Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Internet Marketing Channels - Search; SEO

I am devoting one blog entry to each major Internet Marketing Channel, this one is for Search, specifically Search Engine Optimization advertising. People often ask what kind of internet Marketing I work with and I always say everything. Here's a list of what I consider most of everything followed by some definitions, color commentary, and general rules for Search Engine Optimization to help those that have not worked in the space much.

Internet Marketing Channels
- Display: CPM, CPC, CPA/Revenue/Profit Share
- Search: SEO, SEM
- Email: Paid, List Rental, Newsletters
- Affiliate: Internal and External programs
- Ad Networks

Search traffic goes to a search engine or uses a search box on some website syndicating search, types what they seek into a search box, and back comes a response from the search engine. In classic Marketing style, Google would be the largest search engine with the 60% market share, Yahoo second with the 30% piece, and Microsoft third with the 8%. These numbers are not exact and they change year to year, but they follow the model. Search traffic is special because search traffic represents surfers with an explicitly stated intent, which is very valuable to an advertiser selling a product or service online. What comes back in the search results are generally two types of links, which google created as a standard and termed results and sponsored links. The internet Marketing world refers to these two areas respectively as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Natural Search, and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) or paid search. Both are dynamic and vibrant fields. This article is about SEO, I will have to do another about SEM because each area is pretty big and pretty distinct except for quality score.

SEO is my number one question area. SEO is distinct from SEM (Search Engine Marketing) in that you don't have to pay for SEO. SEO is the the links that show up when you type words into google, yahoo, msn, or any other search engine. Not the paid links or "sponsored results", but the regular old search results. The spiders from various search engines will crawl your site, index it, and determine keywords for which you will show search results. There are a lot of details. I will give a quick high level, then you are on your own! I don't know everything, and everything I know is not here, but I will expand this post as I get time in the future.

For the rest of this article I will focus primarily on Google as my subject matter. Most folks in the industry will try to focus on Google search results due to the greater traffic volume, and usually if you are the number one search result in Google, you will be number one or at least very high up in the other search results for the same keyword(s).

First some definitions:
  • Keywords - the word(s) you type into the search engine. Presumably the sites that come back have subject matter related to those keywords.
  • Spider or crawler - the server and software at google that reads every page on the web that it can get to and determines what the important content of that page is as well as what that page links to and what links to that page. The spider feeds the program that builds the index. Normally the spider will go to a web page, digest the content of that page, then follows links on that page that it has not visited previously to discover new pages on the internet. Spiders also have scheduled checks they do to the same web sites to see if the content of the site has been updated. For sites that it finds frequently updated like blogs and newspapers, the spiders will return more frequently, while sites that are not as frequently updated will be visited less frequently.
  • Index - like the index of a book, except for it points to addresses on the entire world wide web instead of just a page number. Google has built an index that knows all the content that it has seen and cross references keywords requested by a searcher to web addresses it has seen that contain those words.
  • Spider trap - Some folks would like the spiders to think that they have millions of pages with content about everything in the world so their site always comes up first no matter what the search term. So they build things like dynamic urls that always link back only within their site, and dynamic content to make the spiders think they are seeing links to pages which they have never seen before and crawl them. This prevents the spiders from finding things on other people's web sites, so they are commonly called spider traps. The search engines try to avoid spider traps.
  • PageRank - a metric named after Larry Page, one of the Google founders. THe higher the PageRank, the more authoritative the site is supposed to be. All else being equal, a site with a larger PageRank (like 9) will appear above another site with a lower PageRank (like 4). A PageRank of 0-2 is not uncommon for sites without much presence, many links, much traffic, etc. A PageRank of 5-6 is respectable and typical for medium to large companies with modest web programs. And anything aboove 7 is typically a larger company or someone with a very solid online Marketing and SEO program.
Overview: To be successful in SEO, you need a few things. First and foremost, you need content on your site related to search terms that people will use. Most commonly, you want to come up first in search results for something you are selling on your site, and you will focus on keywords that indicate someone's intent to buy products like the ones you have for sale. So you need content around those keywords as a first step. Second, you need links to your web site. If a crawler finds two websites with identical content (perhaps selling the same thing in our example), and one has a hundred external links to their site while the other has a thousand, the one with a thousand will rank above the one with a hundred. Finally, you want to engage your audience and focus on converting folks that visit from search results. If google sees that people that ckick on your address in search results are quickly returning to try a differeent site or type in refined keywords, google will assume that you are not what they are looking for with respect to those keywords, and will downgrade you in favor of a site that people stay at longer. Let's break these pieces down.

