Optimizing Your Search-Engine Success

In this article, I’m going to focus on how to maximize the visibility of this site once you have it up by implementing search engine optimization (SEO).  Simply put, SEO is a method of enhancing your Web site’s visibility in search engines. If a user types “reverse mortgage” in Google and you specialize in that product, where will you show up? You need to be at least in the top 30 or 40 sites to expect any success. The typical web surfer will not read past the first page and the most tenacious will probably not go past four or five screens.

The search engines use algorithms to rank the Web sites. The engines do not all use the same criteria, but there are similarities that you can focus on. There are only six or eight engines that your target audience will use. Google is number one and quickly becoming a generic term for web search. Yahoo, Look Smart, Alta Vista, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and MSN are other big ones. If you can get a high ranking with these, then you can expect volume traffic to your site.

So, what determines how the engines will rank your site? Keyword relevance is always an important factor. This means selecting words that people will most likely enter into search engines to find you. When doing this, bear in mind that they should not be too generic. If you use keywords like “mortgage banker,” the likelihood of being listed in the top 100 would be unlikely. But the phrase “mortgage banker specializing in reverse mortgage lending” is more specific and gives you a better chance of hitting the top 10.

While the search engines grab keywords from the body of Web sites with most emphasis given to the index or home page, the most weight is typically given to the title tag found in the HTML code of that page. The title tag does not have to match anything on the screen. In fact, it can be left blank, but this would be a big mistake. Title tags are not only important for scoring by the engines, but it is also likely that they will display this tag as the description to your site. So, it is also important for the wording in your title tag to entice the Web surfer to go to your site.

To see the HTML of a Web site, right click on the screen and select View Source. Using our example, it would look like this in the header section: <title> Mortgage banker specializing in reverse mortgage lending</title>. An easy and effective way to view a model of a top ranked site is to do your own search, guessing at the keywords your potential customer would use. See who comes out on top. Then go to their site see what is working for them.

Google also employs “stemming” technology. When it looks for words that match the search word, it also looks for similar terms. For example if the search is for “sub-prime lender,” Google could also look for variations of lender, like lend or lending. So, if you include the phrases “We lend…” or “…leader in sub-prime lending,” you might increase the odds that Google will find the match.

Keyword prominence is another factor in scoring. Prominence refers to where the keywords are located. The higher up on the page, or the closer to the start of your title tag, the better the score. There is a delicate balance between making your site attractive with images and also including enough text to get exposure for the keywords. There is even a game of “cat and mouse” between the Web designers and search engines. One trick to manipulate the system is to flood the top of the page with keywords, using the same font color as the background color. Usually nobody would see them, and they do not clutter up the screen. However, to combat this, the engines check for the color match and punish the “offender.”  A technique that does work is to have a splash page with nothing but text, and an “enter here” hyperlink. This generates keyword prominence on the index page and then you get to see the glitter when you link to the next screen.

Another important SEO criterion is links from other sites. When I did a Google search for “mortgage broker” the results totaled 7,980,000. Out of nearly ten million possible matches, NAMB was the number one result. Why? Google gives a lot of weight to links—and not simply the number of links, but how active the linked sites are. NAMB surely has links to 50 state mortgage broker sites as well as numerous affiliate sites. While most organizations do not have the luxury of that many built-in links, you can constantly pursue “link swapping” with other related companies. Therefore, it is important to have an area in your site where you can trade links with “trusted affiliates.”

What about the “sponsored links” that you see displayed in prominent positions on the search screens? These are commercial spots that are sold by the search engine companies. It is the way they make money. How well they work for you would depend on how much you are willing to spend. You can pay as little as a nickel a hit, but some companies have to pay several hundred dollars per hit to get the results they are looking for. Paying the big bucks for the top spot is not only expensive, but it’s possible for your competition to repetitively click on your sponsored link, making you spend extra money for nothing.

An important factor in search engine optimization is to make sure that the pages in your site are accessible to the search engines. While the home page is heavily weighted, the internal pages will likely contain potential keyword matches. If the internal pages are buried in multiple levels, the engines may not find them. A good way to ensure that they are accessible is to include a site map. This is a page in your Web site that lists all the links of all the pages within the site. It is also a tool for navigating through the site.

Although the search engines will eventually find you, it is best to submit your site to them. There are companies that will offer to do this for you. Avoid ads that offer to submit your site to 400 search engines for $39.95. The first thing wrong with this is that you do not want to list your site on 400 engines spread around the globe. Would you want to be listed in a search engine that specializes in European folk music or medical textbooks? Either way, save your money and do it yourself.  You can do this manually, by going into the sites and finding their “submit” button. Should you do this every day or week? No, it does not do any good and could even be viewed as spamming. The best time to submit your site to the engines is when you have changed or added something.

You can also buy software that not only submits for you, but it can also help analyze your pages and rate the relevance of your keywords. A good one is Web Position 4. Another one that looks interesting is Trend Metrix, which offers a free SEO analysis on their site.

There are many firms that offer to handle SEO for you. As is typical in life, you get what you pay for. If you are willing to pay thousands of dollars to enhance your web visibility, then you will probably get results. On the other hand, it is fun to learn a new skill and save money at the same time. There are many ways to trim down the budget. DcDAR, Internet Marketing Consultants offers a free SEO tool kit that includes keyword analysis and position tracking.

There are several books that cover this subject. “Search Engine Optimization for Dummies” by Peter Kent has to be a good reference. Another interesting title is “Don’t Get Banned by the Search Engines!” by David Leonhardt. His claim is that Google is getting tough on search engine cheaters, and that some could get banned because web site owners may not even know they’re doing anything wrong.

Another totally free way to expand on your expertise is to visit SEO Web sites. One is Sitepronews.com This is a Web site that hosts free articles and has links to related sites. Another source of information is SEO Inc.

Whether you employ a web master or manage your own site, understanding SEO becomes increasingly important in a world where more business and communication is done on the Internet. SEO could get you exposure to hundreds or even thousands of extra potential customers.

By Thor Skonnord