Monday, February 22, 2010

The Naked Truth About Search Engine Optimization

I had a fascinating week with individuals contacting me about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for my website business.

1) A gentleman contacted me on LinkedIn, inviting me to take his sales call. He wanted me to buy into his SEO services and then charge my customers for them. I asked what he provides in his paid service that I don’t already provide to my customers. His boiled-down answer was a “link farm” to generate inbound links, otherwise nothing. I didn’t take the call.

2) A call came into my office one afternoon from a very young gentleman who tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade me that he was a potential customer. A couple of minutes into the conversation he confessed that he was selling SEO services. I told him getting my clients’ web pages ranked highly isn’t a problem for my company. The call ended abruptly.

3) In the space of one week I received two phone calls and three emails from companies asking me to “partner” with them in providing SEO from data centers overseas. The time these inquiries consumed was so great I had to put a disclaimer on my website that says I don’t outsource any of my work to any other firm, foreign or domestic.

The people I encountered in these scenarios had a few things in common. They knew the programming “tricks” of inserting keywords into the code of a website that would get a search engine to rank it. They probably didn’t know how to persuade a customer to buy the product or accept the message once they got to the site. Most of all, they probably didn’t care.

Whenever a new technology becomes popular, self-styled “experts” pop up like mushrooms after a rain. But how do you tell a real SEO “expert” from a hustler riding the buzzword wave?

Search Engine Optimization is only one small part of creating the content of a website. It actually has more to do with paying attention to the programming details after the content has been crafted. A true SEO expert is a word craftsman. The first step is always – ALWAYS – to write copy that appeals to the target customer and persuades them to take the desired action. A copywriter for websites has to know who the audience is: the age range, gender percentages, geographic location(s), and educational levels all play a part in how the text is crafted. Keywords, words that one would expect website visitors to type into a search engine to find the site come out of this research.

What salespeople commonly call “SEO” is the second step in the process. Out of the text crafting and audience research come commonly-used words: titles or adjectives mostly. When it becomes clear what individual words from your text are going to resonate mostly with your audience, you choose those for your SEO strategy. “Strategy” is almost a misnomer; it’s less a procedure and more just paying attention to details. In addition to the text on the page, there are places to “hide” text in ways that put them in plain sight to search engines. Page titles, “alt” tags in images and “meta” tags are the most common and the most useful. The more your most effective words are repeated consistently through your site’s readable text and “hidden” tags the greater attention Google and other search engines will give them.

The final step in the SEO process is generating “inbound links”: links from other websites to the ones you’re creating. There are all kinds of techniques to accomplish this. Back in the day (ten or so years ago) the hot technique was “website awards”: a graphic badge on the site declaring the site “cool” or “hot” or whatever made a splash. The “award presenter” linked to your site if you displayed the badge.

Those awards have gone the way of the dodo but the principle remains. You can try a link farm but if one of the human observers for a search engine company catches wind of it, you can bet on your rankings plummeting. I use and recommend online press releases. Again, the word craftsman comes to the fore. You can issue a press release online with anything on it and a link, and you’ll get inbound links. But if the story is picked up and displayed in any news agency you have the added bonus of convincing visitors to see the site, even when they’re not actively looking for it.

When a fly-by-night SEO salesman comes along, they’re usually only focused on the second step with absolutely none of the research and effort that goes into crafting the site content itself. They’re selling a “get top-ranked quick” mentality that may work in the short term for getting search engine rankings, but probably won’t translate into sales or other action. Any copywriter knows there is no such thing as a quick solution to good copy. It’s true in print media and it remains true on the web.