10 December 2009

Search Engine Optimisation - What you need to know

I have compiled a list of 10 vital things - from choosing an expert to instructing your web developer - that every marketer needs to consider when undertaking search engine optimization as part of their marketing mix.

1. Strategy First
Please, don't ask for a full SEO proposal from an agency until you have set your strategy. Too often, agencies will respond with a full proposal, including lots of articles to be created, sites to be built and links to be implemented without a clear strategy. Some sites are more straight forward but others are complex and would benefit from asking a couple of agencies to get involved at the research stage - ask them about the strengths and weaknesses of your site, what they think of your competitors, and what strategic approach they would take with your site.

To get the best advice from this process, expect to pay the agencies involved. A small percentage of your online budget spent on good strategy will save you Rands in the long term. Even better, pay two agencies for a strategy recommendatíon and then choose the best one for your business!

2. Choosing a Consultant
You need to work with someone who can communicate about SEO in plain English, someone who can take complicated ideas and techniques and turn them into something you can understand, then make a decision on - especially as there are often many possible solutions to choose from.

Someone with experience in your vertical - such as travel, finance, retail - as well as several other verticals is important. An SEO consultant with experience across multiple types of business, as well as experience that is directly relevant to you will have better problem solving skills and more exposure to technologies. Experience in your sector will mean the consultant will be very helpful in defining your strategy, understanding terminology, and knowing what your competitors are doing.

3. Expectations
What are realistic expectations from your investment in SEO?

Too often, we see marketers defining their keyword set or crazy goals for their site without any basis in how SEO really works. If you are a law firm, for example, and you want to rank highly for terms such as "lawyer", or "barrister", then you have to take into account that these are extremely popular and competitive terms. It might not be achievable, and even if it is, it's probably a very hard road to get there.

Be open to advice when setting the goals for your website (which should be a part of the keyword research period of your SEO project). If you have a PPC campaign running first, you can use the keyword data from that campaign to gain an understanding of what is important for your website.

4. Using the Right Language
Optimizing begins with keyword research that helps you understand the language your customers are using to find your products and services.

Be realistic. It may sound obvious but, if the words your customers are using to search are not on your website pages, then you won't be found in the search engines for those words.

Similarly, brand words and buzz words are all very nice in marketing, but if people aren't using those words to search, then again you won't be found.

Be ready to change the language of your site. Be open to the idea of conforming your website to the language people use. Optimization is about including those words in the right areas of your pages (such as navigation, links, headings, meta tags and content) so the search engine sees all the right signals to understand what your site's pages should be ranked for.

5. Measurement
Rankings are not the only measure of success! For many years, SEO firms have measured everything on rankings. However, we recommend using analytics similar to a PPC (paid) search campaign for a more comprehensive measure of success.

 Here is a simple description of how to do that: Take what you are spending on SEO and put it against traffic and conversions to work out cost per unique browser, cost per click and cost per conversion. It's best to analyze these over a period of six and/or twelve months to allow for any changes in SEO to come into effect. This is because the major difference between SEO and PPC is the implementation time - for SEO, the results will take months, rather than days.

6. Moving Variables
There are so many moving variables in SEO that it would be impossible to find one person who knows everything! But a good SEO consultant is worth their weight in gold. Their value is not necessarily in the implementation, but in tapping into their experience to find the right implementation. One tiny piece of advice from them which may take 10 minutes to explain could be worth more than a copywriter producing numerous articles for your site each month.

7. One Agency or Two?
Some agencies have two separate teams working on SEO and PPC. Some marketers choose two completely different agencies to handle their SEO and PPC campaigns. H2L offers both services under one roof.

However, the two are very closely related and the results from one can be useful to the other. For instance, the keyword data from your PPC campaign can help with your SEO keyword research. On the flip side, optimizing pages for SEO will usually provide your PPC campaigns with a better quality score. When PPC and SEO listings are seen together on a search engine, they usually improve the click-through and conversion rates for both campaigns.

They go hand in hand, and each can have a positive effect on the other if done well. And with one agency on both campaigns, they will have a greater depth of experience with your business, which can only help you to succeed.

8. Web Developers are not SEO Experts
Finally, a word on expertise. Most web developers say they are experts in SEO. There is no doubting that many of them do a reasonable job, but they are not truly specialists in the area of SEO. At H2L our team has over 15 years experience ranking site, from pubs to insurance agents

In the same way, I wouldn't recommend that an SEO specialist designs your website. They are specialist skills, which both contribute to the success of your business.

9. Use of Java Script
Those pesky robots that the major search engines rely on to rank web pages have until recently imposed some limitations for web development. While useful code such as Java Script can make your website really functional - a simple example is a loan calculator, and many websites' navigation and links - and thus attractive to users, the robots often couldn't follow the code properly, and thus skipped over it. The major problem was that commonly, web developers didn't know that Java Script wasn't being read or followed by the robots.

That has changed recently, with Google updating its technology so that the robots can read and follow Java Script. When the robots can follow a website's navigation and links properly, the SEO rankings are greatly influenced.

10. Flash
Potentially any Flash file can now be indexed, according to Google, but it still depends on how that Flash site is constructed. Generally older Flash sites are not seen in the most effective way by the search engines, though it depends on the practices of the Flash developer. Many older Flash sites have overcome this problem by building an underlying version of the site in html - though this method too has its drawbacks.

Flash sites need to be built like html sites, with multiple files that optimize each keyword. If you are building a new Flash site, be sure to consult with an SEO expert before the developer starts on the build. All sites built by H2L are fully SEO freindly.

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