Search engine marketing (SEM) is the most important traffic driver on the web. You cannot build a successful website in 2009 without a search engine strategy.
“But Josh… what’s so great about search engine marketing?”
Are you seriously asking, or just being a twit? More people start their web browsing in a search engine than don’t, and search is now built into every browser. For effect, let’s summarize the functionality of the 10 most popular websites on planet Earth:
- Yahoo.com — a web page search engine & directory
- Google.com — a web page search engine
- Youtube.com — a video search engine
- Live.com — a web page search engine
- MSN.com — a web page search engine & directory
- Myspace.com — a human search engine
- Wikipedia.org — a knowledge search engine & directory
- Facebook.com — a human search engine
- Blogger.com — a blog search engine & platform
- Yahoo.co.jp — a web page search engine & directory
Source: Alexa Global Top 500
Think about some other sites you use: Ebay is a search engine for used goods, Amazon a search engine for books, Flickr a search engine for photos.
Life for businesses used to be about outbound marketing (go find your customer and beat them in the face until they buy something). Not anymore; this is the decade of inbound marketing, and on the web that means search engine marketing.
“Fine, search engines are sexy… but why do I need a strategy?”
(For today, let’s just talk about the web page search engines.)
In 2009, search engines are too important for dial-an-expert SEO outsourcing. You can — and probably should — outsource some of the planning or execution of your search engine marketing, but you cannot be a decision maker in a web development process without understanding search.
Let’s clarify two things here:
- Search engine marketing is the promotion of your website through search engine results pages (SERPs). Search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click advertising (PPC), and other tactics are all a part of this broad category.
- The overemphasis of “SEO” in search engine marketing is a huge mistake. So-called “on page optimization” is one small part of a search engine strategy.
Itemizing is fun, so let’s follow up with four assertions:
- Search engine strategy cannot be an isolated process. You must break down search marketing into a phased approach that is executed in tandem with the rest of your web strategy.
- A strategy for search engine marketing must compromise with what happens AFTER a visitor reaches your site. To wit; if your t-shirt store ranks for porn terms, you’re not going to sell much.
- You cannot execute on a search engine strategy without the willing cooperation of the collective web. Bottom line: be worth caring about, or go away.
- You cannot game the system. If your time horizon is less than 12-months, you can learn the latest gimmicks and be a flash in the pan… if you’re lucky. If your time horizon is any longer, you have no choice but to work hard for your rank.
I’d like to define the process by which you, a person trying to make a website worth caring about, should approach search.
The 5-step process: Search engine strategy –> Content strategy –> Search engine optimization –> Link building –> Refresh & extend
See, it’s easy! Just kidding.
Search Engine Strategy
During: RESEARCH & DISCOVERY
Tactics: KEYWORD RESEARCH, COMPETITIVE ANALYSIS, WEBSITE ANALYTICS
Definition: What you target matters more than whether or not you’re optimized for it. Up front, before you know what kind of website to build (or how to redesign the one you have), you need to define your goals (and make sure they’re reasonable and actionable). This process involves determining how your target market is using search, what terms you can competitively target, and what you might already have the edge on. If you are unwilling to consider search behavior as an input towards defining your entire web strategy — that is, if you try to add “SEO” after you’ve gone through the web development process — you will be at a significant disadvantage.
During: INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE
Tactics: CONTENT AUDIT, SITE SCULPTING, INTERNAL LINK STRATEGY, USER EXPERIENCE
Definition: Remember that the web isn’t made up of sites, it’s made up of pages. How you build a site — the pages you create and the way they connect to each other — is a vital part of search engine strategy. Part of the process of determining your architecture and user experience should account for how the site will look to search engines. If you intend search engines to be your primary acquisition media, you better have a chart that demonstrates every keyword you target, which page targets that keyword, and how the other pages can reinforce that targeting.
Search Engine Optimization
During: DESIGN & DEVELOPMENT
Tactics: CONTENT CREATION, PAGE-LEVEL TARGETING, HTML OPTIMIZATION, DESIGN BEST PRACTICES
Definition: I’ll admit it, sometimes ranking in search engines does have to do with SEO. Write your content with an eye towards your keyword targeting, with proper HTML tagging and a healthy animosity towards non-accessible technology. Getting the right title and H1 tags goes a long way. But tread carefully, as you can go overboard — and frequently SEO consultants do — by sacrificing the usefulness of your content. SEO is only one component of design & development.
During: DETACH & DISTRIBUTE
Tactics: BLOGGER OUTREACH, SOCIAL MEDIA OPTIMIZATION, ARTICLE MARKETING, PUBLIC RELATIONS, PAY-PER-CLICK ADVERTISING
Definition: At least 75% of search rank is determined by the links pointing to your site. Engage in smart link building activities by reaching out to the rest of the web and detaching your content from your site to distribute it on other web properties. As a broad category, this is about the things you do outside your site (“off page optimization”). While you’re at it, shore up deficiencies on important keywords you struggle to rank for by buying clicks.
Refresh and Extend
Tactics: CONTENT CREATION, BLOGGING, USER GENERATED CONTENT
Definition: Search engines are built to find the most relevant and well respected content. The more comprehensive your coverage of a keyword cluster and the more recent your additions, the better you’ll do. You cannot view a proper search engine strategy as anything but a long term plan, a continual investment of time and/or money towards the most important acquisition media that exists on our planet.