By Larry Sivitz
“You can’t hang on without a handle,” a hall-of-fame, “Mad Men” era marketing pundit once said to me. Nowhere is that axiom truer than on the global Internet. Search engines are the handle that open the door to the Internet’s vast corridors of knowledge and stores of digital content. The SERP or Search Engine Results Page turns the handle to a Web site’s most relevant content wherever on your site it appears, no longer linking only to your Web site’s home page but to the internal, departmental Site Links that frame your content’s infrastructure. And search engines add essential discovery by “introducing” your blog, RSS feeds, local profile and social media assets. ‘”You are what you optimize'” ought to be the mantra for every online business, including B2B and non-profit organizations, even without a direct return-on-investment profit motive. Here’s why!
First, what does SEO actually mean to a Website and to a company? The role of online search engine optimization done right (whether labeled SEO, SEM, PPC, SEV, SEO-RM or ROI) is one of the most sadly misunderstood issues in online marketing.
On its surface, the question of search engine optimization for certain “classes” of business may seem unnecessary or even superfluous. “We’re not a lead generation site” is a common puzzlement for non-profits or exclusive membership sites. Why should we make the effort to architect, wordsmith and otherwise promote our Website when, like the theme song of TV’s ‘Cheers,’ “Everybody knows your name!”?
The Search Engine Is a Map and a Navigator: It Drives Visitors to What Is Most Relevant to Them
Today the name that everybody really knows when they go online isn’t Cheers. It’s Google. That’s the brand that Web surfers not only know best, but actually type first when attempting to locate a Website, blog, discussion forum, Facebook page, YouTube video, white paper or other digital asset. Google is very often the first stop EVEN WHEN users KNOW THE NAME of the Website (and, of course, in most cases they don’t even need to visit Google because the search query box is built right into their Web browser or situated inside a browser toolbar.)
Of the billions of search engine queries that occur each month on search engines like Google, over 30% are searches for physical URLs, meaning the full Web address of the domain in question is being typed into the search engine query box, not into the browser address bar.
Why ask for directions from a search engine? Ask yourself the following question: Is the Website for the American Cancer Society reachable at AmericanCancerSociety.com or is it .org, or is it CancerSociety.org or ACS.gov? Actually, it’s none of these domains. The American Cancer Society is reachable at only one address www.cancer.org (and cancer.com is ANOTHER web site entirely). Even among those who already know the cancer.org address, more than 30% of users will turn to Google anyway as the Wayfinder and “digital concierge” to travel the last mile through cyberspace from Google to their destination.
Beyond the 30% who use engines as their primarynavigation method, another one-third immediately look for an on-site search engine once they arrive at a site, choosing the search method of wayfinding on the destination Website itself instead of shifting into browse mode, to hone in on the results they are looking for.
Truth be told, your site’s home page, menu bar and carefully thought-through navigation is no longer the most effective way to locate the most specialized content or link to the various departments within your site’s architecture (the signposts that are presented as indented “Site Links” on Google).
Today. the search engine is your Website’s, if not your company’s, front lobby! It doubles for the building directory and the express elevators to get you to the right floor non-stop. In the case of the American Cancer Society, the Web visitor can travel directly from Google to the Society’s Statistics page in one click, or to the Donations page or to the Employment page or the Contact page. There is simply no need to interpret the graphical user interface of a site’s navigation system for your customers to get where they are going.
It’s the same with the other assets an organization puts online. Should the Web reader need a picture of the company’s headquarters or its president or products, it is usually easier to select the Google Images tab at the top of the search results page to find it. Or the Google News tab for one-click access to late breaking press. Or the Maps tab for driving directions via Google Local. And they can subscribe to Google to be notified when any changes occur to your Website via RSS Feed.
Getting the picture? Would you be surprised that this ease of navigation is the LEAST significant reason for using SEO for those who thought they never needed SEO?
Search Engines No Longer Simply Find Websites, They Rate Content — By Authority!
As the previous example points out, the shortest distance between a Web user’s intention to learn something about an organization, or simply to browse its Website, and the actual location of the Web content, is a search engine.
But just how important is the content of one site vs. another? What site owners tend to forget is that the intellectual assets that live on a Web page, whether they are produced by noted experts or are consumer-generated by users, (like a comment to a blog post or a reply to a discussion forum), are ranked by the engines for popularity and authority.
That means a search engine “values” a Web page, a brand, an image, an article, in effect, your company’s “Net” worth, by subjecting it to a popularity contest hundreds of times each day, pitting one site’s content directly against its competition. How do you measure up in your field next to another organization, publication, trade show conference, or news item? This is not market share but mind share we are talking about.
