Start Your Search Engines

Search-engine optimization is serious business. If you're doing it wrong, you're probably leaving money on the table.

Search-engine optimization is serious business. If you're doing it wrong, you're probably leaving money on the table. By Keith Ward

Typing the phrase "desktop computer" into Google on an October afternoon yields the following on the first results page: The top natural (non-paid) listing is a CNET review article. Result No. 2 is a link to, an electronics retailer's site. Other first-page entries include articles from and, a Wikipedia entry and the homepage.

Notice anything missing? How about Dell, HP, Sony, Toshiba, Apple, Alienware and all the other major vendors?

Another test: Typing in the search string "Microsoft Dynamics resellers Maryland" (where I live) returns no results for Microsoft Dynamics resellers in Maryland until page four of the listings (Protech Associates Inc., a Gold Certified Partner based in Columbia, Md.). Maybe even more shocking was when I broadened the search scope to just "Microsoft Dynamics resellers," with no location limitation. Exactly one reseller was listed on the first page.

That's the problem with search-engine optimization (SEO), which is something like the old joke, often attributed to Mark Twain, about the weather: Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

The reality is that most companies know about SEO and many do the most basic fiddling with their sites to improve their rankings (and, hence, their visibility), but few devote any serious resources to improving SEO, thus essentially leaving potential bucketfuls of money on the table. "I would say that 70 percent to 80 percent [of companies] don't use SEO properly," says Mike Murray, vice president of Fathom SEO, a search-engine marketing and placement company based in Valley View, Ohio.

MarketingSherpa Inc., an Internet marketing research company based in Warren, R.I., has put hard data behind those kinds of estimates. For a recent report, MarketingSherpa compared about 144 small ISVs and 60 large, well-known ISVs. Analysts searched homepages using key phrases by which a company defined itself-for instance, searching for "defragmentation" for a company that makes disk defragmentation software. What they found was eye-opening, says Stefan Tornquist, MarketingSherpa's research director. "Even among the elite, we found that less than half were on the first page of natural search results. That number dropped to less than a quarter for smaller companies."

Even when companies know where and how to start, SEO often doesn't continue past those beginning stages. Murray says that most companies know how to do SEO basics such as titles, keywords, headers and site descriptions, but often don't go much beyond that. Even with those basics, it's important to pay attention to small details to prevent a variety of problems. Companies often "write the title too long, or put in too many keywords and get greedy," Murray says. "People aren't doing it really well."

Who's overseeing Your SEO?
One reason for that lack of success is that the wrong people may be in charge of SEO. "In a lot of companies, the folks that actually do the optimization probably aren't in the marketing department. It's likely to be someone in the Web-design group or someone in IT," Tornquist says. "It's probably not someone with the right training. Marketing and technology work together well for the companies that do it right. IS or IT can't be expected to do this itself." That's why Tornquist stresses the need for much better collaboration in most companies.

Another option is going outside your company to hire an SEO specialist. "If you're the kind of company that's seeing a high percentage of traffic coming in from searches, there's probably an ROI argument" for having a full-time SEO person, Tornquist says. If you go this route, seek candidates with strong writing skills as well as marketing and public relations experience.

A middle route is hiring a consultant, someone like Murray of Fathom SEO. Murray recounts his experience with a smaller client that sells industrial supplies. Fathom did a significant amount of work on the client's site, including much rewriting of its content. But the effort was worthwhile for the client, Murray says, noting that site traffic from search engines tripled in eight months, going from 3,000 to 9,000 hits per month.

Developing your SEO Strategy
Successful SEO hinges on having a solid strategy. Rather than implementing a few changes here and there, ignoring SEO for a time, then revisiting the results in six months-the way many companies approach rankings-it's far more effective to have a game plan from the outset. But don't expect instant miracles, either. Notice that the Web site traffic didn't increase overnight in Murray's example. Slow and steady growth should be your goal.

"If you're going after a competitive market, you have to have a strategy; you need follow-through," says Murray. "If you're No. 22 in [a search engine] ranking, you need to find out what it will take to get to No. 18, then to 14, then to eight. It's like going to a chiropractor; you need little adjustments."

