Whalen cautions that incorporating the right keywords can accomplish only so much. "Really, if you just have a site selling the same thing that 100,000 other sites are selling, and you don't have anything unique about it, these days you're not going to get found in the engines just because you put the right words on the page — it's just gotten so much more sophisticated."
"Years ago we could make any site rank highly. We can't do that anymore — it's too crowded."
The Really Important Part: Link Building
Experts point out that optimizing a site's pages is only part of the job. Since Google and Yahoo rank a site largely based on its incoming links, link building is the biggest booster of search engine visibility.
"Link building is very, very important," says Sullivan. Notes Fallon: link building "is 80 or 90 percent of the game."
It's not just the quantity of links to a merchant's site, but the quality. An incoming link from a major industry hub counts far more than one from an obscure personal page. A top-ranked site will have thousands or tens of thousands of links to it, from a broad mix of leading sites and less-trafficked sites.
When a merchant gets link building help from an SEO expert, it typically takes two forms: the cheap way, or the more expensive way.
On the economy plan, the SEO expert tells the merchant the best practices for link building, and gives advice about what hubs to approach. There isn't too much value in this, Fallon says. "You can learn very quickly, online, for very low cost, everything about link building, and go out and do all the work yourself."
The more expensive option is to have the SEO firm actually do the link building work. This constant soliciting of links is time consuming and tedious work, and can be expensive — but invaluable in terms of increasing ranking.
If the SEO firm does the link building work, Fallon says, "Then it becomes a cost-benefit analysis to say, 'I'm going to pay you this much money, and how many links are you going to give me? What about quality of links? What exactly am I going to get for my money in terms of link building?'"
The Dark Side of Link Building
Because link building is the key to high ranking, many businesses have sprung up to help sites quickly create links — and not all of these businesses are wearing white hats.
Some unscrupulous SEO firms use "link farms" to artificially create hundreds or thousands of links to a merchant overnight. A link farm is a site (or series of sites) that exists solely to link to other sites, sometimes with machine-generated content to make them appear real. Some merchants spend large amounts to be linked to from link farms, but the benefit is negligible, experts say.
Link farms can be expensive, Low notes. An unscrupulous company will provide a mass of links, "and it starts working for you, and you say 'I'm not sure I want to keep paying this money,' so then they sell those links to somebody else."
In some cases, merchants have reported horror stories of disappearing from the search engines once the search engines realized that their ranking came chiefly from a link farm.
But these stories are, for the most part, overblown. "It's more the case that, you got involved with a link farm, you got a benefit from it, they [the engines] discovered the benefit, and the benefit went away," Sullivan notes. "They didn't drop you — you're at a point where you would have been without the link farm." (Of course if a site has few links besides their link farm links, they may virtually disappear.)
"A good company will not be getting you involved with link farms," Sullivan says. "They'll be building you links, and they'll be doing it in a way that you won't have anything to be fearful of."
Old Fashioned PR
A big part of a quality link building campaign — whether done by an SEO firm or the merchant themselves — is good old-fashioned marketing: press releases (optimized with the best keywords), phone calls, e-mail campaigns, and the like.
"When you get the word out there, you're going to get links to your site naturally," Whalen says. "But you do have to do some work to making sure people know your site exists."
A quality SEO campaign is time consuming and can be costly. However, "A lot of people have realized that those search listings are absolutely imperative to the success of their business," Low notes. "Everyone has to make a decision on their own: what is it worth to them?"
James Maguire is a contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com. This article originally appeared on ECommerce-Guide.com.
|Do you have a comment or question about this article or other e-commerce topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com E-Commerce Forum. Join the discussion today!|