Getting Search-Savvy to Land a Premium
Beyond Ink is part of new industry that has sprung up to help businesses improve their search results. They call themselves "search engine optimizers." Some, like Beyond Ink, deal mostly with large and mid-sized companies. Beyond Ink, which recently rebuilt the Web site for JibJab, a popular humor site, charges between $30,000 to $60,000 to totally redesign a complex site.
Consumers increasingly are using search engines to locate businesses. That means a company's bottom line may depend on landing a premium spot on search result pages.
There's only so much room at the top. Studies show that few people dig more than three pages.
For industries that rely heavily on Internet marketing, such as tourism, the competition for premium spots has been going on for years. Businesses like hotels and whitewater rafting companies frequently revamp their sites to keep pace with their competitors and the ever-changing site-ranking formulas of search engines, like Google, Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) and Ask.com.
However, most small-business owners are oblivious to the issue, said Greg Burke, who owns IMS-21, a marketing and Web site development company based in Kennebunk, Maine.
Many companies are so complacent that they don't realize that their slick-looking sites are invisible to the Web-crawling robots that search engines use to gain information.
"Far too many people don't understand the difference between a properly designed Web site and a Web site that simply looks good to the human eye," he said. "Some of the prettiest sites simply can't be found."
Within the past two years, there has been a shift in the way many large companies think about their Web sites, said Alex Bennert, a partner with Beyond Ink, a Portland firm that helps national companies rebuild their Web sites.
Whereas companies once saw their Web sites as online brochures, they are now spending tens of thousands of dollars to create sites that are accessible to the Web-crawling robots.
Some of the programs that make Web sites appealing to humans -- like Flash animation -- can't be read by the robots, she said. Also, robots can only read text, so a clean-looking site with lots of photos and not much text isn't going to get much notice, she said.
Beyond Ink is part of new industry that has sprung up to help businesses improve their search results. They call themselves "search engine optimizers." Some, like Beyond Ink, deal mostly with large and mid-sized companies. Beyond Ink, which recently rebuilt the Web site for JibJab, a popular humor site, charges between US$30,000 to $60,000 to totally redesign a complex site.
There are other companies -- both national and local -- that help small companies and charge a lot less.
Kovensky paid Burke $600 to fix his Web site and make it easier to find.
Burke created new metatags, the invisible text that gives information about the contends of a page, and submitted the URL to search engines. He also instructed Kovensky to comb through the site and fix all the typographical mistakes. Errors reduce Web site rankings.
Over a period of a few months, Kovensky watched the site climb up in rankings. The bakery, which is run by his wife, Onaiwu Kovensky, is now found on page two in Google for a search with the words "Maine wedding cakes." Another way to score high rankings, the experts say, is to put search words in the domain name rather than the company name. The top Google search result for "Maine wedding cakes," for example, is a Biddeford, Maine, company called "Edible Delights Bakery," which uses the domain name of maineweddingcakes.com.
Keep Up With Trends
Web sites that are frequently updated and offer high-quality, useful content also score high. Dave Koenig, co-owner of the Fine Art Print Gallery in Bath, Maine, uses a Web site to sell the prints of Maine artists. He adds new information to the site every day.
"The more you change the site," he explained, "the more activity you have, and the higher they put you in the search." Search engines use a vast nest of mathematical formulas to allow people to use keywords to find the most relevant, popular and useful Web sites. However, search engines don't want companies to cheat and build sites around the formulas, so they don't disclose them.
Companies eventually figure them out anyway, so the search engines must change them frequently, said Daniel Eosco of Maine Hosting Solutions, a Bath company that offers search engine promotion services for small businesses.
As a result, there is an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the search engines and Web consultants, he said.
To keep up with the trends, he said, he travels out of state to attend expensive conferences and reads a half dozen search engine newsletters a week.
He said most Web site designers know little about the technical art of search engine optimization.
"They are graphic artists who come from the print media and want to design a beautiful site, but they don't want anything to do with marketing side," he said. "Search engine optimization is a full-time job."
A Simple Solution
Blaine Miller, a Maine guide in Norridgewock, Maine, who runs a high-ranking Web site www.allagashguide.com, said the trick of winning in the search engine game is actually quite simple. Companies must identify the search words their potential customers are using.
"You got to think like the people looking up for whatever you offer," he said. "You got to think like they do. You got to put yourself in their place."
Getting links from other Web sites -- particularly from related sites -- is a sure way boost search engine rankings, experts say. However, it's time consuming, requiring business owners to network with other business owners and asking for links.
Huge Payoffs Possible
As in anything, money talks. The quickest way to win top placement on a search engine page is to simply buy it. Pay-per-click programs allow companies to bid against each other for premium placement related to specific search words. These are the ads that appear at the side or top of search engine result pages.
Pay-per-click can get expensive, though. A better long-term strategy for a small business, Burke said, is ensure its Web site is search engine friendly.
The payoff can be huge, he said. A site's popularity is one of the biggest factors in the search engine formulas. So once a site is able to climb its way to the top, Burke said, it will stay there because more people will end up clicking on it. Unlike pay-per-click ads, it's free.
"It's like a snowball," he said. "Once you get that snowball going, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. But you just have to get that snowball moving."
--By Tom Bell
Portland Press Herald
07/08/07 4:00 AM PT