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The Web Doctor

Brian Platz
The Web Doctor
Salem, Oregon
(503) 373-4728

Getting to the top of search engines
- the $64,000 Question

By: Bob VanderLinden

The $64,000 Question is how to be the first listing, because being the 50th is, well, pretty worthless.
The answer is that you probably won’t be. There are over a billion matches for the single term “travel” and you probably won’t be #1 or #2. You lost! The sad fact for small businesses is that for just about any keyword worth owning, your chances of being #1 to #3 are small.

So, if you can’t rank high for those one-word key words, how the heck do you compete? There is hope for small business owners. You can still compete well by following the basics of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for your website and focusing on some of the less competitive keywords, at least at the beginning.

So, you understand that getting your website pages found in Google, Yahoo, and MSN is important, but where to begin? I say “pages” because search engines don’t rank your website, but your web pages. This means you should optimize every page of your site, and you should optimize them for different keywords. This will ensure that your site as a whole ranks for the best range of keywords, and that search engines will guide their users to the pages most relevant to their search. After all, this is what searchers want and search engines try to deliver. And, you want someone who is ready to buy to go directly to your product pages so they can take the required action, right?

The goal of your web pages should be twofold:
   1) Appear high in the SERP’s (Search Engine Results Pages) and
   2) Encourage people to click on them.

To rank high in the SERP’s you need to pay attention to basics and best practices of the search engines. To get people to click on your listings, you need to write good titles, descriptions and URL’s (website address). If you can do these 2 things well, your web pages and consequently your website should perform well for you over time.

Here are some tips on how to compete:

1. Optimize your site for your target audience, not for the search engines.

OK, this sounds really counterintuitive at first blush. For any given search query, the search engines are looking for pages that best fit the intent of the searcher based on their proprietary algorithms (secret formulas) and the web pages they have indexed (or filed) in their database.
Generally, you can influence what is seen about your site, and thus potentially encourage a visitor to click on your listing by paying attention to the basics. You need to optimize your site to meet the visitor’s needs. If it meets the visitor’s needs in a coherent manner, it will generally do well in the search engines. If you don't know who your target audience is, find out. Look for studies online that might provide demographic information, and visit other high ranking sites, communities, or forums where your target audience might hang out and listen to what they discuss. This information will be crucial to your resulting website design, keyword research, and copywriting.

2. Research your keyword phrases extensively.

The phrases you think your target market might be searching for may very well be incorrect. You are looking into it from the inside out, they are looking into it from the outside in. To find the best phrases to optimize for, use research tools such as KeywordDiscovery, Wordtracker, Google's Keyword Tool or SpyFu. Develop lists of the most relevant phrases for your site, and choose a few different ones for every page. Never shoot for general keywords such as "travel" or "boats," as they are rarely (if ever) indicative of what your site is really about.
Add pages or change targeted keywords for your existing pages based on your website’s visitor history. Remember, if your initial keywords are potentially incorrect, as you find out what additional search terms visitors are using, you need to adapt your pages. This means you need to have some kind of tracking system in place that tells you what search terms visitors are using to find your site such as Google Analytics (See below).

3. Your site architecture and navigation should be designed and categorized based on your keyword and customer research.

You may find undiscovered ways of categorizing your products or services that provide value to your customers to add to your site. Look for the ways that your target audience will be searching for your products. This is made more difficult, as not all of your customers will have the same internet savvy or will search the same way. So try to have multiple ways to find your products, if you can do so in a realistic way. You could have a way to find your products by brand, by type, by male/female, age, etc.

4. Make your site is "spider-friendly."

In addition to being attractive and easy to navigate for your customers, the search engines need to be able to crawl or spider your site easily. The search engines crawl the internet often and index the web pages they find in their databases for quicker retrieval. The search engines can't fill out forms, can't search your site, can't read JavaScript links and menus, and can't interpret graphics and Flash. You can certainly use these elements; however, you do need to provide alternate means of navigating your site as necessary. If you have only a drop-down sequence of menus to choose a category or a brand of something, the search engine crawlers will never find those resulting pages. Always have some form of HTML links in the main navigation on every page which link to the top-level pages of your site. From those pages, you'll need to have further HTML links to the individual product pages.

5. Label your internal text links and clickable image alt attributes (alt tags) as clearly and descriptively as possible.

