SEO 101: A Plain-English Primer

seo In today’s marketplace, when people have a question, want information or need to find a product or service, they don’t flip open the Yellow Pages. They don’t scour online directories. In May 2010, Americans conducted 15.9 billion searches*Instinctively, they turn to search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing. As a result, these sites hold the keys to targeted encounters between you and prospects who are looking for a solution that you can provide. In May 2010, Americans conducted 15.9 billion searches* using the five major search engines. Of those, 63.7 percent were executed on Google sites, while Yahoo and MSN sites claimed 18.3 and 12.1 percent, respectively. That’s a tremendous pie, and you undoubtedly want a piece. Unlike in the days when the Yellow Pages ruled the world, you can’t buy your way to prominence on an organic search results page. Fortunately, you can take a proactive approach to determining where you land in the ranking for applicable product- or service-related keyword phrases through the practice of search engine optimization, known as SEO. Much is to be gained by appearing in the first few results of a search. Users want immediate answers and are not likely to wade through pages and pages of listings. Furthermore, because the major search engines have built their reputation on returning quality results, the higher your ranking, the more apt the consumer is to assume that your site will deliver the solutions they are looking for. Therefore, in the simplest form of the equation, a higher ranking equals greater probability of a user coming to your site, more prospects seeing what you have to offer and increased opportunities to convert visitors into customers. As a result, garnering a favorable position in the results for select search terms is one of the foundational aspects of effective marketing today.

What SEO is and what it is not

SEO is not a turn-key solution.Let’s be clear: SEO is not a turn-key solution. There’s no SEO magic dust that you can sprinkle over your site and instantly advance from page five to page one. The value of Google from the user’s perspective is the efficiency of entering search terms and receiving relevant and trustworthy results without having to sift through a sea of unpopular and unhelpful spammy sites. In fact, the major search engines are constantly advancing and sharpening their algorithms in order to ensure that they protect their stature as the gatekeepers of good information. What does this mean for you the business owner? Achieving the top spot does not come easily, and it takes an ongoing, dedicated investment of time and resources to work your way up through the rankings of a search. After all, if just anyone could fake their way to number one, Google would be worth nothing. Unfortunately, because of the growing importance of SEO, it has become a lucrative field for marketing agencies looking to make a quick buck. There’s a proliferation of snake-oil salespeople who would have you believe that SEO is a simple, one-time fix that will launch you to the top of the list and send your traffic numbers through the roof. This is for their benefit, not yours. As a result of the misinformation and half-truths preached by these shysters, it can be difficult to separate truth from fiction, both in terms of what it takes to improve your standing and what to expect once you do. SEO is a complex process, but you certainly don’t need to become an authority in the minutiae to grow your business successfully. However, you should have a foundational understanding in order to sort out the legitimate practices from those that will only waste your time and money.

The anatomy of a search engine

At a basic level, all search engines operate the same way. The Web encompasses billions of documents that are bound together through links. Search engines use these links to find and access individual web pages and files, using automated “spiders” to crawl and index the content contained therein. All of this information is stored in trillions of records that are tied to specific keywords or phrases. Therefore, when a user initiates a search, the engine doesn’t have to scan all of the many billions of web pages in existence. Instead, it must only access the particular record that holds the index of information pertaining to the terms entered, making it possible to retrieve vast amounts of data in mere fractions of a second. However, search engines do much more than pull back data and generate randomly ordered lists of links that are related to the terms entered in the query. Rather, the results are sorted and ranked based on importance, which is gauged according to relative popularity, following the assumption that a site or page is popular due to the quality of the information it contains. Therefore, the objective of SEO is not only to ensure that the major search engines identify your website content as being relevant to the keywords that pertain to your products or services but also to increase the perceived importance of that content.

Turning the tables on search

You are undoubtedly very familiar with the mechanics of using a search engine. These days, online search is as deeply ingrained in our daily lives as eating or sleeping. However, as one who is charged with growing a business, it is a useful exercise to take a step back and seriously reconsider the search process, looking at it through the eyes of a prospective customer. Sure, it’s possible that a user might search for your business by name – “Sally’s Bakery,” for example. It’s easy to land at the top of those results. However, in that case, the searcher essentially knew what they’re looking for already, perhaps because they are a returning customer, they’ve seen your sign while driving down the road or they’ve been referred by another customer. The brass ring of SEO is capturing organic traffic – prospects that may never even have heard of you before.These types of visitors are good, but they aren’t necessarily the primary target of your SEO efforts. Instead, the brass ring of SEO is capturing organic traffic – prospects that may never even have heard of you before. These are users that are searching with more generic keyword phrases like “birthday cakes Charlotte” or “cupcakes Charlotte.” It’s not as easy to climb the rankings of these results, but it’s conquerable – not to mention profitable. It’s important to understand that each and every one of the billions of searches conducted each month begins with an identifiable need. Therefore, first and foremost, you should ask yourself two questions: “What types of problems do people have for which I can offer a solution?” and “What words or phrases would they use to express that need?”. The answers might not be quite as straightforward as you think. Let’s say you own a professional landscaping company. Certainly there are people who will search for “Charlotte landscaping” or “Charlotte lawn care,” and without question you want to make sure that your site is optimized to be ranked high among the results. But there are many, many other search terms like “landscaping ideas,” “garden,” “roses,” “weeds,” “fertilizer,” “insect control,” “How do I make my home more energy-efficient?” and even “How do I sell my house?” that are still relevant to your business. After all, chances are good that you would have something of value to offer anyone in your area that was experiencing a need related to one of those ideas or questions. Therefore, you should take all of these into account when developing your SEO strategy.

What’s next?

Now that you have a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of search, you’re well-armed to apply that knowledge to the practice of SEO. The great news for you as a business owner or marketer is that there are actually many things you can do yourself to improve your standing with the major search engines. Even better, many of these tactics also serve double-duty in supporting and reinforcing your other marketing efforts. Before you get started, be sure to read SEO 102: 13 Steps to Improve Your Ranking the Right Way. While there’s no instant formula that will launch your site to number one, by implementing these tried-and-true SEO techniques with patience and persistence over time, you can be confident that you will yield real results. * Source: comScore