Fundamentals of search engine optimization

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July 20/27; Retailer’s Guide to Digital Marketing

By Amanda Haskin

Search engines have revolutionized the buying process, giving consumers the ability to get information faster, find local businesses instantly and research extensively before buying. According to Internet Live Stats, Google now processes more than 40,000 search queries every second, which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.

“Between 70% and 90% of purchase processes start at a search window; your job as a business is to get found,” said Christine Whittemore, chief simplifier at Simple Marketing Now.

Every business with a digital presence strives to be found on Google’s elusive first page, but search engine results pages are constantly changing and business owners are often running to keep up. In fact, Google just made some major changes to its search rank algorithm earlier this year. The changes centered on mobile friendliness, with the site boosting the rankings of mobile-friendly pages on mobile search results.

“The No. 1 thing is the recognition that [search] changes every week, really every day,” said Jay Flynn, vice president of sales and marketing at Creating Your Space, an online marketing program for flooring retailers that focuses on website presence. “It’s not just that the search engines are changing algorithms, but your competition is also changing what they do every day, so you have to react to everything that’s going on in your marketplace. Search engine optimization, or SEO, is still by far the leading source of consumers going to [a business’] website.”

SEO vs. SEM

Both SEO and SEM (search engine marketing) aim to increase a site’s visibility on search engines. SEO, which can actually be an aspect of SEM, consists of strategies that organically improve the chances of a site being found by a search engine, while SEM goes beyond SEO to include other boosted search methods like paid ads.

“Basically, SEO is your free search and SEM is your paid search,” said Katherine Andes, web content developer and owner of betterwebsales.com. “SEO can be part of SEM in the sense you may have to pay someone to do your SEO for you, but you don’t have to pay a search engine.”

While paid ads are fairly straightforward, SEO is incredibly complex and requires a keen understanding of the Google algorithm, including the importance of unique content, links, keywords and review site optimization.

Content is king

According to Brafton, a content marketing agency, a sweeping 99% of buyers say web content affects purchase decisions. While having unique, relevant content is important in all aspects of digital marketing, it can also improve search ranking. In February 2011, Google introduced the Panda Update, which was intended to stop sites with poor quality content from ending up in Google’s top search results.

“Many years ago, there were multiple ways websites could essentially beat the system to gain at least short-term results in search engine rankings,” said Todd Callaway, director of digital content, Shaw Industries. “But these days, search engines are too sophisticated for that. They can recognize quality, relevant content, and it’s in their best interest to serve up the most relevant content to their users. That means the only real way to attract people to your site in the modern digital age is to create the kind of content people need, that they’re wanting to see, and that truly proves helpful.”

Many businesses hire companies to create content, but anyone with knowledge of the industry and an understanding of the marketplace can be successful. “When people say they don’t know what valuable content is, they are taking for granted the knowledge we have,” said Don Lovato, president of Carpet Source, Albuquerque, N.M. “The end user doesn’t know what we know. Provide interesting facts that resonate emotionally with that potential customer.”

Lovato created a page on his website called “FAQ videos,” detailing topics consumers should know before purchasing flooring. Videos include, “Do I need a special vacuum when I buy my new carpet?” and “I heard carpet is bad for people with allergies and asthma: Is that true?”

For Whittemore, content is also a way to define what sets a business apart from its competition. “Every single page on your website is another opportunity for your business to get found. Your goal for each page is to make it as strong as possible for one individual element of your business. Ask yourself, ‘What’s different about my business?’ You’ll come up with a bucket of terms, and that’s where you get into keywords. Each page needs to be unique.”

Andes finds most flooring companies don’t optimize their sites for the various products they sell and geographic territories they serve, causing them to miss out on many opportunities. “I’ve developed a method of creating portfolio pages,” she explained. “Let’s say my client does a job in a nearby city; we’ll create a page describing the job and showing off beautiful hardwood flooring in this house in Springville. By doing so you get the keywords, ‘Springville’ and ‘hardwood flooring.’ So when someone in Springville is looking for hardwood flooring, that page will pop up.”

For businesses that belong to buying groups and have microsites, it is important to utilize those custom pages in order to build unique content. “You want to make it personal,” said Todd Wright, owner of Flooring America by Carpet Smart, Springdale, Ark. “In these days of big box stores, people want more contact. We can go on there and personalize our page—how long we’ve been in business, the generations involved, charity work and our activities in our local communities.”

Showing up on review sites

Having a business reviewed on sites like Yelp, Google+ and Angie’s List not only attracts potential customers, it also helps a store’s information show up more prominently on search engine result pages.

Acquiring online reviews can be tricky as consumers are often driven to write negative reviews rather than good ones, and many business owners are hesitant about opening themselves up to feedback. “There is nothing more difficult than being a transparent brand and opening up to millions of people and consumer experiences nationwide,” said Seth Arnold, residential brand director, Mohawk Industries. “You have to have a multifaceted approach; go where they are and work at engaging them.”

Wright knows the importance of customer reviews, so for a period of time Carpet Smart sent customers mail-in forms to complete. “We went from that to using a form on the website, and now we’re asking for photos and videos that create more interaction and emotion. To actually see people’s faces and hear the emotion in their voices makes a huge difference.”

FloorForce, a company that specializes in website development and online marketing for flooring retailers, provides its customers with an online reputation management system called Review Force. “Google has put a lot of credence on review sites,” said John Weller, vice president. “We help people get listed in directories and on relevant sites, and also get reviews and then track conversions off those sites.”

Inbound links

Inbound links, or links coming from one page to connect to another, are not only a way to boost a business’ search ranking; they are also great marketing tools to get visitors onto a site and learn more about the store.

One way to garner inbound links is to make sure the business is listed on manufacturers’ sites as well as directories like Google Places, Yelp, Business Magnet and more. According to Weller, FloorForce has identified 138 directories and sites that are relevant to the flooring consumer, and Review Force gets a business listed correctly on all of them.

“The best way to get inbound links is to simply communicate with the webmaster,” Lovato added. “Send out emails that say, ‘Hey, it sounds like we have a common audience and I think we can help each other.’”

No man is an island

Most retailers agree they don’t have the time or the knowledge to dive into SEO and all its intricacies alone. “I know floors; I don’t know the Internet,” said Jerry Bush, owner of Stroup Flooring America, Frederick, Md. “You need someone to help you.” He added that in addition to getting digital marketing help from an outside source, retailers should also have someone in store who is at least a little digital savvy to add local, personal content to a store’s online marketing campaign.

Flooring America offers a program called G1 (or Google first page) to its members. “It’s a service utilized by our members that provides them with local online search marketing presence in their markets,” said Andrew Valeriani, vice president, digital marketing. “Through a combination of organic and paid search initiatives, the customizable member websites that are hosted and managed by Flooring America/Flooring Canada for members are positioned on page one of Google search results.”

If a retailer is handling SEO by himself, digital experts advise to beware of scams that sound too good to be true. “If anyone ever calls you up and promises you first place on Google for $99 a month, it’s a scam,” Weller said. “Every business is completely different. Without doing a full analysis and consultation and looking at the market and your website, no one can give you a price over the phone and guarantee anything.”

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