This is another question we get asked quite frequently by startups or small businesses adopting technology. Whether you’re selling goods online, advertising your services, or promoting a mobile app, revenue can be quite substantially impacted by your (in)visibility in Google search results, and how far down the list you appear.
While there are specialist companies around that focus exclusively on improving search results, as a technology generalist Lateral has worked in this area and learnt a great deal about the parts that are important. This article is intended as a gentle introduction to some of the techniques behind improving search results, and will hopefully help dispel some of the misinformation out there.
Option 1: Paying for it
Google’s Adwords service gives you the ability to run paid ads that appear above, to the side of, or below the main list of search results. For a brand new site, this is probably going to be the most effective way to gain a lot of visitors quickly.
You’re able to configure the search keywords, the text of the ad, and target specific geographic locations or browsers (e.g. ‘iPad users in Australia’). You only pay when a customer clicks the ad and visits your site, and the cost per click can range from 20c to $10+, depending on the popularity of the keywords selected (pricing is based partly on how much competition there is for the search terms). You can set a daily budget as well as a maximum price per click to keep your advertising costs in check.
While this is a simpler and faster technique for getting your site onto that coveted first search page, a poorly designed or targeted Adwords campaign can be an expensive waste. The critical aspect to understand is that Google will prioritise ads it deems to be the most relevant and most likely to generate a click for that search term – the net result being that better ads cost less for the same placement. Improving ad relevance can be done by ensuring:
- The search terms are relevant to the product or service you’re advertising. Don’t go scattergun, make sure you understand what problem your customers are trying to solve, and select keywords to reflect their probable search patterns.
- The search terms appear within the ad copy, preferably in the heading (the more the better). These will be highlighted bold in the browser.
- The ad copy is enticing to the customer. This is challenging – there’s not a lot of text you can fit in the ad, and you need to make people want to click it. Google has some tips here, and there are other resources around the web that can help.
- Your landing page (the page on your site the ad directs to) is also relevant to the search term. You’ll generally want a different landing page (with unique content) for each ad campaign – don’t just direct your ads to your site’s home page.
Whenever a business is spending money on online advertising, we strongly recommend configuring analytics for the site in order to measure the effectiveness of advertising expenditure, i.e. are the clicks you’re buying atcually making you money? Google Analytics is a free service that integrates well with AdWords, but there are many others available such as Gauges, KISSMetrics, Clicky, and Woopra. Depending on your what your site does, these services can be configured to measure conversions (e.g. percentage of paid search visitors that request a quote), and possibly even revenue (online sales attributed to an ad campaign).
Option 2: Organic search
Traffic from search engines is generally divided into ‘paid’ (e.g. AdWords) and ‘organic’ (standard results). The practice of boosting your organic search results is generally known as ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ (SEO). This is somewhat of a dirty word in some circles, but it can be broadly broken down into two distinct categories:
- Modifying your site design and structure to better cater for search engines, and adding useful content to attract visitors (Good SEO).
- Copying or creating large amounts of useless keyword-laden content, spamdexing, and other techniques designed to trick Google’s search algorithms (Dodgy SEO).
‘Dodgy’ or black hat SEO involves somewhat of an arms race between the SEO companies and Google – the SEO companies find new loopholes and try to exploit them before Google can modify their search algorithm. While these techniques can deliver short-term results, we recommend staying within the rules for stable long-term search performance.
It’s worthwhile understanding the basics of how Google ranks sites for search terms, in order to more effectively plan your SEO activity. While the details of Google’s ranking algorithms are secret and have changed significantly over time, the original PageRank algorithm is fairly well understood. In brief, Google will assign a higher score to a site that is linked to from more (trustworthy) sites on the web, and the text of those links will contribute towards keyword relevance calculations.
Google will also apply additional weightings based on the content of the site (this incorporates many countermeasures to black-hat SEO techniques) – it’s worthwhile reading some of the principles they try and adhere to in this blog entry.
Improving your site’s search results
Following is a introductory list of pointers you should consider:
- Submit your site to Google – if you have a new site, you’ll need to let Google know about it. You can also submit to the other major search engines while you’re at it.
- Ensure your site has useful content that your customers will want to read. A web site that contains a business name, photo, and phone number won’t typically rank very well. One with blog entries, news articles, white papers and any sort of educational content will be more successful.
- Update your site regularly – Adding fresh content will improve your ranking, and the more content, the more visitors you’re likely to have.
- Make sure your meta description tag describes the page accurately in around 155 characters – this will be displayed under your search result.
- Use the latest version of a good CMS platform (e.g. WordPress, Squarespace, Drupal etc) – these will have a lot of search engine friendly facilities built in, like descriptive permalinks, correctly tagged pagination, RSS feeds and the like.
- Don’t be shy about getting your URL out there – make sure it’s in your profile on sites/organisations you’re a member of, contribute articles to relevant news or industry sites, ensure it appears in product/service reviews, and ask customers, partners or suppliers to put you on their site (if appropriate).
- If your business uses twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or another social media service, ensure you’re actively publishing news, links and other content. Also, make sure your site has ‘sharing’ widgets to enable visitors to spread the word.
- Use Google Webmaster Tools to check for problems with your site’s content or structure.