Return to: Articles Index

October 9, 2006: Five Steps Toward Better Search Rankings


Select the right keywords and -- to paraphrase "Field of Dreams" -- if you optimize it, they will come. Choose the wrong words and your search engine optimization (SEO) campaign might be DOA.

A Harris Interactive poll said that once online, 80 percent of internet traffic begins at a search engine. A DoubleClick study reported that 41 percent of web users find brands through search rather than just typing a URL into their browser.

The bottom line: When the consumer connects the dots and you're not there, they won't seek you out online and won't bother with you offline either-- optimizing your search campaign is absolutely critical if you want your product and/or service to be noticed and purchased.

Here are five tips from two SEO experts to make sure your site won't become another internet black hole.

Gail Parker heads up San Clemente, CA-based web design and development firm ROI Web Solutions and its search engine marketing subsidiary ROI-SEO. Parker is an expert on both organic search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) marketing and provides free web analytics services for tracking performance and ROI (return on investment).

Sara Katz is a marketing strategist for San Diego-based SiteLab International, an interactive marketing agency that offers both search engine optimization and paid search programs to clients, as well as tracking and web analytics.

#1: Create your keyword list

You'll want to start with a very long list of potential keywords in order to amass a comprehensive list. You can get keyword suggestions from many sources.

Start with the words that you would type into a search engine when looking for your product, and then branch out from there. Katz points out that there is typically more than one word for the same thing, depending on a frame of reference.

"I might search for 'jeans,' while my mom would search for 'blue jeans' and my great Aunt Milly would look for 'dungarees,'" she said.

A treasure trove of good keywords will be found by scouring your competitors' sites. Find out what keywords they are optimizing!

There is a great deal of information online and in various collateral materials, such as press releases and articles that have been written about a product-- look for what Katz says are those "golden keyword nuggets" that others use to describe what you're marketing.

One of the most overlooked (and most important) sources of keywords is your customers. Ask them what they would type into a search engine to find your product or service.

Use tools to get additional keyword suggestions. "There are a lot of keyword generation tools on the web-- most of which are free," Katz said. "Both Google and Yahoo! have free tools that will recommend keywords based on a word you enter, or even a URL."

Check them out at:

Other popular keyword research tools can be found at:

#2: Choose your best keywords

ROI Web Solutions' Gail Parker said there are four factors that will determine the ROI you'll get from a keyword:

  1. The amount of competition for the top ten positions in search results
  2. The number of people who search on it (how much traffic can it bring you?)
  3. Whether the keyword is really relevant to your product or service
  4. Whether the keyword is one that people use when they're in a buying frame of mind

How much competition is there for the top ten positions?
Take a good look at the top ten sites currently ranking for a keyword you want. That's what you have to beat if you want to get traffic for that keyword. Beating the competition takes effort. The cost of that effort will affect your ROI.

"If the top 10 sites are winning their high rankings with just a few pages and a few incoming links, then it's a 'cheap' keyword," Parker says. "But they may be competing at the level of hundreds of pages and thousands of incoming links-- that would be a very expensive keyword because you will need to have hundreds of pages developed and acquire thousand of incoming links if you want a top ten ranking for that keyword."

How relevant is the keyword to your product or service?
Pick keywords that are as specific as possible. Parker pointed out that any business serving a geographic area needs to optimize phrases that include the locality, and use various sequences like "business broker in Miami" and "Miami business broker."

"Someone who breeds Yorkshire Terriers shouldn't waste their effort trying to optimize 'dog breeder,'" she said, "but rather 'dog breeder Yorkshire Terriers' and 'Yorkshire Terrier breeder.'"

Parker also warns against trying to optimize keywords that aren't in your actual page text. "You won't rank on the strength of META tags alone-- in fact, if you put a keyword in your META tags and don't use it in your body content you may even be penalized. So only pick keywords that you actually have in your content!"

How much traffic can the keyword bring?
You can get estimates of the number of times a keyword is searched by using two industry-standard keyword research tools, the Overture keyword suggestion tool and WordTracker (I mentioned these in Step 1 because they're also good for generating keyword ideas).

If you're trying to calculate your ROI, keep in mind that even if you have the No. 1 spot on Google, Yahoo and MSN, you still cannot expect to get 100 percent of this traffic. People will look at the title and description they see in the search results and decide whether your site is relevant to their needs or not. Still, the No. 1 position will usually get the lion's share of the traffic. It drops off from there within the top ten, and begins to drop radically for subsequent pages. If you're not in the top 30, your share of the traffic will be miniscule.

Is this a keyword someone uses when they're ready to buy?
If you're a business broker in Miami, someone who finds you with the keywords, "business valuation methods" or "articles on selling a business" probably won't become a customer, noted Parker, but one who types "businesses for sale in Miami" may contact you about one of your listings. Someone who types "business broker in Miami" will be a highly qualified lead and an excellent choice to optimize.

Also take into account the length of the buying cycle. A Performics (a division of DoubleClick) study, "Search Before Purchase," reported that consumers search for up to three months before making a purchase. They also do a lot of general searches, initially using generic terms. Performics CEO Cam Balzer added that consumers start by searching broadly, not keyed to brand.

"They narrow the search down to particular brands of products and location and will use that last search on a brand name to navigate to a specific online store," Balzer said.

#3: Short vs. long-term strategy

Step 2 will winnow out your best keyword choices, but now you have to decide what to do with them!

Some of those keywords will be easy to rank highly for with very little effort because there's not much competition. Those are what Parker calls "cheap" keywords. However, she says, "A rule of thumb is that the less competition for a keyword, the less traffic it will bring you because not many people search for it."

Keywords that very large numbers of people search on are usually expensive: you will need hundreds of pages and possibly a "link popularity" of tens of thousands of incoming links from quality websites in your industry. Parker points out that even if you could somehow justify building all that in a matter of weeks or months, Google would not be impressed.

"Google knows that normal sites grow and acquire links gradually over time," she said. "If a keyword has a billion websites competing for it, you'll find that the top ten sites are typically eight to 10 years old, and that's probably how long it's going to take you to make it into their league. Search engine optimization is a long-range strategy with short-term goals at every step."

#4: What you should optimize

Once you have your well-honed list of keywords and your short- and long-term strategy worked out, you'll optimize your site through means such as:

  • Navigational linking structure
  • Strategic links in your body text
  • Headings
  • Title tags (these are very important)
  • Meta tags
  • Alt tags

Pay attention to the anchor text of your links (the text that shows up in the link). That's where you want strategically placed keywords.

Also try to get some one-way incoming links from high-quality websites in your industry. Make sure the anchor text of those links is varied (so it looks natural) and features the keywords you are targeting in both your short- and long-range search engine optimization strategy.

#5: Turn visitors into customers

The best search engine strategies are built around conversion strategy. It's doesn't help to attract traffic to your website if the site cannot turn visitors into customers.

Make sure your website solves your customers' problems. That way, you'll have the right vocabulary optimized for searches (keywords that are about your customers' problems, of course!) and you'll be ready to win their trust by showing them that you understand and care about their needs.

Show them what a pleasure it will be to do business with you by having a site that makes it easy for your customers to find what they are looking for!

Return to: Articles Index