The rise of personalized search (a la Google), social networking platforms, and consumers’ increasing reliance on local and mobile search have created new opportunities to gain visibility for your Website through good SEO.
This past January alone, more than 60 million people used their mobile devices to access online information. With good SEO, your Website has a significant opportunity to be found by these users.
SEO also plays a role in maximizing your search engine marketing budget. Put another way, SEO is more cost-effective than paid search programs.
For example, the .10/click we paid for our keywords in 1997 is $3/click today for the same keywords. And there is no end to the number of new competitors we see every year, which further drives up the cost of these terms for our paid search campaigns.
So how can i-merchants perform good SEO easily and cost-effectively?
My list of best practices brings together SEO, paid search and other practices, as true SEO does not operate in a vacuum. It’s also generated from more than a decade of operating my furniture and lighting retail Website, Carolinarustica.com.
Content is king
This is the single most important consideration for optimizing your Website. Yet it’s amazing how many Website owners and designers neglect Website content.
You should be an expert on the products you sell, and be able to address any conceivable questions customers may have, either on your product pages, or in your FAQ’s, or elsewhere. Including customer reviews on your site is a great way to accomplish this.
Also, make your site informative and straightforward, and other folks will not only want to visit your site, but they may link to it from their own sites and blogs.
Although PPC programs do not technically count as SEO endeavors, they are an important step in bringing potential customers to your site, and work with your SEO efforts to generate Website traffic. Your immediate PPC efforts are directed towards converting those visitors you have paid for into customers. But the secondary effect of PPC is that you are generating interest in your site, whether those visitors buy or not.
We continue to dedicate a large portion of our SEM budget to Google AdWords. This is not only for conversions, but because those paid visitors are bookmarking our site and many are placing orders at a later point in time—or they’re telling a family member or friend about us. PPC can act as a catalyst for viral marketing of your site even if you are not measuring immediate conversions.
On-site search and site champion
We use a third-party Software-as-a-Service (SAAS) provider called SLI Systems for our on-site search. SLI has developed a technology called “Learning Search” that provides the most relevant search results when visitors are looking for specific products on our site.
SLI has another hosted service, Site Champion, which is critical to our SEO efforts. Site Champion creates landing pages of search results for particular keywords on our Website. Those landing pages can be indexed by most search engines and actually appear in the first or second page of search results when customers are searching the Web using those same keywords.
Site Champion generated more than 25,000 leads to our site in the first quarter of 2009, with customers clicking on Google, Yahoo, and MSN search results for keywords such as “shell chandelier” or “countertop brackets.” This approach is much more cost effective than bidding for top placement for those same terms on the search engines, which allows us to allocate our PPC budget to other keywords that don’t rank as well.
What’s more, these search results tend to convert well since the customer is directed to a landing page that is basically an on-site search result—not a generic company page. We continue to rely on Site Champion as our third-most significant vehicle for site referrals.
Carolina Rustica also uses paid inclusion, which involves a third party taking our raw product feed and essentially reformatting it for optimal placement on specific search engines. This is a paid service, independent of PPC efforts, and it gives us an acceptable conversion rate for our investment.
Best of all, it involves virtually no effort on our part after we have set up the product feed. We use a company called Booyah for this service.
Analyze and optimize
You can’t improve SEO without understanding the dynamics of your site’s traffic. And you can’t beat Google Analytics for providing an in-depth snapshot of your Website dynamics.
Google Analytics is linked to our AdWords account so we can see how our AdWords spend converts into sales, but just as important, Google Analytics looks at our other sources of paid and non-paid traffic to examine those same dynamics. It’s also a great way to measure and compare your site’s performance over segments of time.
E-mails can help your SEO efforts by generating interest and traffic to your site. Websites that deluge new customers with e-mails day after day, however, face diminishing returns and higher opt-out rates.
We send out e-mails to our 30,000 contacts when we have something interesting or unique to offer—about once a month. Our click-through rate is higher as a result, and this further helps with SEO. We use Vertical Response for our e-mail service.
Blogging is one of the easiest ways to generate content for your site, and you control it 100%. With a blog, you can create your own third-party site that points to your main site.
You should focus on topics that are important to your site’s visibility, but also add content that is a little more daring or personal than what you may have on your Website. I try to write at least an article a week for our blog, http://carolinarustica.blogspot.com. We use Google’s free Blogger, which makes it easy to add content.
You can also promote your Website through other people’s blogs that are relevant to your industry. Try exchanging articles or using a sweepstakes for blog readers, which is always appreciated. While search engines frown upon paid links, creating useful and relevant links on other blogs to original content on your site is a great way to increase your site’s visibility.
We are just beginning to explore affiliate programs, but I believe they can help your site’s SEO endeavors by the propagation of coupon sites that use affiliate networks to provide coupon content.
Two of the largest coupon sites, Retailmenot.com and CouponMountain.com, don’t rely on affiliates, but there is a host of others that do—and more are appearing every month. Coupon sites provide inbound links to your site, but you need to determine you can afford the cost of the affiliate programs and the decreased profit margin generated by coupons.
If you sell products or services targeted towards Gen Y, Z or beyond, social networking via youth-oriented sites like Facebook is an extremely cost-effective pursuit. Twitter, which everyone seems to be using, can also give your site increased exposure by links to your company blog and updates (tweets) on genuinely newsworthy events. Other more targeted social networking platforms such as LinkedIn provide exposure to more technically oriented communities.
Social networking sites are built primarily on user-generated content (UGC), however, and this may be out of your control to moderate. We have found YouTube to be a great platform for our business, since our furniture and lighting lends itself to a more visual presentation.
Pioneered by Wikipedia, wikis are sites that provide non-commercial, non-promotional content—just the facts. I can say with certainty that wikis cannot hurt, particularly if you are trying to make some clarification about your business or Website.
But wikis may not be the best avenue unless you have a compelling, unique story to tell. If you have customers or suppliers who want to tell your story for you on wikis, however, they can become a good source of inbound content.
SEO is a long-term endeavor. My list, while not exclusive, provides useful ways to build your site’s visibility.
The relevance of your site is determined primarily by others, so your SEO efforts should be directed at getting other Websites to link to you. You should also be using third-party platforms and services to enhance your overall visibility and measure your success.
Richard Sexton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president/CEO of furniture and home decor merchant Carolina Rustica.