Tips for nudging your website to the front of online searches
Story by J. S. Decker
Remember the Yellow Pages? When the first company you saw always started with the letter “A?”
What matters in 2015 are online search engines, where the best products and the best websites in the world won’t be seen without specialized marketing. And that doesn’t mean being properly alphabetized. Search engine optimization offers top visibility amidst billions of searches made on computers and mobile devices around the world each day.
“A lot of people have trouble wrapping their heads around it,” said Larry Stopa, president of SEO consulting firm E-Power Marketing in Oshkosh, “but the vast majority of businesses need to have effective online marketing today, because otherwise your competitors are going to take customers from you.”
Keywords and links that mattered one day are obsolete the next, and amateurs simply have trouble competing with the professionals in the race for search engine recognition. Search engines are an ever-shifting landscape, with Google and Bing constantly changing the factors that matter most.
Get found online
Very few businesses can succeed without a strong online presence. Restaurants with high visibility and strong word-of-mouth reputations may be exempt, but even they want new customers to find them by searching “restaurants” online.
And there are no half-measures. “A one-page website has no chance for organic search visibility,” said Stopa, but even that token effort beats having just a Facebook page. ‘Organic search results’ is the term for websites that appear in a normal online search. Paid advertising boxes are not included and do not generate nearly the same level of traffic.
Google offers a Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide for those who don’t want to hire a marketing firm, but those who try do-it-yourself SEO can be quickly overwhelmed.
“There was a time when you could do it yourself,” Stopa said. “I don’t think you can anymore. It’s too complicated. There’s around 500 factors Google takes into account when determining search position, and they aren’t saying what they are.”
The reason DIY search optimization is so difficult, he added, is it’s necessary to constantly monitor diverse websites to know what’s working and what’s not. Google changes the search landscape to keep ahead of companies trying to “game the system” and get a website listed higher than it deserves.
Total number of views a page receives remains a top factor, but each website’s keywords, links, videos, blogs and other features affect every search result. It’s so complicated that it’s easy to be confused and taken advantage of, Stopa said.
“People who try on their own trust people they should not trust because their information is out of date or just plain wrong,” he explained, pointing to Submit Express, an online service to promote your website on more than 70 search engines. “Now tell me what 70 search engines are! Clinton was president the last time this was relevant,” he exclaimed. “You can sell all sorts of things, and (the unsuspecting buyer has) no idea what they’re getting and what they’re not.”
Ads and social media are distinct and can also confuse matters, said Erik Kielisch, senior content strategist at Optimal Digital Marketing in Appleton.
“SEO has two parts: on-page, which focuses on optimizing what you can control on your site according to the latest best practices, and off-page SEO, which focuses on getting quality links to your site. Knowing the distinction is vital for businesses to know so they can make wise decisions about which agencies to hire to meet their needs.”
If a company’s marketing need is to build brand awareness on social media, he said, then hiring a dedicated social media marketing agency might be the best decision. “If they want a quick win and don’t have time to invest in improving their site’s ranking over time, then choosing an AdWords agency is the best decision,” Kielisch added.
Both Optimal and E-Power have nationwide clients, but Kielisch said it’s remarkable how often companies prefer to work with marketing agencies in town. “Clients prefer personal contact. They like to meet downtown in our office.”
Where the user is located geographically can also be critical to search results. An Appleton car dealer may spend the most resources on SEO, but a web user in Green Bay searching for cars will always see a Green Bay dealer at the top of the list.
“One thing that has increasingly become an issue is people get a very narrow focus when it comes to the success of their site. They get hung up on keyword ranking or something else and they get obsessed with it to a fault,” Kielisch explained. “What you really want to look for is increased traffic over time.”
One of Optimal’s clients was a regional company with offices throughout the state. Its site looked fine, but lacked proper on-page optimization, Kielisch explained. So his team redesigned aspects of the site last summer to optimize various elements that would be found more readily in a web search. Prior to the redesign, the client’s site captured about 1,900 sessions a month.
