Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Transforming Your Online Presence: Search Engine Optimization

A common refrain among professionals regarding their firm’s presence on the Internet: “Prospects don’t buy us from our website.” Maybe executives don’t buy professional services online the way they order a book from Amazon.com, but they definitely are using online sources to build their opinions about firms they might use. As a result, major professional firms are using tactics such as Search Engine Optimization to lure more of exactly the right prospects to their sites.

As an example, we recently picked some keywords of strong current interest to many professional firm competitors: Private Equity Due Diligence and ran an assessment of which professional firms were engaged in search engine optimization related to this combination of terms. To our surprise, even the most elite of consultancies – no less than Bain and McKinsey - appeared to be intentionally optimizing their sites to attract executives interested in those terms. The fact is, you ignore activities such as search engine optimization at your firm’s competitive peril. This article is intended to share with you the basics of search engine optimization and some of the techniques firms use to increase the odds of attracting just the right prospects.

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the volume or quality of traffic to a web site or a web page from search engines via "natural" or "organic" or "algorithmic" search results. The theory is that the higher a site appears in the search results list, the more visitors it will receive from the search engine.

Why SEO is Important for Your Firm?
Professional service firms have the same need for SEO search engine optimization as does any other business, because professionals such as consultants, attorneys and accountants have arguably more online competition than other types of businesses in their effort to capture the fleeting attention of the world’s most elusive buyer: the senior corporate executive.

A successful SEO campaign will enhance your firm’s web presence which in turn will increase your firm’s market recognition by means of simply having more people find your website in the search engine listings. In addition to an increase of actual visitors to your website, ranking highly in search engines positions your firm, in the eyes of those who search for services online, as an authority in your field.

It is therefore essential for each page on a firm’s website to be focused as much as possible on a specific keyword, and that each web page is optimized both online and offline for its unique keyword (a keyword can refer to a single word or a phrase.) The objective of SEO is to persuade search engine algorithms that your page is highly relevant to the search term being used.

’Page’ is stressed, because most search engines list pages and not entire websites and that page can be your Home Page or any other page on your website. We shall refer to Google from herein because that search engine takes about 80% of the total online search traffic, and if you are not listed on the first two pages of Google then forget it.

Here is a brief synopsis of how you can improve your search engine listing by using an intelligently crafted SEO strategy involving both on-page and off-page search engine optimization techniques. It should be stressed that these are ’SEO essentials’, and there are more advanced techniques that can be used to give you the jump on your competition but which are too focused and specialized to be included here. But, for those of you who want more detail, we provide a link to a deeper dive on these SEO matters at the end of this article.

SEO Techniques
Sections of Your Web Page
You have two important sections within the HTML source code (that’s the behind the scenes software language which web programmers use to make your site work) of each page on your site: the ’Head’ section and the ’Body’ section. The content of the ’Head’ section is not seen by the public, only by search engine spiders that use it to determine the relevance of your page to the search term used by the Google user.

Google doesn’t care too much about your intended page focus - its algorithms will determine the relevance itself, and your job is to persuade these algorithms that your page is worth offering to those searching for information. Spiders do not look at your page and assess it for the keyword you are using on it, but index it in relation to its relevance to the search terms and keywords used by the searcher.

Here is a run-down on the basic type of SEO optimization that should be on every single page on your firm’s website:

a) Meta Tags:
The Meta tags appear in the ’Head’ section of your page HTML, before the ’Body’ section. The important Meta tags in the HTML of your page are the Title tags and the Description tags. Keep in mind that nothing in these Meta tags are seen by anybody visiting your website, but they are very important aspects of your SEO.

The Title Tag should contain your keyword and is what will be seen at the top of your Google listing. The Description Tag will be used partially or in its entirety in the listed description of your page. No other tags have much effect, although the Keyword tag might be used by the minor search engines.

b) Heading Tags
The ’Heading’ tags, seen as H1, H2 etc, should be used for the page and paragraph headings on your web page. Use H1 tags for the visible page title: you won’t go wrong if that is exactly the same as the title in the Title tag. Google’s algorithm will give a keyword added importance in determining the relevance of your page if it is within H tags, and even more if it is in Bold text and Italics. Underlining also adds to the perceived relevance.

c) Graphics ’Alt’ Attribute
You should use the ’Alt’ attribute in the image HTML of each of your graphics. That tells the viewer the content of the graphic if doesn’t resolve on their website, and is also rewarded by Google in its assessment of your page relevance.

d) Keyword Use
When it comes to keyword usage on your web pages, quality may matter more than quantity. Marketers should ignore the geek chatter about “using a keyword density (KD) of up to 3%” and other such presumed benchmarks for how many times your keyword is showing up in the copy on your web page. Google uses its own special algorithm (called “LSI” or latent semantic indexing) to determine the relevance of your page, which means using text that is semantically related to your keywords and the focus of the page. Repetition of keywords will no longer work, and will actually be punished with a low listing. Imagine an 800 word article with 24 mentions of the keyword . . . Good natural writing, with around 0.6% - 1% KD will be better than endless keyword repetition, particularly if you are using a lot of semantically related text to explain the meaning of your page. Descriptive writing is better than keywords, although be careful to use synonyms that are true synonyms and not ambiguous. For instance, you may want to use the word “locks” as a keyword. But, what are ’locks’? Your page content should make it clear to Google’s LSI algorithm to which type of locks you are referring.

Linking Strategy
Google’s PageRank algorithm is a means of assessing the importance and popularity of each web page according to the number of other web pages linking to it: the more links it has, then the more relevant and popular the page must be. These links can come either from within your own website or from other websites.

Each web page is allocated a starting PR of 1.0 by Google, and it is possible to arrange your internal links (navigation structure) to provide the maximum PR points to specific pages in your website.

You can also provide back-links to your web pages from external websites by using techniques such as article marketing, where you can use a link in a section of your article that offers you a share of the PR of any directory page that publishes your article. The same benefit can be achieved by submitting your website to website directories, and also by persuading others to add a link to your site from their own website.

These are the starting-point, basic SEO search engine optimization techniques for professional service firms that you can easily use on your website persuade Google to list your web pages higher in the results pages for specific search terms (keywords). By doing this successfully, you can be rewarded with a significant increase in free traffic of prospective clients to your site. But, keep in mind that these are basic essentials, and there are an ever-increasing number of other methods that can be used to give you a real advantage over your competitors. Or, conversely, can give them the edge over your firm if ignored.

Search engine optimization is not magic; it isn’t a mystical set of powers controlled by a secret society of uber-tech geeks; rather, it’s a basic foundation to one’s web presence, a standard operating procedure that should be adopted by any individual or company that has an operational website, including professional service firms.

Your firm has a lot to gain (additional clients, greater name recognition, enhanced recognition as an industry authority) by implementing a proper SEO campaign, and really nothing to lose, especially if this task is delegated to an SEO professional.

The bottom line is that Search Engine Optimization is simply good business for professional services providers.

Brooks Donner is the founding principal of TopLine Media Group, a firm specializing in Search Engine Optimization, Internet Marketing, and Website Design & Development.

For more information, visit http://www.TopLineMediaGroup.comFor a FREE 17-page report entitled SEO Strategies for Professional Service Firms, visit http://www.TopLineMediaGroup.com/seo-report-psf and enter 'Creative Growth Group' in the Access Code field.

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