There is no point in creating a fantastic website if nobody can find it. Sadly it is no longer enough to simply ‘put it out there’ and hope for the best. With more than 250 million websites in existence worldwide, even the smallest business needs to do a bit of search engine optimisation (SEO) if it is to stand a chance of being noticed.
How it works
SEO is the art of persuading search engines such as Google to put your website near the top of their natural list of suggested websites when someone types in a request which you could fulfil. If you sell dog baskets, for example, then ideally you want your site to come out at the top of the list every time someone types the words dog baskets into the search engine.
If you look carefully at a Google search page, you will see the first few results are encased in a light pink box. The websites listed here have paid to be here – they are not there because they are most relevant to a search. It is the results immediately below the pink box that matter because they are the free natural listings which have been chosen by Google as being most relevant to a particular search.
Websites that appear in the top three places of a search engine’s natural – as opposed to paid for – results attract 98% of the traffic for that particular search, while the website in first place attracts 60% of the traffic all by itself. The fact is that even though a search can generate millions of results – a search for dog baskets produces 22.4 million websites to choose from, for example – people rarely bother to look at the second results page or beyond. In fact, they often don’t even bother to scroll down to see the bottom of the first page.
Getting to the top of the natural list, however, does not just happen by chance. You have to work at it. Exactly how Google decides to rank the websites on its natural search list is a closely guarded secret, based on algorithms which are frequently being tweaked. But what is known is that the results are displayed according to how relevant Google feels they are to what you are looking for. Relevancy is determined by factors such as the content of your website – both visible and embedded – how many other sites link to yours, how many people visit the site and how often the content on your website is updated. Other factors, such as how long the website has been running for, are also taken into account.
Your job is to make your site the most relevant site for the terms being searched for.
So how do you go about it?
1. Meta tags
First, you need to build meta tags into the fabric of your website. Meta tags are words which you can write into the HTML code of your website – in other words, the unseen instruction part of your website. They can’t be seen by people looking at your website, but they are recognised by Google and other search engines as they trawl the internet looking for relevant sites.
They should indicate what your website is about by using keywords which describe its contents. The good news is Google has provided lots of free online tools to help you get to grips with all this. Your first stop should be Google Analytics (google.com/analytics) which will tell you about the performance of your website — how many people visit it, which pages they look at and for how long. Google Webmaster Tools (google.com/webmaster) will show you how to make your website as search-engine friendly as possible to maximise its visibility on the internet.
You need to include the words and phrases you wish to be known for into the content of your website. Because there is so much competition out there, however, the chances of your website being noticed by Google – and therefore put high up the natural search list – will be hugely improved if you can find yourself a niche, by highlighting any unusual or specialist products you sell.
If your website sells products for hikers and outdoor walkers, for example, then you will get a lot more attention if you highlight the head torches which you sell, for example than if you highlight walking boots, because there will be far fewer sites selling head torches than walking boots. You can also include the words head torches into your website’s meta tags.
Google’s free search keyword tool (go to adwords.google.com and then click on reporting and tools) will help you decide what to highlight by telling you how many people were using particular search terms to find things on the internet in the past month.
By tweaking the words you put on your website to match the things which potential customers are actually looking for — and, indeed, by adjusting your product range to fit their needs — you hugely improve your chance of getting online sales.
Writing great content articles helps too, but it’s easy to hit a writer’s block. We wrote about how to find great content ideas here.
Get other well-regarded sites to mention your site and include a link to it. The simplest place to start is to create a Facebook page and a Twitter account for your business which link to your site. Links from a trade organisation or local community website are useful too. You might also be able to get a blogger to link to your site, perhaps by sending them some products to review. You should also write a regular blog yourself on your website – basically a regularly updated online newsletter – which people can follow and link to.
Things to consider
The main problem with trying to boost your natural ranking on Google is can take a new business between six months and a year for it to start showing up in search results, partly because new websites are automatically given a lower rating by Google than established ones and partly because things like blogs and links take time to be noticed.
So in the early stages of starting up you might also consider doing some SEM – search engine marketing also called pay per click advertising (PPC) – and known on Google as Google Adwords.
Google Adwords are the little adverts which pop up on the screen to the right-hand side of the natural search listings. They appear when someone types the relevant keywords – as decided by you – into the search engine. You only pay a fee – the price depends on how popular the keywords are – if someone clicks on your advert. That then takes them straight through to your website.
If you decide to use Adwords, be prepared to spend some time tweaking the parameters to make them as effective as possible.
Rob Hill is the founder of The Stag Company, an online business which provides pre-wedding stag weekends and holidays. Having started the business with £15,000 borrowed on credit cards, he decided that all his business would come through search engine optimisation and pay per click Google Adwords, so he spent £1,000 buying keywords for his adverts. But after three days he had not received a single customer enquiry. When he called Google in a panic to find out what was going on, they told him to try out the pay per click link himself – at which point Rob discovered he had misspelt the link so no-one was actually being put through to his website.
He fixed the link and got his first booking three weeks later, worth £1,500. His firm, which is based in Brighton, now has a turnover of £7.5 million.