Navigating the Seas of SEO

The Internet has long been described as the online superhighway. As a practical matter, it’s more like an ocean with a million uncategorizable destinations–a great gray sea in which everything merges with everything else. There is no center, no outer edge, no circumference to measure.

So being found online requires getting indexed and ranked on search engines. Earning high rankings on search engines means you must thoroughly understand their algorithms, crawlers, and methodologies.

Most Internet surfers say they use search engines frequently. Searchers will abandon or change their search if they don’t find what they’re looking for in the first two resulting pages. And they’re getting smarter by descriptively refining their search terms to find exactly what they want.

What does this mean to you? If your site is not listed on the first index page of a search engine–high, above the fold–you’re positioned about as poorly as an AM radio under a bridge.

The emergence of the Internet, and its search engine oracle, is like the Big Bang–a sudden, violent shift with unrepentant swiftness; and if left unchecked, it can literally wipe away most of a company’s business value. Shoppers increasingly rely upon search as a starting point to discover their next purchase–it’s the glue that binds together their wants with what companies have to sell.

A recent American Marketing Association survey ranked search engines as the most likely place shoppers go to research for the products and services they want. Forty-three percent said they go straightaway to a search engine, while 29% said they make a direct visit to a Website.

Other sources, such as social networking sites, have yet to become dominant players for consumer-driven buying decisions, but it’s still early in their development and significance. Search engines, comparison-shopping sites, and product rating and review sites are all increasing in importance to today’s shoppers.

What’s more, nearly 70% off all searchers say they prefer the organic or natural results to paid listings. Being ranked organically–the left side of the search-result page– is where you want to be. Paid listings give you an immediate position on the right side of the resulting index page. But only about 30% click on PPC listings—most believe these listings are tainted with commercialism, forced upon them by marketers seeking quick sales.

(My personal theory is that keyword searching is the act of an independent sole seeking refuge from marketing propaganda–and it celebrates the searcher’s individualism. Each keyword search is highly personal: they conceived it, they typed it, they expect unmolested results from it–and they don’t appreciate hoisted puffery.)

Moreover, studies shows that 32% of users wanting to visit a known “brand” site use search engines as entry point because it’s simply more convenient to loosely type the Web address in a search box rather than enter it in a browser’s exact-demand URL address bar. (Search engines are very forgiving to hastily and imprecisely typed URLs; they resolve the exact address in milliseconds.)

Getting ranked naturally on a search page’s organic index list is a company’s best bet for attracting new eyeballs and earning highly valued conversions. (How to achieve high ranking is another article altogether. (See my MCM article Going Organic for details)

SEO is challenging and financially rewarding, but it’s sometimes like hunting big whales on the open sea. And when hunting for Moby Dick, bring lots of tarter sauce.

Kevin Rourke is director of e-commerce and Internet operations for Transamerican Auto Parts.