People make assumptions about Web sites that achieve top search engine visibility. They believe, for example, a Web site must be a valuable source of information, or it wouldn’t have a top 10 position in Google, Yahoo, or MSN Search. The site must generate millions of dollars in revenue. And even if a site doesn’t convert visitors into buyers, top positions surely deliver a positive branding impact… right?
This column addresses the myths and misconceptions about the branding impact of top search engine positions through “natural” SEO (define).
Myths and Assumptions
I hear all the aforementioned assumptions on a daily basis from prospects, clients, and colleagues. Because I hear them so frequently, it’s clear top search engine positions deliver a positive branding message, even though that message is frequently inaccurate.
Some SEO and SEM (define) firms like to combine search engine advertising with SEO to achieve brand visibility from the Web search engines. One firm, for example, likes to have search engine ads display alongside a top 10, natural search engine result. In this situation, when searchers scan the first page of search results, they’ll often see a company’s brand two or three times.
Other firms like to have the brand distributed on multiple pages. If a Web page has a top-10 position, for example, the search engine ad is moved to the second page of search results. With this method, companies can minimize search advertising costs when natural SEO delivers top visibility.
I’m not going to dispute the initial positive branding impact of top search engine positions. I emphasize the word “initial” because a positive branding experience can disappear with only one click. Does your site deliver a positive branding experience from SERP (define) to Web site?
Branding in Search Results
In crawler-based search engine results, a listing typically has three components: title (contains the hyperlink to a Web page), short description, and URL (Web address).
Many search engine optimizers emphasize keyword placement in the HTML title tag to help Web pages to rank, and rightly so. If I were to pick one optimization strategy that can be easily implemented on most sites, writing unique and keyword-rich title-tag content would be at the top of my list.
A Web page’s description is derived from the meta-tag description, a snippet from a Web page, or both. How effective is your meta-tag description or snippet? Does it encourage searchers to click the link to your Web site? Or is it a collection of comma-separated keyword phrases?
Finally, a page’s URL is also displayed. Although a page’s URL structure is never or rarely used to determine relevancy, it certainly can indicate to searchers whether the link to your site is a good match. In the following example, which URL do you believe will bring you to a site that sells hiking boots?
Web site owners have a great deal of control over how their listings appear in search engine results. A keyword-stuffed title tag, page description, and URL won’t communicate a positive brand message. Likewise, a search result with no query words highlighted in it won’t encourage a click to a site. Achieving balance is key.
Branding After the Click
How many of you have engaged in the following conversation?
Client: My competitor has a number-one position.
Shari: Yes, but when you click on the link to the site, the site looks unprofessional and unpolished. The page takes a long time to download, too. Even if people click on that link, they hit the “back” button very quickly.
Client: Yeah, but they have a number-one search engine position.
Aside from the fact search engine positions aren’t permanent, many of my clients (and newbies to the SEO and SEM industry in general) don’t understand the positive brand message can disappear within seconds. Let’s use a news-publishing site as an example.
Suppose the publisher delivers content to the news search engines and receives initial, qualified traffic. When searchers click on the site link, however, they’re delivered to a Web page that tells them they must subscribe to view the news article.
What message does that send to searchers? Clearly, the usability experience is poor because people expect to view a news article, not an HTML-based subscription form. Eventually, searchers figure out if they click a link to a particular Web site (remember, the URL is displayed in search results), they won’t see the information they’re searching for. Ultimately, it’s a poor brand experience.
Furthermore, due to the negative usability and brand experience, people aren’t likely to link to a news article from that particular publication. So a poor brand experience in the Web search engines can affect a site’s link development.
Whenever Web developers and designers create a Web site, they should always consider what each Web page communicates to site visitors and search engine spiders. Title- and meta-tag content not only help achieve top search engine positions, but they also encourage searchers to visit a Web page.
In addition, the positive brand experience gained from top search positions will easily disappear if searchers’ expectations aren’t met. Usability certainly has a large influence on a positive branding experience — and in search results.
Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 27-March 2.
Please take the time to participate in ClickZ’s short reader survey, which will be live until March 3. To thank you for your participation, ClickZ will make a donation to charity on your behalf for every survey completed. Details of the charities you can nominate are provided at the end of the questionnaire.
Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.