Those adjustments might be as small as tinkering with some verbiage. Consider rewording a few paragraphs on a product page and see what happens to the rankings.

And after doing that, don't stop the adjustments or assume that SEO is ever a finished job: Keep right on making adjustments. Remember, SEO is always a work in progress. The effort "has to be ongoing," Murray says, recommending that you make a few changes at a time. "You can work on page titles for awhile, then do descriptions. Don't try to do it all at once," he cautions.

But where to begin with these incremental adjustments? If you're short on time, Murray suggests starting with your homepage, the location best known to search engines.

And go beyond just reworking words. For instance, watch out for graphics that contain no searchable text and therefore could easily be missed by search spiders. Murray recalls another client that had a graphic at the top of its site (where search engine spiders typically start). Murray added the following searchable text to the graphic itself: "For assistance with [specific product names], call this phone number."

First, Google It
[Click image to view larger version.]
Searching for Answers Google comes up first for all of our respondents.

Of course, if you're not currently doing any SEO, taking even a few basic steps can make a huge difference. A national electronics retailer that Murray worked with saw a 100 percent increase in Web site traffic in just four months after beginning SEO because it had previously ignored the practice.

Most sites won't see that dramatic an increase so quickly, so it's important not to get discouraged if your site's site-traffic and search-engine rankings increase slowly. As Bill Cava, CTO of Ektron Inc., a Web content management provider and Gold Certified Partner in Amherst, N.H., points out: "Think of the volume of Web sites. The reality of being in the top 10 in a Google search is tough. To expect to be [first or second] on a particular keyword is a tough proposition. Look at your numbers and go back to the metrics. If you've got 30,000 unique visitors, have as a goal to double that number."

That can happen if you pay consistent, careful attention to your Web site's content. "If you want a successful Web site, you have to deliver good content, period," Cava says. "The first thing on the list [for successful SEO] is making sure your content is meeting demand from users."

Cava knows what he's talking about. For five years before joining Ektron, he was an architect for Lycos, one of the original search engine titans.

"Often, people overlook the value of content-management systems in site rankings," Cava says. "It's valuable to have a tool to update content and keep it fresh. If you're featuring a tip of the month that sits there for half a year, it's not only bad for users," it's also bad for the site because search engines lower a site's ranking if the content is stale.

His company's flagship CMS product, CMS400.NET, for instance, has a refresh report that notifies SEO personnel when content has been sitting too long. That's the kind of functionality to look for in your company's content-management system.

It's also important to put content in precisely the right places-the places where it's most likely to be found by search engines, Murray says: "You want to pick out the right keywords and get them up high on the page, as search spiders start at the top left. They don't normally start at the bottom of a page or on the right side. You want the first words on your page to be search terms."

Habeas: An SEO Success Story

Chris Brubaker deserves a raise.

Brubaker, director of marketing communications for Habeas Inc., an e-mail trust vendor, was hired by the Mountain View, Calif.-based company a little more than a year ago. One of the first things he did was convince upper management to spend money on search-engine optimization (SEO). The result: A six-fold increase in sales from search, netting the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in just one year.

Habeas, through its certification process, lets legitimate e-mail get through to clients while blocking spam messages. Sounds like a good idea, the kind of thing users might want.

The problem was that those using Google, Yahoo!, MSN or other search engines weren't likely to find because the company was doing no SEO at all.

Enter Brubaker. "I had to educate upper management on [SEO], show them reports, but it didn't take long." Once greenlighted, Brubaker brought in Enquiro,, a Canadian business-to-business search marketing company, to handle its SEO efforts.

