Today we make a departure from our regularly scheduled programming. Whereas we have been focused on the various benefits of customer relationship management software to a wide variety of industries, there are a number of other services that are of benefit to businesses both large and small. In particular, the ability of a business to show up in search rankings, preferably towards the top ten listings, is going to be critical to their success. If people are searching for your services or products, and your business is buried on page 4 of the search results, the chances are high that you are not going to be able to gain traction in the market.
The art and science of making your web page appear higher in search engine rankings is called search engine optimization (or SEO for short). This is an entire industry unto its own, so the aim of this article is not to make you a wizard in SEO, rather we hope to give you enough information that you can seek out the help of a qualified professional. In other words, we want you to know enough to be able to vet SEO service companies.
What is a Search Engine Anyway?
Before we dive into how to find an SEO service company, let’s take some time to review the basics of the area. This will better prepare you to ask intelligent questions, and be sure that you aren’t getting taken for a ride. Make no mistake, just as with any other industry, there are some legitimate players as well as some outright scammers. Knowing the fundamentals can help you to distinguish between the two.
Oh, and if it wasn’t’ clear from the beginning, by search engine we mean Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc.
So what exactly IS a search engine, anyway? Well, when you type in a search term the search engine has to do a search of indexed (cataloged) pages on the internet. The search engine has a particular algorithm for indexing these pages, and establishing their relevancy to your search. An algorithm is kind of like a recipe. It’s a sequence of steps that always yield the correct answer to a problem. If you think back to grade school and how you were taught to do long division, that was an example of an algorithm. It was a series of steps you followed to get the right answer each and every time.
This search algorithm is what keeps pages about cute kittens from showing up when you do a Google search for dress clothes. It looks at information on the web page and determines what the content is about. It then compares that to similar pages and ranks it for relevancy to your search. When you conduct a Google search, the Google algorithms will attempt to order pages in the sequence it thinks is most relevant to what you want to know.
The algorithms are quite complex, and in fact the search engines don’t disclose the exact workings of to anybody. Naturally, if people knew exactly how the algorithm worked they would leverage that knowledge to get their page to the top of the rankings. While the search engine companies do a good job of keeping the details under wraps, quite a lot is known about the general workings of search engines. Enough so that we can take certain steps to increase the likelihood that our webpage will rank highly in the search engine.
What Factors are Used in Rankings?
We don’t know the precise weighting of each factor in how the search engine ranks the page, but we can make some pretty educated guesses. One of the important factors the engine uses is on page keywords. If your webpage has the text “cheap dress shirts”, then this is a good signal of the content of your webpage. If you have the words “dress shirts” and “cheap dress shirts” appearing several times, this lets the engine know that your page is about inexpensive dress clothing.
One might think, just by considering this that having a page with “cheap dress shirts” appearing 10,000 times would generate a highly ranked page. Not so! The algorithm is smart enough to know when you are making a blatant attempt to game it, so it would in fact penalize your rankings for such obvious tomfoolery. Keyword stuffing is the process of over using keywords on your site, and it almost always backfires. Keyword placement must be natural and organic.
Another key factor in search engine rankings is incoming links. Think of it this way: when you want to do business with a company, you tend to care about their reputation. In particular, you give extra weight to advice from reputable sources. If some hobo on the street tells you that the local Chinese restaurant is really good, you’re not likely to give it much thought. If your company’s CEO tells you that the local Chinese restaurant is fantastic, you’ll probably give it much more credence. Search engines operate in a similar manner. If your website has many links to it from external websites, then this can boost your rankings. If you have links from highly reputable external sites, then this can boost your rankings even more.
Other factors that influence rankings, although not as strongly, include:
- Mobile optimization – that’s right, the search engines know that mobile devices are more and more important in our daily lives. Those websites that are mobile optimized are given higher rankings (all other things being equal) because they provide a better user experience
- Site loading – if your webpage takes forever to load, then Google knows this and can give you a small penalty. Again, this has to do with user experience. The search engines are in the business of connecting people with information quickly and efficiently, so any page that takes forever to load is not helping them meet that goal.
- Social metrics – of course, social media is another huge trend in the modern digital era. The search engines know this and place some weight on the amount of social media activity your page generates. Since this is easily gamed, it is probably one of the least important factors.
As you can see, the process of determining which pages show up in which spot in rankings is quite complex. There is quite a bit you can do to make sure your page climbs up the rankings, and most of it is centered on what maximizes the utility of your website for your visitors.
Black Hat vs. White Hat SEO
Now, I mentioned earlier the possibility of gaming the system. As it turns out, it’s not really necessary to know the exact inner workings of the algorithm to exploit some of its features. The art and science of SEO that deals with exploiting the search engines algorithms is called black hat SEO.
It would be dishonest to say that it doesn’t work, because it does. At least, in the short term. Your page may be able to climb up the rankings for competitive terms if you use black hat techniques, and this could very well work for a while. However, the search engine providers don’t like this (would you want someone exploiting your business?) and once you’re discovered, your page will be banned from the results. That’s right. The webpage you spent hours and hours designing and deploying won’t even show up in the search engine results page. This is a huge penalty, and the devastation it can bring to your business could be catastrophic.
In contrast, white hat SEO relies on generating useful content for the visitors, interacting within your broad community to generate incoming traffic and inbound links, and generally attempting to make your webpage as useful as possible. This is the approach that should always be taken, as it can never fail. You can never be banned for providing the best possible content and networking with other reputable sites within your niche. This is what the search engines intend, and it is what benefits visitors the most.
A dose of reality, however. White hat SEO takes time. Lots of time. For competitive search terms, it could take an entire year to reach the first page of Google search rankings. While this may seem like a long time, a year is going to pass anyway. There is nothing you can do to stop time, so if you are going to build a lasting brand you may as well take the long term approach and play it safe.
How to Select an SEO Service Provider
Now we come to the real question you had. How do I select someone to do all of this complicated stuff for me? After all, you’re in the business of making money, not ranking web pages (that’s someone else’s business), so who do you call?
As with most things in life, a great place to start is within your own personal network. The chances are high that you have business friends and acquaintances that have used an SEO service provider in the past. Reach out to them and see what their experience was. Make sure they got the results they wanted, which is ultimately more leads, phone calls, business, etc.
When you have the name of a firm, you can reach out to them to see how they can help you. Don’t be afraid to ask for some details of their plan, as you are going to be investing in their business for the long term. Again, don’t be short sited. Make sure you can work with these people for years to come. Make sure that their plan falls under the category of white hat SEO, so you don’t have to lose sleep at night worrying that the next update to Google’s algorithm will get your website banned.
A final word. Remember that SEO takes time, and that you can’t expect immediate results. In the best case, if you are a small business and using a local SEO service provider, you can climb in rankings in a matter of weeks or months. If you’re a more national or global brand, its’ going to take a year to see results.
I hope this rather short and dirty introduction to SEO services was helpful. We covered what goes into search engine rankings, how they work, and what to look for in a service provider. Don’t let the highly technical nature of the topic intimidate you. The help of the best SEO service providers can make things quite simple, and help your business thrive in the long term.