Beverly Sills, the opera singer who died earlier this year, is famously quoted as saying “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going”. As a specialist online marketing professional, I spend a lot of time reading about the latest developments in search engine marketing and how this or that tweak, ploy or shortcut will suddenly change your life and lead to huge amounts of traffic; riches beyond your wildest desires and everlasting happiness. At the risk of sounding something of a cynic (I suppose 8 years in online marketing gives me a right to be!), if not a downright party pooper, I have to say I’m with Beverly Sills on this one. Yes, there are some things that you can do that might give you an edge, but if you are lucky it will only give you an edge for a very short time (before you’re found out). At best you could have just wasted your time, at worst you could be set back significantly and lose far more than you gained.
Before I elaborate, it’s important, in my opinion, to understand, the history and culture of the net and of a lot of the people that have been involved with it. The Internet’s early success was largely promoted by a group of altruistic, non-commercial, caring, sharing and fair minded people, who wanted something to develop that was free and good. After all, this is a community that gave their time and knowledge free to develop Open Source software, in response to what it saw as the commercial dominance of software by certain companies.
The Internet’s now most mighty company, Google, grew up with this altruistic ideology, even having a corporate motto of “Don’t be evil”. It embraced these principles to provide a free search engine that allowed people to find what they were looking for on the internet. It continued to develop this engine to become better and better and provide its users with a better and better experience, even though those users didn’t pay a penny for its services. Eventually, it developed so much trust that it was able to start generating revenue by offering paid advertising alongside its free results, however it has continued to invest in making its free service ever better, based on honest, fair & good, “Don’t be evil” principles.
Admittedly Google has had one or two blips along the way but it has developed, generally, a trust amongst its users by delivering what they want and being fair about it. Search Engine optimisation whizzes and website owners who ignore ‘Don’t be evil’, do so at their peril.
The Accidental Search Engine Marketeer
So, if there are no shortcuts and you have to play fair and by the rules, then why “10 ‘secrets’ you really should know about search engine marketing”?
Well, let me tell you another secret, I discovered search engine marketing almost by accident! Ten years ago, when I started out online, search engines were very much in their infancy. In fact, to me, when you typed anything into a search engine, the results reflected what seemed to be the web’s main purpose and preoccupation, sex and pornography!
Back in those days’ people had lots of other ideas how they were going to get visitors to their website, many of them a lot more glamorous than using search engines. Anyway, let’s face it, there were a lot less websites back then.
Being in possession of very few resources (in comparison to the huge amounts of money being thrown about by other start ups in those dot com boom days) and at the time a relatively limited understanding of the internet, I concentrated on simple and, what seemed to me, common sense ideas and business principles to drive visitors to my website.
By employing these, more and more people found my website but not only as a result of all my hard work and efforts, they were also finding the site through search engines because, unwittingly, these same tactics were improving the search engine ranking of the site.
Amazingly today, despite the huge cultural, technological, social and environmental changes (and by that I’m only talking about the search engines!) the same principles still apply, despite the huge volume of different techniques, systems and tricks that have been peddled in the meantime. So what are these ‘secrets’?
The 10 ‘Secrets’ You Should Know About Search Engine Marketing
The internet is a huge ocean. No matter how big a fish you are, you’ll be lost in it. Find yourself a pond. The smaller a fish you are, the smaller a pond you need, but don’t try to be all things to all people: a) it’ll never work, b) you’ll never be found.
You need to have a reason why someone visits your website and buys into your product or service. In the offline world it’s often OK to be as good as everyone else and rely on the fact that people like you as the reason they want to buy from you. In the online world, where there is so much competition and, generally, people don’t know you, you need to have sound reasons and differentiating factors.
By all means try to get people to like you (see 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10) but remember they have a lot more choice in a search engine than on a high street, you need to communicate why they should choose you simply, effectively and fast!
If you’re selling motor insurance for disabled lady drivers, yes you have a niche and you’ve completed step 1, but you need to establish the benefits that your customers will enjoy by buying from you and that they will value more than the 237,000 other links they could choose. You then need to communicate these on your web pages and in your Meta Description of your content or Search Advertising Copy, to make it easy for your visitors/customers to establish quickly why they should visit your site when scanning a search page.
3. Build Your Site and Its Contents for Your Customers Not You
In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), there is a concept that people are led either by their visual senses (what they see), their auditory senses (what they hear) or their kinaesthetic senses (what they feel). When you watch any great auditor speak (Bill Clinton for instance) you’ll see him trying to appeal to all of these senses, so that he communicates with his entire audience – not just a part of it. Your website must do this too.
Search engines like words but don’t fill your pages purely with text, a lot of your visitors will also like to see images. Likewise don’t fill your pages with images because you like them and you think your visitors should too. A lot of your visitors also want to hear what you have to say and feel comfortable with your site.
Search engines like words because they tell them what your site is all about, so you need to write clearly on your pages just this. But it’s important to write these words with your customers in mind, not what you think the search engines want. Your customers have got to understand them and they need to be written in their language.
If you are selling bling jewellery you need to use a whole different vocabulary to that if your offering savings and investment advice to the over 65′s. The reason for this is twofold:-
a) If you do get them to your page but they don’t relate to the content when they get there or it doesn’t make sense, they’ll just click off.
b) The same language your customers want to read is that they’ll use when searching
Search engines now also have clever robots that can read English and will penalise your site if it thinks you’re trying to trick them by writing keyword intense nonsense. In any case, what’s the point of getting people to your site if you lose them immediately because you haven’t written content they can understand or relate to?
