Having an active, prominent online presence has never been more important in the world of business. As technology and the Internet continue to become more commonplace in our lives (both personally and professionally), businesses all of kinds need to catch up. Having a solid online presence is no longer just an option; it is a necessity. Companies with a poor or nonexistent online presence (which includes homepages, blogs, social media, wikis, etc.) simply cannot survive for long when so many businesses kill the competition with digital media marketing. Internet marketing services are nothing new. However, the kinds of services and methods used are always changing. Companies who do not identify or employ the changes risk losing everything.
Simply put, an online presence can make or break a business.
Of the recent innovations in Internet marketing and website design
, search engine optimization (or SEO) is one of the most important. In fact, one could argue that is is the most
important component of online marketing, since it is focused on one of the most important features of the Internet itself: the search engine.
Why are search engines, such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo!, so important? Because they are by far the most widely used service on the Internet -- and not just in the United States. Every month, search engines process approximately 100 billion inquiries around the world. A recent study conducted by OutBrain revealed that search engines drive the most amount of traffic to content websites than any other source on the Internet (such as social media and direct advertising). Another study from MarketingCharts found that nearly two out of five online purchases come from a search engine. As the number of search engine users (in the billions now) continues to climb, so will the demand for search engine-based services.
In order to use search engines to their fullest, it's essential to learn as much as you can about them. As Moz illustrated in “The Beginner’s Guide to SEO,“ everything a search engine does boils down to one of two functions: crawling and indexing. “Crawling” is the process of searching the Internet for content. Search engine companies like Google spend a considerable amount of their time and resources on developing tools that can scour the Internet for webpages. These tools, robots commonly known as “crawlers” or “spiders,” travel through billions of interconnected documents on the World Wide Web. These websites are connected, in one way or another, by links.
Crawling, however, is only half the battle. Spiders are useful up to a point, but without an adequate way of recording, or “indexing,” these pages, spiders cannot serve much of a purpose. When a spider reaches a webpage, it deciphers its data and stores select parts in a datacenter for future use. Since there are an estimated 4.5 billion pages on the Internet, search engine companies maintain gigantic datacenters. Google alone has 13 datacenters around the globe, from Singapore to Dublin.
These datacenters store vast amounts of information and are expected to deliver results to any user, anywhere, instantly. Even a one-to-two second delay is considered “slow” by current standards. Mindful of these, search engines hire an army of engineers, software developers, researchers, and computer programmers to keep the datacenters up and running.
Even after the crawling and the indexing are done (and it's important to note that both functions happen nearly continually), one major obstacle remains between the webpage and the user. Search engines must decide what pages to include in their results pages and what to leave out. Have you ever wondered why certain pages are listed they way they are? Do you know why, when you search for “books” on Google, for example, the first page that shows up is Amazon, Barnes and Noble comes in second, and Google Books takes third place? Well, Google and other search engines generate their results based on two qualities: relevance and popularity.
By their standards, “relevance” means how many times a certain word or phrase appears on a website. In contrast, “popularity” refers to the how many times a website is visited. The more a page is visited, the logic goes, the higher quality it must be. Of course, Google uses much more complex information than just keywords or traffic count in its calculations. It uses hundreds of algorithms, and considers hundreds of variables, in order to make the best determinations on relevance and popularity. Page link authority features, page keyword usage, domain level anchor text, brand metrics, and a slew of other fancy-sounding elements are constantly evaluated to deliver the best search results.
You probably get it by now that search engines are important. However, you might be thinking why search engine optimization? Surely one can use the global reach of the search engine without implementing a sophisticated strategy involving a mountain of equations, programs, and research? After all, search engines aren’t the only guns in town. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have billions of followers. Why not just use them, free of charge? There is also the tried and true method of direct paid advertisements. Ads, it seems, will never get out of fashion (just ask Don Draper).
Though social media and direct advertisements are useful, they are simply not enough by themselves. The fact is that search engine optimization is the leading online marketing strategy today. How? Just consider the growth of the market. A Pew Research studye found that in 2002, approximately 33% of all Internet users visited a search engine at least once a day. By 2011, that percentage grew to 59% -- nearly 100% increase! Americans alone place more than 20 billion search inquiries every month, according to comScore. Search engines are so ubiquitous, in fact, that a Burke report found that search engines are now used more than the Yellow Book (76% compared to 74%, respectively).