Your site visitors and the search engines look at the “anchor text” of your links (the clickable portion) to help them understand what they're going to find on the other side of the click. Don't make your customers guess what page they are clicking through to by using terms such as "click here" or other non-descriptive words. Be as descriptive as possible with every text and graphical link on your site. Search engines reward pages that have relevant, descriptive anchor text pointing to them with higher rankings. After all, pages with links pointing to them using the page’s main keywords should be more relevant, right?

6. Write compelling copy for the main pages of your site based on your chosen keyword phrases and your target market's needs, and make sure it's content that the search engines can "see."

This is a crucial component to having a successful website. The search engines need to be able to rank and classify your pages as accurately as possible. By providing unique, keyword-rich content on your pages the search engines can determine the theme of the page and possibly rank it higher. Unique content ensures that the search engine will not label your page as a duplicate of another web page on the internet. Think of a multitude of sites that all use the same vender’s product description. Since showing many duplicate pages does not meet the search engine’s customer expectations, they need to settle on one as original copy. You don’t want to chance that they will select yours over all the others.
Using your most important keyword phrases, you also want to make an emotional connection with your customer (Remember target audience analysis?), pitch your value proposition and make a “call to action.” You’ve probably heard that there is a minimum number of words per page or number of times to use your phrases in your copy. This is not accurate. The important thing is to use your keyword phrases when and where it makes sense to do so for the real people reading your pages. Simply sticking keyword phrases on the page for no apparent reason is harder for customers to read and frankly looks unprofessional. Which would you rather have – a professional look and feel or a smattering of keywords that makes little sense?

7. Make a unique Title Tag for each page that incorporates your keyword phrase(s).

Title Tags are one of the most important elements of your page. They appear at the top of your webpage, appear in the first line of your listing on Search Engine Results Pages and tell customers and search engines the topic or theme of the page. Hence, they are given a lot of weight with every search engine. Whatever keyword phrases you've focused on in your content should also be used in your Title Tag. I usually write my copy first and then develop a compelling Title Tag using my main keywords. Make sure that your titles accurately reflect the content of the page it's on, while also using the keyword phrases people might be using at a search engine to find your products or services.

8. Make sure your site is "link-worthy."

The internet is composed of a “web of links,” so other sites linking to yours is a critical component of a successful search engine optimization. All of the major search engines reward your site pages for the number, trust and relevancy of the links back to you. This is known as link popularity. If you site stinks why would anyone want to link to it? If your site is full of wonderful, useful information, other sites will naturally link to it without your even asking. Go ahead and trade links; just make sure you are providing your site visitors with only the highest quality of related sites. Don’t link to questionable sites or “bad neighborhoods.” Who you choose to link out to from your site says a lot about your site to your visitors, as well as to the search engines.

9. Add an HTML sitemap to your site.

This aids both the search engines and your customers.

10. Set up “Webmasters Tools” accounts with the major search engines for free.

This is important because you can see what they say about how they view your site. This only takes a few minutes to set up an account, but gives you lots of free information. The 3 major search engines below are attributed with 95% (+/) of all searches on the internet:
- Google Webmaster Tools
- Yahoo Site Explorer
- MSN Webmaster Center

11. Submit a Sitemap to each of the 3 major search engines through the accounts above.

This Sitemap is for the search engines only and helps them find all of your pages.

12. Sign up for a Google Analytics for free, which tracks and measures how visitors get to your site and other metrics.

Yahoo also rolled out a free analytics program over the past year or so.

13. Set up a custom 404 page (when no page is found).

Most of the search engine generated 404 pages suck and are not customer friendly. Your customers deserve a friendly, informational 404 page that lets them go back to your site to search for the item they were trying to find when they entered the URL. And, this is good for your business also.

14. Don’t forget about Local Search.

There has been increased emphasis placed on local search by the major search engines. Recently, Google began to show local search results even on general searches if they can tell where you are searching from. This means that you should be making sure you are “claiming” your business in Google Maps, as well as Yahoo and MSN. If you business is not in there, be sure to add it.

15. Don't obsess! Measure your results in increased qualified traffic, sales, and conversions.

If you've done the above things correctly, you will start to see an increase in targeted search engine visitors to your site fairly quickly. Don’t obsess about where you rank for any specific keyword phrase and instead measure your results in increased traffic, sales, and conversions. Don’t add loads of content, just to meet the myth of adding content every day. Do it because it makes sense and adds value to your site.

Bob VanderLinden consults for the Web Doctor, so if you are interested in SEO services, please contact us.

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