4. Write Well Structured Content
I’ve already said it but I’ll say it again, make your pages easy for your visitors and/or customers to understand. Just like you learnt at school, structure your content to make it easy for people to follow. Write a good page title that explains what your page is about, use headings to explain what each section is about, use sub-headings where appropriate, use the words that are important to your visitors and/or customers in the content (though not repeatedly) and stress the important bits either by using headings or putting those words in bold. That’s just common sense writing.
Remember that people read web pages differently to printed pages (they tend to skim read) so write bulleted points, in sharp, concise text with links to greater detail and further information, if the reader requires.
Search engines like a minimum of around 300 words per page (about the quantity of this number 4 section) so that they can accurately gauge the contents of the page. You’ll also find this just about nicely fills a web page with an illustration or two, without going below the fold, i.e. forcing the reader to scroll down the page.
Add a Meta Content Description to explain to the search engine (or rather your visitor/customer who is looking for your page on a search engine) and lo and behold you’ve got a search engine friendly page! Yes, search engines, just like your valued visitors, analyse your pages by the Page Titles, Descriptions, Headings (H1, H2 and H3 in order) the use of Bold or Strong tags and by analysing the content of the page to understand the keywords and what the page is talking about.
5. Update Your Content Regularly
Just like a good shopkeeper changes his shop window and the layout of his store on a regular basis, then so should you change the content and look of your site. Firstly, in most cases, you want repeat visitors and they need to see you’re alive and care about the website (and them). Secondly, the more frequently you update, you’ll find the search engines will more frequently visit or crawl your website.
6. Give Your Users/Customers What They Want
I know this one is a bit radical but it really is one of the most important lessons you can learn. If you give your visitors what they want, when they want it and provide them with more value than they can get from other people/sites, not only will they be happy (and happy users or customers is surely the chief goal of any website or business) but they will return and what’s more they’ll tell their friends!
7. Delight Your Users/Customers and Make Them Your Evangelists
One thing I learnt early on is that going the extra mile to delight your customers really pays off on the internet. Word spreads really fast online and if you give a really good service and/or deliver an exceptional product, not only will your customers keep on returning (which saves you the marketing cost of getting new customers) but they tell their friends (who go on to buy from you and saves you even more marketing cost). The unexpected bonus is that they spread the word about your product or service through forums, blogs, web pages, etc., which talk about your great website and service and put links to your site, which drives more traffic to your site …… and improves your search rankings because of all these relevant (and not paid for) links.
8. Keep Your Website Simple and Working
Just like most processes, you need to build your website for the lowest common denominator. Make it as simple and easy as you possibly can. Rigorously check everything so that your users have no chance of having a bad experience. Always sacrifice sophistication for simplicity, if simple works.
Badly built, over complicated, unfriendly or broken sites not only turn off your potential visitors and/or customers, making them click off straight away (and what’s the point of going to all the trouble of getting visitors if your lose them immediately) but high bounce rates (people clicking off your site quickly because what they saw wasn’t what they wanted) is a big part in the Quality Score used by Google & Yahoo in their paid search algorithm. Furthermore, badly built sites, poor or obsolete code and broken links is something search engines definitely don’t like and you will be penalised for it in your search engine rankings.
9. Build Links with Relevant Sites
As I said earlier, before search engines became such a dominant driver of traffic, you tended to look all over for sources of traffic. Having no money meant paying for advertising listings was out of the question but if you could find relevant sites where a link to your site would benefit visitors and drive traffic, for instance if your site sold beds and you got a link from a site that sold bedding, then it was win-win. Similarly if you did stuff or created news stories that other sites may want to cover, then you could gain coverage and links.
What I wanted was traffic (which I got) but into the bargain I got what were essentially big votes from credible sites about my pages which boosted my search rankings. If you focus on being really good and giving value, you do develop these links and these are what search engines really want, so that they can establish you are a respected and credible site. Search Engines see links as votes of a websites value. If they see lots of paid or traded links these are not really saying the website is any good. What they want is impartial endorsements of your site and it will accord these links much higher value.
Do not trade links, willy-nilly or engage in reciprocal linking as it is sometimes called. In my opinion, the first and only question you should ask is, will this (incoming) link generate traffic/add value. If the site/page is relevant and/or related then the answer is that it probably will. If you are a management consultant and get a link from an adult dating website the chances are it probably won’t. The search engines see it similarly (though they’re not interested in the traffic). If they see a link to a horse race betting site from a site/page that is discussing racing form then they will see it as a credible endorsement or vote for the site and enhance the ranking of the linked to page. They will see the adult dating rank as being of no relevance to the management consultant with the result that the latter’s ranking could actually be negatively affected because the search engine thinks you’re trying to trick it.
10. Communicate With Your Users/Customers
Having got people to your site in the first place and even got them to buy something from you don’t then just ignore them. Work at keeping them on board and getting them to keep coming back. Communicate with your users/customers by giving them advice, information, offers, support, help – not junk but things they will value. Communicate with them in whatever means they prefer (obviously making sure you get their permission to do so), whether it be by email, text, blog, podcast, special pages on your site or whatever is their preferred choice. An established user will use you again more readily, as they (should!) trust you and this will be a lot less costly than trying to find new users. Once again, if your users value this (which if done right they will) you’ll find links appearing which add more weight to your pages and your search rankings.
Well, I told you there were no shortcuts and I also told you these were “10 ‘secrets’ you really should know about search engine marketing”. You certainly should know them because they all make common sense. Search engines employ legions of highly intelligent boffins to develop extremely complicated algorithms which are designed to make sure the search engine user gets the best result from their experience with the search engine. How they do that? Remarkably, they follow common sense rules to ensure that this is achieved and try to stop “evil” people from coming up with shortcuts.