by James A. Martin, PC World - According to an oft-quoted study, 93 percent of Web users don't look beyond the first page of search results. The study, by famed Web-usability expert Jakob Nielsen, first appeared in Prioritizing Web Usability (2006), a book that Nielsen coauthored. "Even though the specific percentages are a few years old," Nielsen wrote recently in an e-mail, "the general conclusion definitely still holds."
With odds like that, it's no wonder every business wants its site to land in the top ten results for relevant queries.
But with billions of Web pages in existence, hitting that sweet spot is a serious challenge. That's where search engine optimization comes in. With legitimate, "white-hat" SEO, a small business can greatly improve its chances of landing in the first page of relevant search results.
"The good news is, there are billions of keyword searches performed every month," says Dave Bascom, CEO of SEO.com, a search engine optimization agency. "So you have billions of opportunities."
Improving your site's "organic" (non-paid) search ranking happens gradually, however. To kick-start your SEO, consider running a small pay-per-click (PPC) keyword ad campaign with Google AdWords linked to a relevant landing page on your site with an explicit call to action, such as an invitation to call for a free phone consultation, suggests Jamie O'Donnell, vice president and cofounder of SEO-PR. PPC ads can begin delivering targeted traffic to your site within minutes or hours, versus the months that organic SEO efforts can take.
Here are the top five SEO tips for boosting your site's search engine status.
1. Determine Goals, Priorities, and Measurements
Before starting an SEO campaign, develop measurable goals and priorities, and plan to revise them periodically. Some questions to answer: What are your current business needs? Which of your products or services are most important to promote now? What do you want visitors to your site to do, buy, or learn?
Next, decide how to measure success. If you haven't already done so, add Google Analytics to each page of your site. Google Analytics reveals which keywords visitors used to find your site, and much more. You can find many Web traffic analysis tools out there, but Google's includes all of the features that most small businesses need.
2. Research Keywords
Often, a business doesn't describe its products using the same keywords that its clients use. You may be promoting "portable media players," for instance, but your potential customers call them "MP3 players."
That's why it's important to talk to employees, partners, current and potential clients, and your sales staff to determine which words are most frequently used when people seek out your company and its products or services. Use those phrases to develop an initial list of SEO keyword candidates.
Several keyword-research tools are available to help you choose the best terms for SEO. The free Google AdWords Keyword Tool helps you gauge how frequently keywords are searched in the United States (and globally), and how competitive a keyword is. The tool is designed to help marketers choose keywords for Google PPC ads, but it's useful for organic keyword research, too. You'll also get lots of keyword variations that you might not have thought of.
When choosing keywords, some site managers take into account the Keyword Effectiveness Index (KEI), a mathematical equation that comes up with a score based on the number of times a keyword has been searched and the number of Web pages containing the keyword. The higher the KEI score, the better your chances are for "winning" that keyword.
The mathematically inclined can read a detailed KEI explanation to get the formula. Alternatively, you could sign up for Wordtracker ($329 yearly) or Trellian Keyword Discovery ($599 to $1895 annually). Both offer KEI and other analytics that the Google tool lacks. SEO Sniper is a $97 Windows utility that applies KEI scores (and other analytics) to Google AdWords Keyword data.
3. Use Keywords Judiciously
Using keywords effectively can make your site more discoverable. But overusing or abusing them can cause search engines to ignore you. Here are some tips for adding keywords to your Web pages:
Optimize each page for one keyword (and its synonyms). When the entire context of a page is about a particular subject, search engines are more likely to see that page as relevant to its topic.
Use keywords in the page's HTML title tag. Search engines place great importance on title tags when determining a page's relevancy to a query. Don't exceed 65 characters, including spaces and punctuation.
Add keywords to the page's HTML h1 and h2 headings, and use the keywords several times in the body copy--the earlier, the better.
Create a keyword-rich link elsewhere on your site to each page you're optimizing. For example, if you're optimizing a page about your résumé writing services, add a link to that page from another page on your site and use the term résumé writing services in the link text, rather than something generic like click here.
Add keywords to your site's URLs whenever possible, as opposed to using generic URLs such as www.domain.com/?page_id=58.
Add keywords to each page's HTML meta description. Search engines often (but not always) display that description underneath each link shown in search results. But don't bother with HTML keyword meta tags: Google doesn't consider keyword meta tags in Web search ranking.
Don't go overboard. "Black-hat" tricks--such as presenting one page to search engines that's nothing but keywords, and another page to users--can get you kicked out of Google's index. It happened to a German BMW site in 2006.
4. Create 'Linkbait'
Editorial endorsements of your product or service from someone else, such as a high-profile blogger, can be pure SEO gold--especially when that endorsement includes a keyword-rich link to a relevant page on your site.
You don't have as much control over external links to your site as you do over the keywords you use, of course. Still, you can take some steps.
Bloggers and other people with Websites frequently post links to great content. Make sure your pages have provocative, newsworthy, or extremely useful content--otherwise known as "linkbait." Spread the word about a new blog post, page, or article via social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. (And by the way, search engines love blogs. If you aren't blogging, you should be.)
Write an informative (puff-free) press release about your new product or service. Include a keyword-rich link to a relevant page on your site, and post the release on public relations sites such as PRWeb.com, PRNewswire.com, and PR.com. (Some PR services are free, while others charge.) With luck, your press release will get picked up by the media, and people will write online articles about you with links to your site.
Contact influential reporters, bloggers, and others in the media directly. You'll increase your chances of coverage and perhaps get links that your competitors lack.
When other sites agree to link to yours, suggest the keyword that you'd like them to use in the link text.
Be generous in linking to other sites; the favor may be returned.
5. Make Sure Your Site Is Search Engine Friendly
The bottom line: If your Website contains lots of Flash, Ajax, and other nontext material, you're making it difficult for the search engines to index your pages. And if search engines can't index that content, searchers won't be able to find it when they perform queries. If you're planning a new site, make sure its design is friendly to search engines from the beginning.
If your site is already live, you can still do a few things to improve its "findability." Google's Webmaster guidelines offer specific suggestions for new and existing sites. Among them are the following tips.
Use a text browser, such as Lynx, to get a sense of how most search engine bots see your site. This exercise can help you determine where you may need to make changes for SEO. You can paste a URL in the Lynx viewer to find out how the page would look when viewed with Lynx, without having to download and install the browser.
Make sure that your site doesn't have duplicate content or multiple URLs pointing to the same page. Duplicate content can hurt your search engine ranking.
Create an XML sitemap for your site and submit it to the major search engines; this gives the search engine bots a list of URLs on your site that you want them to index.
SEO isn't something you do once. You may rank third for a keyword search on Monday, and twenty-third for that same search two weeks later. So it's important to set aside time, ideally every week, to review your Google Analytics, fine-tune your keywords, and look for link opportunities.
Yes, SEO requires time, patience, and perseverance. But the potential rewards can be considerable. And it's a safe bet that your competitors are doing it.
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