Today’s tactics for ranking higher on search engines involve more than keywords
Story by Robin Dressen Bruecker
As of early 2012 there were well over 600 million websites on the Internet.
That number can make the goal of getting and keeping the company website in the top tier of search engine results daunting. Plus the methods for getting seen on the first page of Google, Bing, and other search engine results pages have evolved since the early days of search engine optimization, which typically meant cramming a lot of keywords into online content in the battle to reach the higher rungs of the search engine ladder.
“Keyword stuffing is outdated, and has been for a few years,” said Amanda Betts, marketing director for Stellar Blue Web Design LLC in Appleton.
Like Stellar Blue, agencies in northeast Wisconsin that provide search engine marketing have witnessed a steady change in tactics over the past decade.
A bit of history
What makes a website search engine friendly? If search engines can read the website’s content, and the website doesn’t come across as spam to the automated Google filters, it will most likely rank higher in a search, explained by Larry Stopa, president of E-Power Marketing Inc. in Oshkosh.
Content within Flash, frames or iFrames can’t be read by search engines, and a website can be labeled as spam when it has an URL with a session or user ID, or redundant content that is used with different URLs of the same website or on another website.
At the time E-Power Marketing was started in 1998, Stopa said, “search engine marketing was about gaming the many search engines at that time by precisely stuffing keywords in meta-tags and content.”
That changed in 2003 when keyword stuffing was rendered obsolete by Google.
“What Google made critical for search visibility is quality content that interests the target audience,” continued Stopa. “This remains true to this day. Yet many who claim to know search engine optimization (SEO) today still rely on stuffing keywords. This creates confusion in the marketplace because many who buy SEO are buying obsolete strategies.
“Too many still expect some magic secret formula will generate search visibility. This distracts them from developing quality content needed to earn search visibility. Those who built search visibility with content established a foundation for strong online marketing success that continues for many today. Those who had search visibility and lost it did so through the creation of websites that are not search-engine friendly or attempted SEO practices that resulted in penalties from Google.”
Remember AltaVista? It fell prey to gaming.
“In 1998, AltaVista was an important search engine that fed search results to Yahoo,” said Stopa. “Back then, precise keyword density was everything for success. This meant you could ‘game’ AltaVista, resulting in AltaVista offering poor search results that led to its demise. It never could keep up with the quality search results of Google.”
Leading the search engine revolution, Google put an end to keyword gaming and other tactics that led to poor search results, which made Google a leader in the search engine pack.
Stellar Blue’s Amanda Betts said search engine marketing has been “nothing but change since the beginning. As search engine users, we demand more – faster, clearer, more accurate results. Therefore search engines have begun honing in on requirements, rules (algorithms) and authority. Once upon a time, a marketer could put ‘Brett Favre’ on every page of a website to boost web traffic. Now, that trick is considered black hat or tricky. Search engines are so much more focused on relevancy of content as well as popularity than ever before.”
Search engine tactics today
There’s no question there is still a big demand for effective search engine marketing.
Mark Lezotte, director of online marketing for Skyline Technologies Inc. which has offices in Appleton and Green Bay, said search engine marketing can be put into two categories: 1) organic search engine optimization, which involves a website that has solid content, is architecturally correct and incorporates best practices; 2) and paid search, which includes the sponsored links that appear in search engine results and are affected by what was paid for them, the advertising quality, and the content to which consumers are directed.
Organic SEO is effective but takes time. Pay Per Click – a type of online advertising, such as affiliate marketing – gets faster results but eats up finances.
“Pay Per Click will generate traffic and sales fast. But PPC burns through money fast,” Stopa explained. “You have to have your PPC program properly set up with measurement tools offered by PPC providers. With them you can optimize the program around keywords and ad messages that generate the most response.”
Organic SEO has been a focus at Skyline since 2006. Lezotte said the initial reaction by companies to organic SEO was strong because it was seen as a low-cost way to generate business, but they didn’t realize how much time needed to be invested in ongoing web content creation. Many eventually ended up dropping their SEO programs.
“These services are still well sought-out, but we are finding our customers are better educated than before and have a better idea what to expect,” noted Lezotte. “We spend more time educating our customers upfront with regards to what to expect and how to maintain an ongoing SEO program than we have in the past. With this approach we have found greater success for our customers versus attempting to chase down each of the search algorithm updates provided by Google.”
Is there a difference between organic SEO and plain old SEO? “Marketers and companies give different terminology for different services,” explained Betts. “In Stellar’s world, normal SEO is organic SEO, meaning you are working within tactics that are indexed on their own by search engines: links, content, keywords, updates etc. are indexed naturally on their own. There is no forced placement on search engine result pages. Only results that search engines deem the most relevant because of the quality and authority of links, content, keywords, updates, etc.”
Social media has fueled the search visibility race as well.
“The more active you are on social media, the more likely you will see improving search visibility on Google and Bing,” said Stopa. If it’s done right, a blog can be a great way to get more search visibility. According to Stopa, a good business blog should be actively updated, contain strong search-optimized content, and be part of the website’s main domain rather than a separate entity.
Betts also noted the importance of blogging in generating strong content.
“For the last few years, websites should only focus on three to six strong keywords per page and use them within the content when it’s natural,” she said. “Search engines are indexing information like users. What user would want to read a sentence like, ‘We are a team of business consultants providing services as business consultants and excelling in the area of business consulting?’”
