Search Engine Strategy: How Will Customers Find You in 2009?

searching_binoculars.jpgWe talk often about the importance of having a “good website”, whether you build something simple yourself or have a complex one built by a pro. But the greatest site in the world doesn’t generate much business if potential customers can’t find it. Don’t forget to include search engine optimization in your marketing plan.
We asked David Hoffman, President of Search Smart Marketing, an SEO firm in Westchester, NY for some tips on creating an SEO strategy, choosing an expert and mistakes to avoid.
What are the most important things that a company must do when creating their SEO strategy?
The DNA of an effective SEO strategy is targeting the right keywords a business wants to get visibility for. To do this, business owners should start with their gut instincts as to what they feel their best sales prospects may search to find the products or services they offer. Be careful to steer clear of company or industry jargon. They can then build out this list by utilizing free tools such as Google’s Keyword tool or WordTracker.

These tools are helpful but they provide a broad, national picture of keyword usage. To truly nail down keyword targets, I always recommend running a short Google Adwords PPC (Pay-per-Click) campaign. If a business serves a particular geography and is not targeting a national audience, the test should run exclusively in the region they serve. You’d be surprised at how much variation there can be between different parts of the country.
Once the business has determined which keywords to target, they can then build out the web site’s content and coding around these keywords – a site must have sufficient content for search engines to consider them appropriate for indexing against a specific keyword. But businesses need to be realistic; a small life insurance broker is competing against behemoths and will likely never get good ranking for a term such as “life insurance”. But they could target phrases such as “life insurance broker Teaneck, NJ”.
One other important component of SEO is ensuring that there are sufficient inbound links to their site from other quality sites. Google views these links as “endorsements”. Building quality links can be a long process but can be helped along by efforts such as online PR.

What are the biggest mistakes that small businesses make when they get started?

When it comes to organic search optimization, the biggest mistake I consistently see businesses make is assuming their web site developer has SEO expertise. There are exceptions but most web developers do not have extensive knowledge of SEO requirements. This isn’t a knock on web developers; creating a web site nowadays often requires bringing in a team of specialists – front-end designers, copywriters, back-end application developers and an SEO consultant. A business shouldn’t expect one person or agency to have expertise in all areas and it’s incumbent on them to ask the right questions. All too often, a business will spend a significant amount of money on creation or redesign of a web site only to find later that the site was not “search-engine-friendly” and is not getting indexed by Google. Correcting this situation usually doesn’t require an overhaul but does entail some unanticipated expense.
In regards to PPC programs, unfortunately it’s often easier to set up a campaign that’s more likely to spend money than make money for advertisers. For example, some of the default settings on Google AdWords, such as including a campaign in Google’s Content Network, are generally ineffectual budget-eaters, particularly for campaigns with smaller monthly budgets. But many businesses don’t know to uncheck the Content Network box because Google seems to recommend it.
This speaks to the point that Google Adwords campaign need to be closely monitored to be effective; many businesses, even those spending $5,000 – $10,000 per month, just set it and forget it which is usually a recipe for failure.

Is it really true that organic search optimization gets better results than pay-per-click ads? (does that differ depending on the industry or type of business – i.e., service vs. retail?)

Studies have shown that people prefer the Organic listings over the Pay-per-Click (PPC) ads by about 2-to-1. They think that these “unpaid” listings are unbiased as opposed to the advertisements offered by the PPC listings. But what they don’t realize is that more often than not, web sites that are showing up on the first page of Google are not doing so by accident; it’s usually a result of the work of a Search Engine Optimization firm who has an understanding of Google’s algorithm.
Advertisers often prefer the Organic listings because they’re not getting “dinged” for the going cost of a PPC listing. But PPC offers a number of advantages over Organic listings; for example, you have control over the keywords you want to target; you can start, stop and change it on a dime; you have much more control over the messaging of PPC listings and can test multiple ads simultaneously. Most importantly, for the reasons I’ve outlined here, very often PPC campaigns result in higher rates of conversion (sale, inquiry, etc.).
Ultimately, the best Search marketing efforts have a balance of both Organic and PPC initiatives regardless of industry, type of business, etc..

What are some common misperceptions you find people have about SEO? What might surprise them?

There are two that come to mind and they’re polar opposites:

  1. Some businesses feel if they create a web site, it will get found and indexed by search engines. In most cases, this is incorrect; without sufficient attention to SEO considerations, it’s unlikely the site will get ranked for desired keywords.
  2. Some businesses think that SEO is some kind of deep, dark secret and difficult to implement. This too is incorrect; in many cases, implementation of best practices, along with some targeted inbound link generation, will go a long way towards getting targeted search engine visibility.

There are many companies promoting themselves as SEO “experts”, often along with a laundry list of other services. How can you tell if someone is really qualified before handing over your website (and your money)? What should you look for?
That’s a great question. While organizations such as SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization) are helping to establish industry credibility, unfortunately there are “snake oil” salesmen in our industry.
Indication number one; if any firm is promising “top search engine ranking for $19.95 per month”, run away fast. Successful search engine optimization requires consultation from a professional partner.
Confirm an agency’s background; how long have they been in business? Is it their specialty or one of many services they offer? Are they members of SEMPO and other industry organizations or local business associations?
Ultimately, the best bet is to work with someone who is referred to you by a trusted colleague and be sure to get competing proposals.
David_Hoffman_headshot.jpgDavid Hoffman formed Search Smart Marketing, a search engine marketing firm in Westchester, New York in 2006 to help small and mid-size enterprises reach their search engine marketing objectives by providing them with large agency capabilities, service, and practices on a smaller, regional scale. David was previously VP/managing director for Wahlstrom Interactive in Stamford, Conn. whose clients included Enterprise Rent-a-Car, GE, Hilton Hotels and Nestle Waters.
photo credit: spud

2 thoughts on “Search Engine Strategy: How Will Customers Find You in 2009?

  1. Josh

    Great post.
    I believe that SEO is fairly straightforward. Once you know a few basic rules, optimizing your pages so that they are indexed properly and have the appropriate metadata is quite simple.
    One great tool for checking your site’s SEO status is Hubspot’s WebsiteGrader:
    Generating high-quality inbound links, however, is a time-consuming and slow process. There is no substitute for creating “linkable” content that your readers/customers want to share with others.
    Focusing on (and optimizing for) specific keywords is important, but no search engine consultant is going to be able to make the online community that you care about pay attention. The best way to raise your organic search ranking: think like a publisher. Find out what would your customers like to read and learn about, and write about it.

  2. Miles Technologies

    “Ultimately, the best Search marketing efforts have a balance of both Organic and PPC initiatives regardless of industry, type of business, etc..” – A successful online marketing campaign includes both organic and paid search engine listings. A Pay Per Click campaign can be highly effective in providing immediate control over search engine visibility while you are waiting for other search engine optimization efforts to produce results.

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