Getting Your Business Online: Optimizing Your Website
I’ve spent the last few posts in this series laying out how to build a website and populate it with good content. But if you stop there, it’s a lot like opening a new store and filling it with great products but not telling anybody about it or where it is. Sure, customers might wander in as they drift past but you’d probably want to do a whole lot more to tell your marketplace all about your new store and all the great stuff on sale there.
It’s exactly the same with your new website. People will be looking for sites like it. Only instead of walking the streets to find what they’re looking for, they’ll go online and use a search engine.
In this post, I’m going to explain the basics of search engine optimization so you can make sure your website will be found by people looking to buy a product or service like yours.
What are search engines?
Search engines are the bloodhounds of the Internet — you give them a whiff of what you’re looking for by typing in your search terms and they run all over the Internet until they find it and bring it back to you, usually in fractions of a second. Sometimes they get it wrong, either because you didn’t give them a strong enough scent by using sufficiently accurate search terms or because what you’re looking for is really well hidden, and it may take a few tries before they come back with the right thing.
The Internet is unbelievably huge. Some estimates suggest there are more than 150-million individual websites that collectively contain about five million terabytes of data. (That’s roughly equivalent to a billion DVDs of information.) There is simply no way that even the most powerful search engine could look through even the tiniest fraction of all that information and come back with meaningful search results with such blinding speed.
So search engines use a few shortcuts, and understanding how those shortcuts work are the key to your website being found when people are looking for it.
Tell the search engines you exist
One of the shortcuts search engines use is indexing. They are constantly crawling all over the web — the tools they use are even called “spiders” — to find new web pages and new content on existing pages and index that content. Then, just like an index in a book, they can go straight to the index rather than reading the whole book to find what they’re looking for. The major search engines may eventually find and index your website but you can greatly speed up the process by submitting your site to them as soon as it is ready.
Keywords unlock the web
When you hear people talk about SEO, you’ll hear a lot of talk about keywords. Simply put, keywords are clues that search engines look for to tell them what each page on the Internet is actually about. In my view, the best way to tell a search engine what your website is about is to write about that subject matter in a clear and natural way. If the pages on the website of Celine’s Bakery are all about baking and selling delicious cakes and cookies, the search engines will figure out that it is a bakery website. It’s that simple.
Some keywords are more important than others, however. Remember how I said search engines use shortcuts? One of their favourites is to look at the words you use in your page title, as well as in other parts of the page such as headers and image descriptions. Often, these elements don’t even show up on the page that’s displayed; they’re contained in what’s known as tags that are part of the code that tells browsers how to display your page. But search engines pay a lot of attention to these tags, and so your title, header, image description and other tags should contain the keywords that describe your business.
Links make the web go around
Search engines pay a lot of attention to how often and by whom your website is mentioned by other websites. If a lot of other sites talk about how great the cakes and cookies are at Celine’s Bakery, and they link back to Celine’s website when they do so, this tells search engines that lots of other people on the web think that Celine’s website is a great place to go, and they will rank her site higher in search results.
One of the most basic ways to generate a good starting list of links for a new website is to list your site, often for free, on various online business directories.
Local brings the web home
A lot of search activity on the web is by people looking for goods and services in their home neighbourhood, or wherever they happen to be when travelling. Search engines know this, and they try really hard to figure out when someone is looking for something nearby so the results they show are as helpful as possible.
This is absolutely critical for a local retail operation like Celine’s Bakery. There are all kinds of ways Celine can let search engines know that she is a local business, including by making sure her town is frequently used as a keyword in the various tags I discussed above.
The bottom line
Optimizing your website for search is absolutely critical, but it can be a complicated undertaking in some cases. To make it even more challenging, the big search engine companies, like Google and Bing, are constantly refining the algorithms they use, so keeping up with the latest best practices requires a lot of work. This is one area where it would be a very good idea to get an SEO professional to take care of the fundamentals for you, at least initially.
Bell’s Web Essentials Bundle, for example, will make sure your website content is optimized for search engines, and includes submissions to all major search engines. They’ll also take care of directory advertising in more than 40 of Canada’s top online directories, including guaranteed premium placement in the Bell’s own Business Directory.
What tips and techniques have helped your website get found? Please share your experiences with us in the comments section.
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