As New Year’s resolution season kicks into gear, we may be hearing more advice from leading gurus and dentists – advice like “to be successful, observe successful people;” “to manage your time better, observe the time management habits of top CEO’s who have successfully managed their own busy schedules;” “for better gums, floss daily.”
What about web sites? If your goal is, for example, to attract more traffic from search engines, find sites similar to your own which have been search engine marketing “winners.” And copy them. Let me rephrase that. You can’t copy them. But you can assess what characteristics they have that cause search engines to refer a lot of targeted traffic to them.
One of the most common misconceptions about optimizing your web site for search engines is that there is some kind of magical formula that will vault you into top search engine rankings – if only you could unlock it. In reality, although key phrases and key words are vital as a building block of your search engine marketing strategy, “keyword alchemy” is a very small part of what makes a web site successful in attracting search engine referrals.
As a consultant and journalist working the search engine beat, I will often have a conversation with the would-be search engine marketer that goes something like this:
Wannabe Search Engine Traffic Receiver: “I need more hits to my site. My competitor, terrific-sailboarding-advice.com, told me they get 800 daily referrals from Google. I’m only getting 30! What should I do? Can you make Google love me?”
Consultant: “Why do you think your competitor is getting so many hits?”
WSETR: “Well, they say they have a ton of content on their site, and I can see that a few of those pages have turned out to be extremely popular. External reviewers and enthusiasts are spontaneously linking to those pages because they’re such fantastic resources. I only have about 20 major pages on my site. They have close to 500. Plus, they have a very popular message board, which has tons of pages, and it gets indexed too.”
Consultant: “It seems to me that you need to make your site more like that.”
WSETR: “Oh… I just thought there was something else you could do. Some friends of mine sell MP3 players and hire a firm to monitor their positions for a few hundred dollars a month, to make sure they’re maximizing their keyword strategies and not falling down in the ratings.”
Consultant: “I can watch your rankings for a fee if you think it will make you feel better. I’m not so sure it would get you more traffic, though. Search engines don’t owe anyone a living. And I don’t believe that any consultant can use simplistic software to ‘beat’ the engines’ algorithms, not long term anyway. The only ‘other thing’ I can tell you to do is to buy advertising! So why don’t we focus on making your site more like other successful sites?”
So what next? While there is no “ultimate ideal” type of web site or online business in a larger sense – there are many different kinds of successful business models and many different criteria for what counts as “success” – it is still useful to assume that insofar as your goal is getting properly indexed and increasing your search engine referrals, you must strive to construct the content on your web site in a way similar to that of other web sites which have been successful in ranking high on popular key phrases.
Here are a few unassailable characteristics of successful search traffic referrers:
- Pages are rich in content, and many of them have been copywritten specifically around popular key phrases; not necessarily the most popular key phrases, but a variety of synonyms and semi-popular key phrases that will allow your page to rank very high because there are fewer competing pages with those word combinations. To state the obvious, search engines index words! You need to make sure you have lots of them on your site. All other things being equal, if your competitor has 50% more words on his site’s pages, there is a good chance that the competitor will attract more search engine referrals than you do. People type a lot of very specific key phrases into search engines – in fact, according to a study by AltaVista staff, a huge proportion of search phrases typed into that engine are unique. That is to say, millions of keyword combos have only been typed into a search engine once, ever. Imagine how interested these kinds of searchers will be in the content of your site if it turns out to be relevant to their needs. Understand that keyword variety is the key to successfully attracting a decent number of these searches.
- A large number of properly optimized pages on the web site. The higher the volume of meaningful, well-organized text you publish for the indexes to catalog, the more chance you have of attracting a wide cross-section of search engine users.
- By “properly optimized,” we mean that the raw HTML source code of a site’s pages is adjusted to ensure that your target key phrases appear in (i) the title tag, and meta keyword and description tags, in the head of each page; (ii) in the text of your document, especially in the first two or three paragraphs; and (iii) in headings such as h1, h2, etc. which translate into larger “heading style” text on a web page and are additional clues for search engines as to how to “label” a page. If you have a huge site, it’s a lot of work to do this as you publish new material, unless you have a sound strategy for integrating search engine optimization concerns with your content management system.
- Sites which practise sound copywriting techniques and pursue a philosophy of “truth in labeling” consistent with the main assumptions about truth in labelling held by the top minds in the search engine technology field, so that you don’t run afoul of their “no-no’s.” Truthfulness! What a concept, eh?
- Arguably, sites which offer a lot of specialized information will do better than other sites in their field that keep details to a minimum. Since every site in a specific niche will be competing on the same general key phrases
(for example, “auto repair” would have thousands of competitors), you need to think about how you can catch those thousands upon thousands of different combinations of words that people might type into search engines searching for information about something specific in your area. If, for example, there is a lot of product detail and so forth in your company’s files, why leave it off the web site? (To quote Doc Searls, “there is no market for your secrecy.”)
- Word-of-mouth sometimes needs a push. Many successful sites have pursued a process of “reputation enhancement” by directly soliciting quality, relevant inbound links from other highly-ranked web sites.
The fluid, open nature of the Internet does allow the smaller operator an unprecedented potential for direct contact with a target audience, to be sure. But small entrepreneurs who become overnight successes with clever online marketing are still the exception that proves the rule. If your site gets 20 daily search referrals from Google, a realistic medium-term target is 100, not 10,000, daily search referrals. If, on the other hand, your site receives 2,000 daily search referrals from Google, 10,000 is worth shooting for.
In short, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Make your site silkier, and the right people will love it. That creates a momentum of its own. This year, spend less time on “keyword alchemy” and more time on the things that really matter.