Search Engine Optimisation
One of the biggest talking points online today is the growth in power of the search engines and the marketing opportunities for business that they offer. In the space of a few years, search has become second only to email in people's usage of the Internet, with over 80 percent of internet users using search engines to find the products and services.
With paid search seeing a tremendous growth (79 percent year-on-year), accounting for over 50 percent of all online revenue, it is no longer a case of 'build it and they will come'. Consequently, individual websites are finding it harder to gain stand out.
The numbers involved are staggering – Google has indexed over 4 billion web pages and processes over 3,000 searches every second of the day. However, only one percent of people look beyond the first 30 results on a search engine.
So, everyone wants to be on page one of Google for keywords important to their business. To make matters even more difficult, browsers only want to see websites and pages with relevant content based on their searches.
It’s not going to get any easier, either. According to recent figures, the volume of internet traffic is expected to double annually over the next five years, with consumers expected to account for 60 percent of all Internet traffic over that period – the rest of the market being made up by business users.
Estimates vary but many suggest there are around 700 million people now online, with several hundred million websites competing for attention.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), done properly, puts website pages in front of hungry crowds at the time they want it most, when they are searching.
“SEO is more important than ever before,” says Lyndsay Menzies, managing director of BigMouthMedia. “In any market, you can now expect to find a significant number of websites following an SEO strategy. Those who do not are being left behind. The online market places are growing and becoming more complex. In the paid search arena the prices of keywords are going up, bidding strategies are more elaborate and costly. In organic SEO the number of website competitors have mushroomed, more users are willing and able to shop or spend their leisure time online and search algorithms now include personalised preferences, geographical targeting and increasingly stringent rules.
“These days it is rare for an online campaign to get very far without SEO. Still, it is too common for new sites to be nearly complete or even finished before search is though about. But search is fundamental for any online push – or even off-line push. Many Internet users now simply navigate by search box and no longer bother typing in full URLs in address bars. If you cannot be found by search then it’s very often true to say that you cannot be found.”
For this reason, continues Ken Sturgeon – a specialist in SEO and internet marketing – it is important to bring in search from the start. However, this is often not done. “SEO should not be viewed as a stand-alone discipline, it should be an integral part of the website design and development process. Too many agencies and clients focus on creating great looking websites, but if they are not ‘search engine friendly’ or not optimised properly, then the site will get poor rankings, get low traffic and have to rely on paying for every visitor.
“SEO is about finding ‘hungry crowds’ and then presenting your solutions in a way that matches how they are searching. SEO needs to work with other parts of the marketing mix. These days it’s about taking an ‘integrated approach’ – offline and online tactics and channels must work together. But, online audiences often exhibit different behaviours – they are less loyal, more price sensitive, have reduced patience, scan don’t read, and are very much ‘search’ driven.”
In short, searchers are time poor. They want what they want now. And they want it with the minimum of fuss. For this reason it is vital that the online search ties in with off-line communications. Charlie Cutler, technical head at Green Parka, says: “It is vital users can find your site in the search engines after seeing an on or offline campaign. They may remember some key aspect of that campaign rather than your company name and it is vital that when searching on those key terms they find your web site and not a competitors.
“Too many sites are still constructed that are not search engine friendly. For example, site home pages are still sometimes almost entirely produced from images – no text for the search engines to work with.
“SEO needs to work with the other elements of the marketing process to ensure that the key messages and terms used allow people to find your site in the search engines.”
SEO has become more important as search has entered the mainstream in terms of marketing. And the rise of Google as both a noun and a verb has highlighted the need for many companies to allocate a proportion of their online budget to search,” says David Turner, commercial director at Ambergreen. “With pay-per-click costs rising companies are looking more to SEO as an alternative for long-term campaigns and using PPC for shorter term campaigns that are either cyclical or have a finite life span.
“Unfortunately, many companies still see SEO as an afterthought, with the design of the web site taking priority,” he continues. “Most importantly SEO should be integrated into the build process to effectively close the loop in terms of marketing and accessibility. Even with good SEO, if a web site does not appeal to the consumer the drop-off rate will be significant from the site and there will be a low ROI.
“Also consideration has to be given to any negative commentary about your brand or product, especially given the rise of social networking – the recent recall of batteries by Dell being an example of this with pictures being posted of exploding laptops. Optimisation can be used to counter this, though, through good online PR, and corporate blogs.”
The depreciation in offline marketing (online spend is due to over take press advertising in September this year, leaving only TV as greater in terms of budget) is increasing the significance of marketing online. And, with increasing budgets being committed to the internet, Civic’s digital marketing director, Roger Goldie believes that it is essential to ensure that these budgets are allocated effectively. “Optimising sites for search engines is the most cost effective acquisition you can achieve.
“One defining factor of Web 2.0 is that transacting online is no longer an early adopter activity but is now seen as accepted practice amongst the ‘early majority’ group. (B2B growth averages 99 percent year-on-year since the turn of the century). With the increase in commerce comes the full weight of marketing competition. Natural search is seen as one of the last great differentiators available to competitors online.
“As a mix of science and art, a well-implemented optimisation campaign will increase search engine visibility, lifting site traffic by as much as 20 percent. The key to success is connecting the web activity with the offline. You have to ensure customer breadcrumb trails do not begin or end within the website, but instead link with the other marketing activities.”
“Despite the popularity of PPC advertising such as Google AdWords, more than 60 percent of people still click on “natural results” rather than the sponsored ads,” says David Mill, managing director, MediaCo.
“From a search engine accessibility perspective, there are many aspects that should be considered prior to a web site build – from the site structure, to the page design, to the nature and positioning of content and the technologies employed.
“However, historically, SEO hasn’t been considered when a site has been newly-created and we, therefore, often find ourselves creating workarounds to search engine barriers in existing sites or developing new strategies for clients.”
Yet, in many cases, clients fail to prime their websites for SEO from the off, opting to revamp sites by replacing graphical fonts to text, adding good copy to each optimised page, including a text sitemap and backing this up by programming meta-tags and header tags to the code.
“Keywords are important but, over the years, people have spammed the keywords and they have become a lot less relevant,” says Scott Seeley of Spider Online. “The search engine spiders also collect information from the text on your web pages – which should always correlate with what has been included into the meta-tag information. This is why having a good copywriter is becoming an essential ingredient.
“We develop websites to work alongside the search engines, but the real marketing and ongoing success of the website is down to the client or search marketing specialists to support the ongoing SEO with paid searches, search engine position tracking, SEO viability studies and search engine marketing training.”
“But there are still plenty of large brand websites with no SEO built in. Recently River Island was hauled over the coals for launching a website built entirely of Flash. This prevented SEO and a lot of accessibility options being built into the site.”
It’s even more important to observe SEO if you’re building a commercial website. “SEO must play a fundamental part of the site design, build and maintenance strategy,” says Sara Dodd, director of Net Resources. “SEO is becoming ever more important but it’s also becoming more difficult and the focus has to move towards building usable websites that will convert and retain visitors, as opposed to just ones that achieve high rankings.
“Certainly it’s possible for websites to succeed without SEO. There is never a substitute for word of mouth marketing. There’s no point having a perfectly optimised site if people leave as soon as they find it. The top priority should be creating an engaging user experience that people will enjoy, come back to and hopefully recommend to others. With the increasing advent of online viral marketing and social networking the voice of the people can make or break a website.”