growth and trends. Be careful though, the numbers are generalities (similar to the television Nielsen Ratings) and not absolute figures.

4. Google PageRank

You can download the Google Toolbar right now by going to google.toolbar.com. Click on the options tab and check off the “display PageRank” measure. You will be able to see how Google is rating the importance of your site on a scale of 0-10. As an optimization company proceeds with your campaign you can check periodically to see how the number is increasing. The typical website might see a PageRank increase of one to two points over the course of an optimization campaign. Keep in mind that it is easier to increase your PageRank at the lower ends of the spectrum. As you approach higher PageRanks it becomes more difficult for your rating to balloon.

Due Diligence: Corporate Goals / Industry And Keyword Research

How does the SEO Company you are considering perform its up front legwork regarding your organization, industry and corporate goals? Do they ask questions about:

What your corporate goals (both short and long term) are, your industry, your competition. What keywords are currently working for you? What PPC (Pay Per Click) words are currently effective? What PPC engines (Adwords, Overture, MSN/Live) are currently effective? How your site is designed? Is your site dynamic or static?

What tools does your SEO Firm employ to perform its keyword research?

How about Wordtracker, WebCEO, or Keyword Elite? What about the basic Overture keyword suggestion tool or the generic Google keyword suggestion tool supplied by Adwords. Do they utilize a combination of the basic tools? What about proprietary keyword analysis methodology? Do they have dedicated tools that have been developed in-house, or by a third party?

Client to Account Manager Ratio

Not many SEO companies like to publicize their client to account manager ratio. This is the ratio representing the number of clients that each account manager handles at any given time. The lower the amount of clients each account manager assists, odds are the better the service and the higher the level of personal attention. We recommend that a search engine optimization account manager supports less than thirty clients at any given time.

Man-Hours Per Month

The number of man hours per month your SEO production department actually dedicates to your business is crucial. It is more than smart to ask for a monthly time allotment estimate before beginning an optimization campaign. What you expect to receive and what is actually delivered should be right in line.

Company Structure and Size

Does your SEO Company consist of a laptop computer with your account manager working out of his basement sitting beside a salivating golden retriever? Is your SEO company a bureaucratic nightmare that forces you to fill out trouble tickets when you need help on the spot?

Your ethical search engine optimization company should be somewhere within the sweet spot of not too small and not too large. You want individual attention, but you would also like to know there is more than one mind, calculating your next business moves.

Management

Does your ethical search engine optimization company have a solid management team? Do they have a management team at all? Are the firms you are considering privately held or publicly traded? Is the owner of the optimization company an absentee landlord or an active member of the SEO community? It is not out of the question to ask for the curriculum vitae or resume of the powers that be, in fact, it makes perfect sense if you are entrusting this company with not only your business but your livelihood. After all, SEO practitioners have no board certification that you can rely upon to check their track record.

Reputation / Importance

Has your SEO Company received multiple complaints via the Better Business Bureau? Check the better business bureau reports and see if there are unresolved complaints. From time to time clients may file complaints, but we believe it is the timely handling of these inquiries which are even more important when considering an optimization company to work with.

Past Results / Company SEO Rankings

Every SEO Company should have detailed reports regarding past client successes. The reports should include specifics as to optimization goals and timelines. Reporting on past clients should also focus within and between multiple industries. You should always be aware of a base point – where a particular client started out prior to the optimization company commencing an SEO campaign. Is the SEO firm itself performing poorly in the search engines? A low Google PageRank (below a 5) may be an indication your SEO firm hasn’t been around for as long as one might like.

References / Company Shelf Life

Every SEO company should have solid references across industries and fields in both business to consumer industries as well as business to business arenas. References should stem from not only the past six months, but should originate from years prior to your introduction with the company. If your SEO firm performs quality work, clients should be around for years to sing their praises.

Costs / Pricing Structure / Up front Fees

Costs should be consistent with the service that the company is offering- a la the “Consistent Value Proposition” taught at Yale School of Management. A $49.00 a month campaign run by a credit card company that does not specialize in search engine optimization might not be the optimal choice for an in depth or high level optimization campaign. An SEO company should also only offer costing after they have a clear understanding of your business, goals, and the work involved. Blanketed cost structures can lead to frustration, unrealized expectations, and ultimately failure. Also be concerned if your optimization firm demands a full six month payment up front in order to simply “get started.”

The ideal optimization company charges an up front fee and monthly recurring fee which is commensurate with the services that are actually being performed. A high quality optimization firm that works on your site utilizing 30-60 man-hours per month cannot possibly charge a $49.00 every thirty days to perform its services.

Redundancy

A nasty case of the bird flu hits your unsuspecting account manager right where it counts! Does your optimization company have the ability to smoothly transition the current state of your campaign to another qualified optimization expert? Every SEO company should have a system in place where knowledge about existing accounts can be easily disseminated from one individual to the next. If there does happen to be a catastrophe regarding your account manager, you should feel comfortable that your business continues to prosper regardless of the circumstances.

Quality Control

Every SEO company should have someone overseeing your account manager to ensure that every last “i” is dotted and every last “t” is crossed. Your account manager should be responsible for the success of your campaign, but an extra set of eyes can occasionally be needed to add one more factor weighing in on your side of success.

Promises / Results Timeline

We’ve heard SEO companies promise first page listings in Google for competitive phrases within 48-Hours. If your SEO sales representative is overzealous and unrealistic, it should be a sign that this is most likely a company to steer away from. Gaining search engine listings can be a hard fought, time intensive battle that comes from both diligent work and intelligent planning.

Production Staff Quality

Production staff should be divided between account managers and specialized production technicians. Account managers are the hub of an optimization campaign direction and implementation. Account managers should be able to perform all of the actual coding, linking, and content construction for each client. As an optimization campaign progresses and increases in complexity, they should be able to call upon their support staff or production department to complete specialized work orders for each client. The more specialized each member of the production department, the more efficient they will be at completing their work (thank Henry Ford for this).

Location / Proximity

When you call your account manager or SEO company do you listen to a curious two beeps before being connected to an individual working without air conditioning overseas? Not a good sign. It is imperative that you hire a search engine placement firm whose sales force works in tandem with its production department. There should be no disparity between what you were sold and what was actually delivered. The SEO guru working on your account should be able to understand your business, industry, and company goals quickly, without any overseas static jamming up communications.