Marketing experts flag up the key issues in search engine optimisation…
Search engine optimisation may seem a dark art to many businesses. But a grasp of the vital issues is essential for building a sound web marketing strategy. Cath Everett reports.
Given that the vast majority of consumers start their internet quests using a search engine, it is unsurprising that search engine optimisation, or SEO, is widely seen as the marketing channel de rigueur among many large organisations this year.
In a survey of 100 top-level marketing directors at leading global brands by the Royal Mail, 45 per cent indicated that SEO was their most favoured marketing medium at the moment, closely followed by social media at 42 per cent.
Such findings are also reflected in the way budget priorities are starting to shift from simply battening down the hatches towards promoting corporate growth.
Some 42 per cent of respondents indicated that customer acquisition would be their primary budget focus over the next six months compared with a mere 28 per cent last year. And SEO is likely to play a key role in this context as online sales continue to mount even as the high street continues to suffer.
But despite the importance of search in today's online world, SEO is not being adopted to anything like the same extent by smaller companies. A study of 500 marketing decision-makers among small-to-medium businesses by digital marketing agency dotDigital revealed that nearly a quarter knew very little about the subject, while one-fifth did not spend any money at all on such activity.
Just under a quarter said they were unsure of the benefits, while a further 14 per cent were unable to see any, while only 14 per cent saw the channel as strategically important.
But Skip Fidura, dotDigital's digital director, says marketers who do not appreciate the importance of SEO are simply not looking at their own online behaviour and realising how important search and search rankings were.
"The problem is that other forms of marketing are better known and so people go with what they're comfortable. But historically people have also felt that SEO was a bit of a black art and that they had to rely on middlemen such as Google to deliver their marketing messages," he explains.
1. The aim of SEO
Online search engines work by indexing text and information such as images and links on web pages.
Such indexing is undertaken by web spiders or crawlers, which record the words they find on web pages, noting how...
...many times they appear, how relevant they are, how many inbound and outbound links exist and the like. The search engine then uses this data to weigh up the value of each page using algorithms and ranks them accordingly in a bid to ensure that such listings are as relevant as possible.
So the ultimate aim of SEO for marketers is to ensure their brand or products are ranked on page one - and ideally in the top three - of any given search because few users tend to scroll down beyond that. Google is the number one search engine provider in the UK, controlling 88.9 per cent of the market, according to the latest figures from the Internet Advertising Bureau, and so is an obvious focus of attention.
In broad terms, meanwhile, there are three key ways of achieving a high ranking - ensuring that web pages can be crawled by spiders; optimising content to ensure that it relevant to the searches that consumers are making; and ensuring that links exist to and from third-party sites.
2. Developing an SEO strategy
SEO should form part of a wider overall marketing strategy, and it should also not be treated simply as an add-on after the website has been created. Instead when building or redesigning a site, SEO principles should be incorporated from the outset, which includes thinking about navigation and what content each page should include.
What this means is that SEO cannot be undertaken lightly. Rather it requires planning and the development of clear objectives such as 'higher product sales' or 'higher customer conversion rates'. It also requires work in forecasting, the creation of a budget and the introduction of analytics packages such as Google's to measure campaign effectiveness.
Another thing to bear in mind is that SEO takes time and is unlikely to result immediately in top rankings. So initially it makes sense to simply aim to get onto a level playing field with rivals, before undertaking continual improvement work on those areas where changes have made a difference.
As Neil Jackson, strategy director at specialist search agency Tamar, explains: "Rinse and repeat, trying different things. You won't fix everything in one go as SEO is an ongoing process, but once you master it and get an understanding, the time spent on it will decrease."
According to dotDigital's Fidura, the average company might expect a full-time employee to spend about five to six days a month on SEO once they have mastered the art.
3. The need for adequate resourcing
Because there is a technical element to SEO, professionals generally come from a software development or web design background but have a flare for marketing or have a marketing history but also an interest in IT.
The profile of an ideal SEO specialist, therefore, would be someone with an understanding of the internet, of HTML and how web pages are built, combined good copywriting and marketing skills.
But they also need to be experts on usability and the user experience. dotDigital's Fidura explains: "The goal of any search strategy is to drive return on investment, not traffic. It's about conversion so why do people come to the site and how do they accomplish what they want in the fewest possible steps balanced against what you want them to do on there."
However, the mistake many organisations make is not...
...assigning sufficient resources to make the necessary changes to their website or hire sufficiently experienced staff to undertake such work.
But as Ritz Steytler, director of online marketing agency Relevancy Stream, points out: "With SEO, 90 per cent of the time you're paying for someone with experience and if you don't, you've got a 50:50 chance of getting it wrong so these people tend to be expensive".
Another consideration includes creating a web relations team or at least hiring an individual to undertake the job - see section 7. Another group or individual should also be in place to undertake multi-session tracking and reporting activity - as opposed to last-click tracking, where sales are assigned to the last click that takes place no matter what activity has gone before.
The problem with this approach is that a typical shopper may take up to a month to make their purchase. The average consumer initially tends to undertake a generic search using a term such as 'car insurance'. While they may initially click on a given brand's name in a list of rankings, it may take some time before they come back and search specifically for that name again before making a purchase.