By neglecting SEO, an organization is unwittingly accepting a lower station in the Internet’s ecosystem than it deserves, creating the impression that it is lower in content authority and comparative value to sites that rank higher. Like ISO 9000 or Six Sigma standards, organizations that demonstrate quality through best practices earn respect. The absence of a high SEO standard is becoming the online equivalent to presenting a poorly designed Website to the public or a 404 Not Found error.
Ultimately it is the authority of an organization’s people that is “evaluated” by search engines and other social media outlets. Google’s new AgentRank patent is designed to make “search rankings” a factor of “Who’s Who.” What this means is that a search engine ranking will be inextricably tied to the credibility and authority of the content’s authors, each of whom will have a “Trust rating” based on the number of articles they publish and the number of links they garner. Wait a second. Did we just say the number of links a Web page has will determine its author’s credibility, and vice-versa? You can bet your reputation on it!
Reputation Management – The Search Engine As Review Site
Microsoft’s Bing search engine states its mission is to present viewers with enough insights to make up their minds before ever visiting the Website. One of the ways Bing is doing this is by adding “structured data” to search results including user reviews, star ratings, and critiques that have appeared in guides or news. Clearly, making sure an organization has its best foot forward in the search results, or at least presents “their side of the story,” is essential for safeguarding a business name and preserving a quality reputation.
No organization, association or cause is immune to the backlash of a negative review, or to the creation of an adversarial Website that shows up alarmingly close to the domain name under attack. In the age of Twitter tweets, blog commentary, and Epinions, maintaining a safe distance from Internet gossip and cross-talk is more than advisable.
A burgeoning field in this regard is SE-RM, short for Search Engine Reputation Management, and it is the science of “ownng” the search engine results page for your brand name by creating secondary listings in addition to your primary domain. These secondary listings crowd out the competition letting you isolate and insulate your brand name.
What are secondary search engine listings? They could be any number of things: blogs that are published by your organization. RSS Feeds syndicated by Google’s Feedburner, articles placed in Wikipedia or Google’s Knol, or a published article about your organization that has been optimized to rank for your trade name. Other placements include Wiki pages, Flickr galleries, YouTube videos and social media profiles like LinkedIn, Facebook or MySpace.
All roads may lead to Rome, but on the Internet, they all lead through a search engine. Web searchers are letting the search engines pick the winners and are basing their brand preference on the Web’s “tables of contents.” Any Web owner who ignores this hierarchy won’t just feel ignored by the general public and the media, they’ll be ignored!
Public Constituencies — Getting the Message to the Larger Audience of the World Wide Web
Marketing and public relations align in online communication like in no other media. Consider the concepts of brand loyalty, customer retention, and brand preference. These ideas have little to do with “cold prospect lead generation” but everything to do with how a Website galvanizes its existing audience and reinforces its brand identity in the minds of its many fans, friends and interested followers.
A core communications strategy for both non-profit and non-public entities begins with the questions: “What do you want your audience to believe? What are the messages you will use to reach them? Exploring these answers allows you to begin to think like an online publisher and develop an editorial plan that reaches your global, national or regional audience. But not just one audience.
While every company clearly has a primary target audience, a great deal of link currency will be invested in a Website by the secondary audiences. Remember, every organization has a variety of stakeholders, from members and sponsors, to directors, investors, shareholders, suppliers, subcontractors and employees, to government influencers, regulators, and the media at large. To brand an organization as a trusted resource, and cultivate linking relationships, reaching these audience segments with the right content is crucial. Thought leaderships is key.
While thoughtful content is the lifeblood of Web publishing, online search visibility is the platform that connects that content with its constituents. Visibility on the Web is a natural by-product of outreach to affinity groups and generating links from the communities that orbit your sphere of influence. There are dozens of methods to propagate links based on outstanding content. Making your content easy to find is a prerequisite.
This article demonstrates why SEO must be an increasingly essential and integral part of every Web site property, irrespective of the revenue model or the exclusivity of the audience. Navigation, Content Authority, Reputation and Audience Persuasion are the four pillars of SEO for those who never thought they needed online visibility. By “positioning Web content” to establish thought leadership and search engine authority in an organization’s area of expertise, the multi-faceted benefits of search marketing success can be realized. [24×7]
Larry Sivitz is the president and chief digital strategist of SearchWrite Search Marketing.
He has served many of the Internet’s leading online marketers as a search analyst,consultant, trainer and program designer.
Visit www.searchwrite.com for more information.