Optimize THIS

Perhaps one of the most aggravating questions Emily gets from clients is “How do I make sure I get to the top of a results list on the search engines?” People are obsessed with the rat race of making it to the top of the list.

Over the last few years, marketing mavens and IT propeller-heads alike have tried to trick the search engines by burying false key words (read: sex and all its sordid permutations) into the HTML code, using competitors’ names as meta-tags and other sophomoric pranks.

It’s become a sort of cat-and-mouse game: The web site promoters develop some kind of trick to increase their ranking, and the search companies figure a way to block it. It’s akin to the virus protection software cycle with the viruses in this case being the people who think they’re being clever.

There has been no lack of articles on the web about using the search engines to promote your site. There are even some Internet companies who boast this as their core competency. It’s ironic, however, that the same attention hasn’t been paid to articles about how not to obsess over search engine rankings.

Brand Your Site at the URL Corral

If you were looking for a book on a specific topic, would you first go to Yahoo or Snap and run a search using the phrase “books about best revenge tricks”? Most likely, you’d go directly to your favorite online bookstore; the one whose URL you already know by heart or have bookmarked in your browser. You’d search for ways to get even with your old boss there.

The big online booksellers have spent their time and energy not on obsessing over the search engine optimization. They have instead created the brand that draws users directly to them without the benefit of a search engine or directory.

Granted, behemoths like Amazon have also bought precious real estate on Yahoo As a result, they come up on virtually every search. But they bought this space as an advertising strategy, not for optimization of search rankings.

One health care system in California studied how people reached its site. Like many sites that have weak branding, they found over 70 percent of their traffic was driven by search engines. Rather than succumb to the frenzy of optimizing their rankings, however, they tried to figure out a way around them.

After a redesign and re-launch of their site (supported by an extensive community marketing campaign) they found that about 50 percent of users were coming directly to their marketed URL. They took control of the promotion of their site and asked users to come directly to them as the local trusted source of health information.

They decided they didn’t want to leave it up to the gamble of the search engines in the hope that users would find them. Instead, they made it clear they were the one-stop in their community for health information.

Pick Me! Pick Me! Pick Me!

In one past article, the author tried to encourage web site owners that while the web has some 600 million web pages (many more since the publication of that article), search engine AltaVista had indexed only 150 million. So, chin up!

Last month, we were visiting friends in Oakland, Calif. Beforehand, though, we decided to have dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. After walking up and down a strip of about six blocks, we realized the restaurant no longer existed. However, we walked past at least seven nail salons, all with the same kinds of signs and manicurists sitting inside with surgical masks (to avoid the constant exposure to nail glue fumes). You couldn’t tell one from another, even among just seven.

The same is true about search engines, times 600 million. The biggest drawback of putting all your effort into search engine optimization is that even if you are among the top twenty results on a search, the results provide you no way to differentiate yourself from the rest. Take that one step further with the assumption that you’ll be buried somewhere around result number 67, and you see the difficulty in differentiation!

How Do You Spell “Get Over It”?

If you’re not in public relations, listen up. The only guarantee you have of getting media coverage is if you buy the space or time. In other words, lay off the public relations staff and start bugging your advertising people.

Just like the media, the only guarantee you get of exposure on a search engine is if you buy the space. Many companies with deep pockets have already bought up all the choice key words. For example, if you run a search on “antique cars,” you see a banner ad for Sotheby’s Auction House. Of course, we can’t explain why you get a banner for eBay when you run a search on “snail bait.”

The bottom line is that you don’t want to leave it up to the search engines to determine the fate of your site. If you’re in any way responsible for the return on investment of your Internet strategy, then build in marketing and promotions the old fashioned way by building relationships with your key audiences, creating a brand awareness, and by creating and maintaining a site that people will want to visit repeatedly.

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