Business owners interested in tapping into that 20-billion-a-month market need to use SEO -- but just using it is not enough. It has to be done right. What is the goal, ultimately, in setting up a SEO campaign? Rankings, rankings, rankings.
Ostensibly, specific rankings wouldn’t seem to make much of a difference. After all, how important is it to be ranked number 1 rather than number 2? Number 2 and number 3? Page 1 vs. page 2? The truth is: it matters a lot. A 2011 study by Slingshot SEO found that the number 1 position on Google’s results page receives an average of 18.2% of all click-through traffic for that specific search. How do the other positions fare? Second receives 10.1%, third 7.2%, and fourth 4.8%. All other pages receive less than 2%. The average click-through rate of the first 10 sites is 52.32%. You don’t have to be a statistician to appreciate the incredible value of ranking 10th or higher.
Search engine optimization campaigns have to be finely tuned in order to yield the most visibility. One of the most important components of any SEO project is website design. Websites designed for optimal visibility must be structured a certain way, just like Google and Bing’s crawlers are structured a certain way. When designing a page for SEO, website designers should keep a few things in mind:
- Watch out for online forms. A form such as a login may block a crawler from accessing any pages behind it.
- Avoid duplicate pages. As much as this may seem obvious, many websites created by a content management system (CMS) feature duplicate versions of the same page. Since crawlers are mostly interested in original content, duplications can confuse them.
- Coding needs to be up to snuff in order to garner attention. Incorrect crawling directives (such as robots.txt) or link structures can stall or even block crawlers entirely. Even if a page is indexed, poor coding can lead to a very low ranking.
- Non-text content such as Flash files, images, photos, audio, and plug-in content are not picked up as easily by crawlers as HTML text. Including such files using a readable code dramatically increases visibility and index worth.
Simply put, the more in common the design has with the crawlers, the more attention it will get.
There is, of course, a pesky issue besides website design that also deserves attention. Keywords (that is, the words and phrases included in web content meant to draw spiders) are just as vital to the success of a campaign as website design, and, as with website design, there are certain caveats to consider when choosing the right keywords:
- Use the most common terms. Using rare or niche words can thwart rankings. Writing “processing units,” for example, rather than “computers” can lead users to another direction, even if the content is highly relevant to computers.
- Spelling should be appropriate for the location. Writing “check,” for example, would not work as well in Canada as it would in the U.S.; companies that want to appeal to Canadian consumers are better off writing “cheque” instead. Similarly, a company that writes content in French, for example, is out of luck if its clientele is mostly based in Germany.
- Using the right keywords means using them in the right place. If a keyword is conspicuously out of context with the rest of the text, crawlers will steer clear from them. For example, if the main keyword of a page is “Florida oranges” but the content itself is about a New York restaurant that serves fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice, a crawler is likely to get confused and may ignore or poorly index the page as a result.
- Lastly, consider the "golden rule" of SEO: do NOT just include a keyword over and over again on a page. So-called "keyword stuffing" will get a campaign nowhere -- and, in fact, will even cause rankings to fall. Years ago, when search engines and SEO campaigns were just starting, some website designers in Indianapolis would simply include a keyword multiple times on a page, even if it didn’t make sense in context. The strategy worked initially, but search engine companies eventually caught on and developed algorithms to detect such tricks, ultimately leading to penalties. Simply inflating the keyword density no longer works for SEO.
Of course, no matter how brilliant the strategy, comprehensive the web page, and astute the keywords, a SEO campaign still relies on “getting the word out” for the web content itself. Yes, search engines rely on popularity (i.e. the amount and kind of traffic it receives) to determine rankings, but even if a web page is of poor quality, it can still gain favorable rankings if it’s visited and talked about enough. That is where other kinds of Internet marketing tools, such as social networking and paid advertisements, come into play.
There is considerably more to learn about search engine optimization. Google, after all, spends millions of dollars and employs thousands of people every year just to keep afloat, and as a result, search engine optimization experts are always on their toes learning about (and improving on) the latest SEO methods. Although it's crucial for businesses to employ this tactic as part of their overall marketing strategy, it's also difficult for a layperson to undertake successfully -- which is why companies that want to focus on their core business should consider hiring an agency to handle their search engine marketing needs.
Overall, search engine optimization is an invaluable tool for businesses in the same way that search engines are an invaluable service for users. The world of business (and technology) is constantly changing. Businesses that are not in the loop risk losing it all. It is fair to say, too, that as business and technology respond to the world’s wants and needs, they in turn help shape the world itself.