“What makes a website search engine strong now is the amount of relevant content pages for the search engines to index. The best way to accomplish this is through business blogging: writing on topics that are areas of service or products.”
In doing so, Betts went on, the activity-loving search engines are given fresh content to index as well as reminded about the company’s services or products. Additionally, companies should monitor the number of links that point to their own website – the more links there are, the more popular the website appears to the search engines, she said.
Other variables come into play with how a website ranks in search visibility, such as domain authority and page authority.
“Domain authority (DA) is a metric that should reflect the likelihood of ranking high in a Google search,” said Jeff Hayes, principal at AlignTech Solutions LLC in Neenah. “I say ‘should’ because the DA doesn’t change overnight and it’s not 100 percent correlated with ranking. A domain’s DA changes slowly over time and in response to a number of factors that Google looks for in, say, a best choice or highest ranking for a particular keyword.
“Page authority (PA) is the same as the DA with the exception of scope. PA provides an approximate value of the ranking ‘worth’ of a single page in a domain, whereas the DA ranks for the entire domain.”
Hayes also mentioned link juice, which he likened to stored energy in a rechargeable battery. “When other websites mention my website by posting a link to my website, for example, it gives me link juice, or an extra charge on the battery.” The higher that linking website ranks, the more link juice (or charge) is given to Hayes’ website. However, Hayes said, if he posts a link to another website from his own website, he surrenders some link juice (drains the battery).
Online marketing service providers have several methods for helping their business clients achieve success.
For example, E-Power Marketing offers a free website assessment which reviews the client’s website for content quality, search friendliness and visibility, technical problems, and untapped opportunities. The assessment also includes an analysis of the search visibility of competitors’ websites.
Stopa said measuring the return on investment of a website can be accomplished through Web measurement tools like Google Analytics, enabling a company to see what’s working and what isn’t.
“The strategy is to develop a search engine-friendly website with a clear hierarchy that uses keywords in navigation and in content,” explained Stopa. “The more thorough the content, the more effective the website will be for search visibility.” He advises search optimizing each page around the most relevant target phrase for the content, using the target phrase naturally and avoiding overuse, and promoting the content through social media to attract attention and linking.
One search visibility success story from the E-Power Marketing team is that of a new website for kitchenware maker Progressive International (www.progressiveintl.com).
“In the first 12 months after launch, website traffic increased 52 percent and search engine referral traffic grew 87 percent with the establishment of over 250 first-page search positions on Google,” said Stopa.
In another case study, E-Power guided the 2010 development of a new website for LinerWorld (www.linerworld.com), which sells aboveground swimming pool liners. The effort increased search referral traffic 83 percent in 2011 compared with 2010, and generated over 5,000 online sales in 2011 compared with 3,700 in 2010, noted Stopa.
Smaller businesses have other factors to consider. The domains of small businesses usually aren’t as strong as those of larger companies with brands that are more well-known, Lezotte said, which affects how high the smaller companies rank in the search engines based on popular keywords. He pointed out that larger organizations also may have a staff member who is dedicated to the company’s website marketing.
“When we are working with smaller businesses, we encourage the customer to focus on ‘long-tail’ search keywords,” said Lezotte. “These are words that have a lower overall total number of searches, but this is where the smaller businesses with weaker domains have a greater likelihood of ranking well. In many cases these words or phrases are more specific than general terms and as a result represent users who are further along in the buying cycle and represent a more qualified lead.”
The price tag
The costs of improving search visibility depend on goals and budgets.
Hayes pointed out several factors to consider, including what the goal is – for example, does the business want to be at the top of page one of a search engine with a single keyword, or get a Facebook following of 50,000 fans? His team also looks at how much keyword competition they will face to reach the goals, based on geographic location, industry, economic status, and other factors.
“To rank high in the search engines for a keyword in multiple locations, for example, the cost will be higher than it is for ranking high in, say, Green Bay only,” he pointed out.
Additionally, does the website promote a person, product, or service? If it’s a product, is it established or new? Does the client want to write his or her own blog and social media posts, or pay someone else to do it? And so on. Other factors include the geographic target – local, regional or national – and the amount of website content.
“In general, the costs to produce a company’s stated SEO goals can range from $300 a month for relatively straightforward goals with a handful of keywords, to several thousand dollars per month,” said Hayes.
Additionally, the competitiveness of an industry’s keywords affect how much SEO services cost, Lezotte said. Skyline offers clients an introductory package that includes keyword demand and difficulty research.
Once organic SEO efforts establish visibility, the number of paying customers increases and the visibility becomes easier to maintain, Stopa noted. “There is no online or offline marketing alternative that can compete for cost effectiveness,” he said.
Betts touted blogging and link building as cost-effective options for businesses with a limited budget.
“Pay the upfront fee to integrate a blog into your website and you can create page after page of content for no external cost,” she said. “As for linking, there are plenty of expensive avenues to tackle with that initiative, but a cost-friendly idea would be to have all your employees link their social networks such as LinkedIn to your company website. Also explore opportunities with your partners, distributors, manufacturers, etc. to provide exchange links to one another’s websites.”
With the Web being a major source of information for products, services, careers, and more, it’s a good idea to do whatever fits the budget to improve the company’s search engine ranking.
“Think about the last time you heard someone say they found a business in the Yellow Pages,” said Lezotte. “Now think about the last time you heard someone say that they found a business because they Googled it.”
Robin Bruecker has 16 years experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at email@example.com.