Enquiro targeted five areas of for improvement:

  1. Site taxonomy. Says Brubaker: "We had really important pages that were buried five folders deep," making them appear unimportant to search engines and thus earning low rankings. A site reorganization fixed the problem.
  2. Metadata. Habeas reworked and vastly improved its meta descriptions and meta keywords. Those descriptions and keywords often show up on the search engine results page, giving the searcher an idea of the site's content.
  3. Title tags. The company's previous title tag for every site was "Habeas," which wasn't very descriptive of what the company did. Enquiro recommended putting in descriptive titles for each page. Brubaker says that effort wasn't fun to do, but the results have been well worth it.
  4. Keyword density. Enquiro recommended increasing keyword use on each page. Now, Brubaker says, "if we're trying to target [a specific keyword], we make sure we mention that phrase three or four or five times"-but not so much that it could be considered spamming, one of the black-hat SEO no-nos.
  5. Content presentation. Enquiro suggested a more strategic approach to organizing information. One example is Habeas' Knowledge Base. Previously, a category page would contain, for instance, 20 questions and answers. "But search engines stopped looking after a certain amount of time or number of words," Brubaker explains, which meant many of Habeas' most relevant phrases and keywords weren't getting indexed. Habeas now lists one Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) list per category, per page. For instance, under the "Safelist" category in the Knowledge Base, there are nine FAQs. Previously, all nine would have been listed on one page; now each one has its own page, which gets fully indexed.

If making those improvements sounds like a lot of work, it was. But consider the results. Before committing to SEO, Habeas was getting about 20 to 30 search leads per week. One year later, they're getting about 200 leads per week. That's led to the six-figure increase in revenue.

Since Habeas' typical sales are in the five-figure range, "it only takes five to seven customers per month to make a dramatic difference," Brubaker notes.

Brubaker says Habeas is in the process of renewing its contract with Enquiro. "SEO isn't something you do and then leave [alone]," he says. "It requires constant changes and updating and monitoring, including monitoring the competition, which Enquiro does for us."

If Habeas is smart, it will keep Brubaker around, too.

There are plenty of ways to keep that content fresh-and your search engine rankings high-even if you're, say, an ISV with one major product, which would normally mean fairly static content. For starters, consider joining the blog revolution.

"People are reading blogs," says Cava. "Roughly every six months, the number of blogs doubles. You'll see that blogs often contain links"-which are the other critical factor in SEO. For those reasons, Cava recommends adding a blog to your Web site. "It doesn't need to have scathing opinion; it can just chronicle interesting links in your industry," he says. "People say 'Joe Smith really keeps up on what's happening in the dog food industry'; so they check his blog. People naturally link to those sites, and give attribution. Blogs are a solid way to get quality links."

That's important because inbound links-that is, links from another site that point to your site-are the second-most important factor in search engine rankings. "Even if you have one blog post, and see a slight uptick in traffic, if you extrapolate that and target particular keywords, it's going to grow that traffic," Cava says.

Also consider the value of syndication via Really Simple Syndication (RSS), which is a way to push blog headlines and content to visitors who opt in to receive that information. "The syndication aspect is a very powerful way of getting messages out there," Cava says. It's another way to feed juicy flies to search engine spiders, and keep them coming back for more.

And in most cases, it's not necessary to completely overhaul a site to dramatically improve the rankings.

"People often think [SEO] is more work than it is," Cava says. But it is important to consistently track your traffic, and how it corresponds with those occasional content changes on your site. If, for instance, you sell scripting software, try changing a phrase on your homepage from "scripting software" to "scripting and automation software" and see what happens to your rankings and traffic.

Or consider this idea from Cava: Try a new word in a blog and track it on a daily basis. Over time, you can watch trends and get metrics on whether things are improving or on the decline in terms of Web traffic.

Paid vs. Free rankings
There is, of course, another way to ensure that you show up on the first page of rankings: pay-per-click ads. The question is how effective sponsored ads are. Tornquist, of MarketingSherpa, believes that using paid ads works if done judiciously. "The vast majority of attention and clicks goes to natural search results, but it's worth doing both," he says. "With paid ads, you get a good idea of the effectiveness of the ad. Paid search is expensive, but it does give you the opportunity to stake a claim early in the results."

Although paid ads can work, a 2004 study by Enquiro Search Solutions Inc., a business-to-business search marketing company based in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, shows that fewer than 20 percent of searchers click on sponsored links (see "Searching for Answers," p. 33). That means that the majority of your effort should be geared toward making your Web site's content more search-engine friendly.