Keyword and Competitor Research: If you really want to work SEO, do some homework before you build out your homepage and site. To find the best keywords, use Google Adwords Keywords. This will give you an idea of both the search volume and the amount of competition out there for each of the search terms. Then go do a search for each of the terms you are interested in optimizing. Visit the top results for each term set and look at the Page rank for those top results. Look at the number of words they have on their page, the keyword density, the titles, urls and url structure, etc to see if you can do better than them on page design. Go to compete.com and use their search analysis to see what the main keywords are that are sending traffic to your competitors. See how concentrated they are on a few keywords vs a larger number of keywords sending traffic to get an idea of how sophisticated thir search program is. Perhaps install a google toolbar or Firefox seo add-on with the Page rank options turned on to see how sophisticated they are as well. If you are seeing Page Ranks that are 6 or better, and you are a small business trying to do this on your own, you are going to have a tough road ahead. Then monitor your site with the free Google Webmaster Tool Kit. Look for errors and flags, and make sure that google is indexing all that you hope they will.

Links to your site: For the keywords you are interested in, do a search for each high ranking results' url and see how many links (from an indexed page) there are to each of them, or use the seoBook Backlink Organizer. Can you get more links to you than the top results? Remember the first result gets the most traffic, positions 2-5 on the search restuls do ok, 6-10 get a little bit of traffic and by 11, which is on page 2 for most searchers, there is not much traffic left. Given that, do you want to target the most popular keywords which might have the most competition, or would you rather be the big fish in a smaller pond. This is an active decision to make and pursue. You can change it later but not quickly. You need to win on both page design and quantity of links to your site if you can.

Page coding: Now that you have done your keyword research and developed a lot of content to target the keywords you think you have a shot at, it is time to code your pages so that spiders can easily digest your superior keyword focused content.
  • Remember that search engines (the spiders/crawlers really) like plain html with simple url's more than they like query strings, frames, javascript, pdf's, ajax, or flash. Query strings make spiders think they are crawling into a trap, and they do not like to crawl into traps.
  • Search engines look for bold letters near the top of the page and assume those keywords are titles, so make your page titles h1 headers big and bold, and use your search terms you are trying to optimize.
  • Search engines like H1 headers near the beginning of the html load on your page.
  • Search engines like good keyword density without spamming. Rule of thumb for me is roughly 300-400 words on the page with about a 20:1 keyword density.
  • Search engines can not read text in images, so don't use it, put clear text on top of a background image.
  • Tags: always put keyword dense alt tags on every image that you use, and of course use your search terms in the page titles, bookmark titles, and requisite meta tags, etc.
  • Make sure your page titles are distinct throughout your site as well, so the search engine can discriminate between your pages.
  • Realize that your home page will get the highest google Page rank, so you should optimize it especially if possible. If not possible, then optimize something that is linked to from your home page with no query strings before you optimize something that is two links or more away from your home page. Proximity counts for the algorithms. I have been told that each level away from the homepage drops your PageRank by 1.

URL's count big: As far as I can tell, if you want to rank well and you can swing it, have a domain with your search term in it. If you can, separate words with an underscore to make it easy as pie for a spider to digest your search terms. Even if you cant make this work in a domain, perhaps a subdomain, and at very least a directory and page name following this convention.

External Links: After you have completed your search engine optimization, go out there and get as many links as you can pointing to your site. Some suggest that you should link from related content sites, blogs, etc, and use text related to your search terms when you link to it. I say you might as well if you can, but an out of context link is better than no link at all unless it is on a porn site or a bad news spam site. Shamelessly add your link to every blog you have, every blog reply you can get published to so long as it does not have nofollow tags on links in replies (especially on related topics where it makes sense and you take the time to get a thoughtful reply to a relevant thread), your yelp, myspace, linkedin, facebook, spock, and any other page that is indexed by the spiders. After that, register with each of the search engines and to any other indexes that you can find a registration for. Then sit back and wait. Remember that search engine spiders may only crawl once every couple months, so you can't change things quickly, and you don't want to bring them for the first time until you are in a good place.

There are link share programs available which can get you a lot of links quickly. One of my friends owns http://www.linkhelpers.net/ and they have a pretty decent priced program which is pretty effective too.

If you want more search engine tips, check out real experts on the subject;
http://www.wordtracker.com/ (take the free trial here to do some basic keyword research)

My favorite free tracking sites to check out your competition's traffic;

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