Climbing the Google Ladder

Dr. Randall Bolar had a struggling medical practice. Struggling so much, in fact, that he was nearing bankruptcy. Bolar does gastric bypass, a surgical method to help morbidly obese people that want to lose weight.

Bolar had a Web site that was ineffective, bringing him about two to four patients per week. Bolar then called an outside consultant to improve his search engine rankings through search engine optimization.

To say the SEO was a success would be seriously understating the case. Following his SEO efforts, Bolar started getting 50 to 70 new patients per week through his Web site. He eventually did so well that he founded the Bariatric Institute of Kentucky.

Behold the power of SEO.

Although it's tempting to say that the Bolar case is unique, the fact is that it's not an uncommon story, especially for companies that currently ignore SEO. The consultant that handled Bolar's case was Jill Whelan, of the Web site HighRankings.com. Whelan's an old-timer in the SEO field, having been involved in search engine rankings since 1995, when Google was nothing but an obscure mathematical term. She does SEO consulting, audit reports and full-service SEO for larger companies. Whelan said Bolar told her, "He owes so much to optimization. It just changed his whole business."

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For the uninitiated, SEO is about getting the public to your Web site. It's the process of improving search engine rankings, so that if you make oxygen tanks, for example, and someone looking for one types "oxygen tanks" in Google, Yahoo!, MSN or other search engines, your Web site or product will come up early in the rankings, greatly increasing the likelihood of a visit to your site from that potential customer. It's an inexact science and one that is constantly changing as search criteria changes, but companies that don't devote sufficient time and resources to SEO do so at their financial peril.

"SEO should never be your complete marketing plan," says Whelan, "but it is one of the most cost-effective marketing tools companies can use. If you can't be found in Google, you're probably leaving lots of potential money on the table."

The numbers back her up. A recent study by the Internet marketing company Enquiro detailed how people buy things on the Internet. In answer to the question, "Where would be the first place you would go online to find out more about [a] product or service?," about 64 percent listed a search engine as their initial stop. The second-place answer was to 'a known manufacturer of a product,' which came in at about 19 percent. That means that two out of every three buyers turn to search engines first.

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How to Top the List
Given that criticality, then, how can your company improve its search engine rankings? For many companies without the means to hire a full-time SEO staffer, the answer is to bring in an outside SEO expert, like Whelan, and have an audit performed on its Web site.

Whelan says that when she audits a site, she sees many of the same problems repeated over and over. "One of the biggest is not utilizing their title tags correctly. That's given a ton of weight by search engines." Title tags are what identifies the title of a Web page to search engines. Each page should have a separate title, rather than "XYZ Corp." on every page of your Web site. The titles should also be descriptive. Instead of "XYZ Corp.," "XYZ Corp, Makers of Waffle Irons" will generate much better rankings and traffic.

Another mistake Whelan often encounters is an over-reliance on graphics. "A lot of words on the page are in a graphic instead of words on a page. Search engines can search graphics, but don't typically bother."

A related problem, explains Whelan, is overuse of Flash technology. "Flash sites that are all Flash are invisible to search engines."

One reason SEO mistakes are common is that there are many myths surrounding the topic. Says Whelan, "Almost everything people think SEO is, it isn't." She lists some of the top SEO urban legends:

If a site has clean code, or small file sizes, that will help its rankings. "Completely untrue," says Whelan. It's certainly good practice to have clean code and small file sizes, but in terms of rankings, it's irrelevant.

Keyword meta tags are important to search engine rankings. Meta tags describe some of the content on a Web page, but have no real impact on rankings. Although some people think it's a magic bullet, in reality it's a blank.

Search engines can be tricked. "People think they have to stuff keywords everywhere, or trick search engines into rankings," says Whelan. "They think it's a trick rather than actually making your page the most relevant."

Search engines are very, very hard to fool nowadays, and doing things like repeating keywords in white letters on a white background are more likely to get your rankings lowered, or worse, removed from the search engine altogether.

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The king of search engines remains Google, although Microsoft has made a substantial effort to catch up and Yahoo is still in the game, as are many other, smaller search engines. According to the Enquiro study, Google captured about 83 percent of the market, with Yahoo and MSN a distant second and third, miles behind. While there are some differences in the different search engine algorithms, if you rank well on Google, you're likely to rank well in all the others, so tweak your site with Google in mind.

Always Some Work To Do
Finally, remember that SEO is a slow and ongoing process. Some websites claim overnight jumps in search engine rankings just by using their secret formula, known only to themselves. Don't believe it. Rankings for just about any page can be improved over time, but it takes real work and consistent effort.

For More Information
Here are some good sites that offer lots of solid, and mostly free, information on search engine optimization.