7 Top Tips for
Search Engine Optimization
  1. Begin with the homepage. That's where the search engine spiders start; it's where you should, too. Get as many product descriptions on it as possible.
  2. Blog away. Blogs do two crucial things for SEO: They keep content fresh and updated. They also become sources for inbound links, as other bloggers link to your content.
  3. Exhume critical content. Some companies bury their most important pages deep inside their Web sites. If you keep them six feet under, search engines will rank them accordingly.
  4. Pay attention to paid ads. While you work on getting your natural (or organic) rankings up, remember that pay-per-click ads will, at the very least, raise your visibility, and very likely generate new sales leads as well.
  5. Be patient. SEO is a slow-moving process and getting results takes time. But if you keep at the effort, your rankings will improve.
  6. Aim for the top. If possible, shoot for a ranking within the first three pages of natural results. After that, response drops off dramatically, according to former Lycos architect Bill Cava.
  7. Know your place. If you're a small-timer, don't assume you can't rank right up there with the big boys. Studies show that big corporations aren't doing SEO any better than anyone else.

When deciding what placement to stake out for paid ads, consider that more than 14 percent of respondents to the Enquiro survey clicked only on the top sponsored ads, with fewer than 4 percent clicking on sponsored ads on either side of the page.

No matter where your SEO efforts stand, try not to be daunted by search-engine optimization. Sure, if you're a small ISV or custom computer builder, you may be one of 1,000 possible Web sites that can come up in a search-engine listing-but, unlike the weather, you can do something about it.

More Information

The Google Search Stranglehold
Google, ironically, is the Microsoft of search engines: It's the predominant technology in the field, stomping on the competition and leaving the second- and third-place entries scrambling to get out from under its boot.

In late 2004, Enquiro, a business-to-business search marketing company, assisted by Marketing Sherpa, a marketing research firm, conducted a survey on business search methods. Eighty-three percent of the nearly 1,500 respondents listed Google as their favorite search engine. Coming in a very distant second was Yahoo!, at 7.5 percent, and MSN lagged behind at the rear, with 2 percent.

Given how seriously Microsoft takes search nowadays, that number may be surprising.

Speaking at the 2005 Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said: "One area where I really think you'll see extra innovation and investment and in information organization, search and retrieval. That will be an area that we really push ourselves. We'll push ourselves at the desktop, we'll push ourselves at the corporate network level, we'll push ourselves out in the Internet."

He was also confident of Microsoft's ability to compete: "Just as we were serious about innovation with past competitors, we're very serious about innovating with and in a way that puts us way in front of Yahoo! and of Google."

Microsoft still lags behind its rivals, but that doesn't mean it can't rally, according to Stefan Tornquist of Marketing Sherpa. "MSN is making inroads," he says. "People consider MSN to be in the top category, one of the ‘Big Three', even though their share doesn't warrant that yet."

Tornquist adds that Microsoft is adding value to search, which could make a difference. "There's a lot of buzz around MSN tools, and I've heard a lot of preliminary [talk] about local search being very effective."

Mike Murray, vice president of Fathom SEO, a search engine marketing and placement company, isn't as optimistic about MSN's chances in search: "I don't think MSN can catch up to Google, because [Microsoft was] such a late bloomer. I think Google's better in terms of results and trustworthiness; and it's just been around longer." He predicts that only a Google misstep will allow its competitors to catch up. Competitors like second-place Yahoo!, for example. "Yahoo! has gone up and down a bit; it's search share has gone down a bit this year," says Tornquist. "But Google doesn't have a lot of room to go up. I'll be interested to see if MSN starts taking share, and where it's coming from. Is it taking [share] from Yahoo! and smaller players, or from Google?"

Whatever happens in the future, Google is clearly leading the squadron today. Because MSN and Yahoo! are basically still just blips on the radar, Google should be the place you start when conducting SEO. The reality is that if you rank well on Google, you're probably doing well on the other search engines, but there are enough differences between the offerings that you can tweak your content for each major engine and improve your rankings.

But Bill Cava, CTO of Ektron Inc., a Web content management provider and Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, says that Google (and its users) shouldn't get complacent. After all, Google wasn't always Google, he reminds us: "Google came in with a new algorithm and improved the relevancy [of search results] at the end of 1998 [and the beginning of] 1999, when Yahoo! was dominant." -- KW