Adam Bunn, head of SEO at search marketing specialists Greenlight, explains: "Multi-session tracking is about developing a fair overall attribution model, but many don't use the capability in their systems because they view it as too complex. So you get really big companies investing in SEO but they don't know where the value lies as they're not tracking it."
4. Devising a keyword strategy
As part of the planning process, meanwhile, one of the first things to do is to define what the organisation actually does as well as to work out which key words it wishes to be associated with. The express aim here is to generate useful rather than low-value traffic.
Greenlight's Bunn explains: "It's essential to have a keyword strategy. Too many attack SEO without knowing what they're optimising things for."
This issue means that marketers need to undertake a "rough" keyword analysis of what products or services people are searching for in their sphere of operations and how frequently. Once suitable key words have been selected, commercial metrics such as likely conversion rates and basket value can then be added to understand likely returns to build a business case for investment.
While small firms are unlikely to stand much of a chance of obtaining high rankings under generic search terms such as "cheap flights", they could nonetheless focus on more niche fields such as accessibility. But brands should be warned that, depending on where progress is to date, compliance with legislation in this area could involve anything from quick tweaks to the website using the content management system to a major redesign.
The second step, meanwhile, involves including accurate - and correctly spelled - brand terms in all website content, including that of individual products and services, to ensure that the key bases are covered. As Tamar's Jackson says: "It's fairly obvious, but it's surprising how many people miss it out."
5. Common keyword pitfalls
A danger when first starting to use brand terms in content is keyword stuffing. The problem is that if companies are so intent on using brand names or brand terms at every possible opportunity, content can end up making no sense from a reader's point of view. An optimum keyword rate is considered to be no more than 10 to 15 per cent of total content. Any higher and rankings are likely to be damaged as the web crawler will recognise that there are too many.
Another common pitfall is not employing the key words that consumers actually use themselves. "A classic one is that people in the car industry refer to 'motor insurance' but nine out of 10 users call it 'car insurance' so they end up barking up the wrong tree," explains Tamar's Jackson.
He also warns against "vanity searches", whereby organisations simply focus on one often aspirational key word that they would like to be associated with rather than concentrating on the terms from which they are more likely to generate business.
But another consideration is keeping company information constantly up to date. Search engines such as Google and Microsoft's Bing are now starting to include navigation bars that enable users to rank information based on age. This development means that...
...even if the business is a relatively slow-moving one such as law, a press release or opinion piece on a given topic should be added to the website within a day of an event taking place.
As Ritz Steytler, director of online marketing agency Relevancy Stream explains: "Most businesses sell some type of product or service that people need so ensure if something new happens, it gives you another bite at the cherry. Someone has to be at the top of the rankings, so make sure it's you."
6. More technical steps
On a slightly more technical note, assigning each web page a title, which includes a key word and concisely describes what it is about, will also encourage web crawlers to come to the site and improve rankings.
Given the increasing importance of images particularly on retailers' websites, it is also important to include alt tags on all images and page links, not least because such tags help organisations to comply with accessibility legislation.
But dotDigital's Fidura points out that such activity is forgotten about by 40 per cent of companies "so it's basically imagery that's just wasted", although he warns that copywriters rather than HTML programmers should be the preferred choice for coming up with pithy summaries.
The same logic applies to text headings. Ideally these should be given H1 and H2 tags rather than simply a bold font as such tags break up the text and make it easier to be read by both humans and spiders. Another simple but sometimes forgotten consideration is incorporating a site map as this tells the spiders where to go and again means the site is more likely to be crawled.
7. Link-building campaigns
Once such basics are in place, the next step is to generate links to encourage inbound traffic, which will in turn increase rankings. This measure is particularly true for financial services, retail and leisure and entertainment businesses that are keen to be associated with frequently-used generic key words such as "cheap holidays" or "bingo".
As Greenlight's Bunn, explains: "You can have the most optimised page in the world, but if no one's linking to your site to back that up, it's not worth much. So you need to find various ways of actively acquiring links from other sites."
While third-party agencies are available on the market to help, an effective web relations team or individual is likely to more effective as they have a deeper knowledge of the business.
Therefore, not only will they be better placed to help define the brand's unique selling point, but they will also be in a better possible to focus on suitable targets. "If you're starting in SEO, one of the things to do is think about why someone would want to link to your site. If you can't think of anything, you'll almost certainly fail," Bunn says.
One increasingly important way of encouraging third parties to link to the organisation's website is through social media - as long as the brand has suitable contacts in the first place.
But if no suitable social media campaign exists, it might be necessary to develop one, for example, by interacting with social bookmarking websites, communicating with bloggers, distributing press releases on Twitter and creating user communities on Facebook and the like.
But dotDigital's Fidura warns against simply jumping into bed with service providers that promise to provide customers with "thousands of links per day", as many will have no relevancy to their website. This lack of relevancy means that not only will the value of such links be low in web crawler terms, but rankings could even drop as a result: "What you want is links to quality sites."