“Since then,” he said, “traffic to the site has steadily increased month after month. As of March, their site captured 3,900 sessions.”
Keeping tabs on Google
It often takes a professional eye to get an accurate picture.
“We have done audits on client sites who have been doing SEO with others for years and literally had zero links! Worse yet, some had spammy links that could have penalized them,” Kielisch said.
Unfortunately, Google has a long history of making changes to its search algorithm criteria without giving notice, as well as devaluing factors that used to be valuable.
“In the last two or more years it has been a very good idea to have a responsive website. That is, to have a website that changes its look and how it arranges its content depending on the size of the screen someone is viewing it on,” he explained, indicating the growth in use of mobile devices. “Before it was a good idea, but it didn’t really affect your ranking. But now Google has, in the last few months, decided that a mobile-friendly, responsive website is an essential part of its ranking algorithm.”
Knowing where your company ranks for specific searches is part of audits offered by digital marketing services. A quick audit takes five minutes, but a meaningful audit can take months. With so much constant change, Stopa said clients depend on constant service to stay visible. It’s been called a retainer, he said, but “we call it ongoing online marketing support.”
Since Google has twice the market share of its top competitor, Bing, Stopa said the focus is all on Google.
“What works on Google will work on Bing,” he said. “If there is a difference between the search engines’ algorithms, you can ‘game’ Bing with such strategies as keyword stuffing or low quality link building. However, the cost of gaming Bing is loss of search visibility on Google.”
Google likes quality content that engages the target audience, he added, and Google likes growing websites. Stopa strongly advises against companies attempting to optimize search results without help from specialists like his team. But, at a minimum, he said ensure your website is listed with Google My Business and Bing Places For Business. “You could list yourself on Google Maps and Bing Local,” he added.
Help in understanding
Google’s SEO Start Guide attempts to make this complex field understandable for the layman, but there’s programming code and nuanced techniques that cannot be simplified.
Google’s first tip is to provide high-quality content on your pages, especially on your homepage. “If your pages contain useful information, their content will attract many visitors and entice webmasters to link to your site,” the guide suggests. “Think about the words users would type to find your pages and include those words on your site.”
Attracting outside links is critical. “Links help our crawlers find your site and can give your site greater visibility in our search results … Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote by page A for page B. Votes cast by pages that are themselves ‘important’ weigh more heavily and help to make other pages ‘important,’” the guide notes.
Keep in mind Google’s algorithms can distinguish natural links from unnatural links. Natural links to your site develop as part of the dynamic nature of the web when other sites find your content valuable and think it would be helpful for their visitors. Unnatural links to your site are placed there specifically to make your site look more popular to search engines.
Another tip is to make your site easily accessible. “Build your site with a logical link structure. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link. Use a text browser, such as Lynx, to examine your site.”
Google’s guide advises against filling a page with lists of keywords, attempting to “cloak” pages, or putting up “crawler only” pages. If your site contains pages, links, or text that you don’t intend visitors to see, Google considers those links and pages deceptive and may ignore your site.
Getting an ROI on SEO
Of course, visibility and awareness of your company’s products and services are important, but it’s purchasing that generates revenue. In that regard, Kielisch said conversion rate optimization is equally critical.
“Getting people to your site is half the battle. Converting them into a customer is the other half, and that’s what most people don’t pay attention to,” Kielisch said.
Online marketing trends will always be fluid, and the new generation of professionals is trained to expect change and make the most of it. Ryan Sweeney is an online marketing intern at E-Power Marketing, and plans to work there fulltime after he graduates from the UW Oshkosh this month.
“I’m constantly growing and learning in the field of online marketing,” he said. His journalism major, with an emphasis in public relations, includes a strong focus on digital marketing.
“There’s a level of uniqueness that only working at a B2B online marketing agency can provide,” Sweeney said. “I not only get to collaborate with a team of industry professionals, but also get to complete projects for an array of clients that each have their own needs and challenges.”
J.S. Decker is a business journalist based in Oshkosh.