For millions of websites, publishers, and online businesses, search is still the king. While social media may have the media's attention and Twitter and Facebook are garnering a lot of the hype, search still trumps them when it comes to driving traffic and being discovered by potential new customers.
Because of the importance of search traffic to online business, there is an entire industry dedicated to improving websites' visibility in search engine results: Search Engine Marketing (SEM).
SEM is a complex topic that focuses on search engine optimization (SEO), but also includes the use of paid advertising and contextual advertisements in order to bring a website's articles or product pages to the top of search engine result pages (SERPs).
While I could write dozens of articles on the art of search engine marketing and SEO, I'm going to focus on some of the key issues and best practices for optimizing your site for search.
Before we dig into search engine marketing, it's important to note that not everybody agrees on the definition. This has caused confusion among search professionals for years.
Essentially, there are two ways of defining SEM: either it is an "umbrella" term that encompasses SEO, paid search, contextual advertisements, and paid inclusions, or it only covers paid advertising, inclusions, and search and is separate from SEO.
Organizations such as Forrester Research and the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization believe that SEM is an umbrella term that encompasses both SEO and paid search. For the purposes of this article, I'm using that definition.
Making Your Website SEM-Optimized
Defining SEM is fine, but what matters is this: what simple things can you do to make your website search-optimized?
With help from Chicago-based SEO consultant Carolyn Shelby, currently the Web Experience Manager at the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, I've come up with a short list of tasks that can quickly boost your website for SEM.
1. Familiarize yourself with SEO: The most important component of search engine marketing is making your site easily discoverable in search results, and that requires a basic understanding of SEO. You don't have to buy a book or take a class on the subject, though: SEOmoz has a fantastic beginner's guide to SEO that will get you up-to-speed.
2. Grade your website: Hubspot offers a tool called Website Grader, which will provide you with a quick assessment of where your website is optimized for SEM and where it is not.
3. Make the quick fixes: While you could spend months optimizing your website for SEM, make sure to get the little things out of the way first. Focus on what Website Grader says you're lacking (e.g. meta tags, keywords in your title tags, etc.) and then go from there.
4. Use SEM-optimized CMS software and plugins: Unless you're a large company with the money and need to customize every aspect of your website, you're likely using a content management system (CMS) such as WordPress, Drupal, or Zen Cart. The good thing about using one of these tools is that they come optimized for search engines.
Do your research: choose software with good SEM features and a plug-in system so you can enhance it. For example, WordPress has the All in One SEO Pack, a great plug-in for optimizing your website. If you run an ecommerce website, Wikipedia has a good comparison of SEO features for different shopping cart software.
5. Test your PPC and landing page strategies: Another major component of search engine marketing is PPC, or Pay Per Click advertising. By putting your ads in search engines, you can drive traffic to your website. Even if you have good SEO and organic search, paid placement still helps. However, that's only half of the story: you need to convert those visitors into customers or regular users.
It's a smart idea to test which keywords and advertisements drive the most traffic (keep track of the stats), and it's just as important to track what happens once those visitors arrive. Google offers tools such as Google Analytics to help you track those visitors and see whether they are staying on your site or bouncing away.
6. Inbound links are still king: This quote from my discussion with Carolyn Shelby really stood out to me:
"I would love to say that the most important thing to get a site to rank well is having superior content, or standards compliant HTML, or even a magic percentage of certain keywords, but I can't. Unfortunately, you can overcome a lot of really basic flaws with any website if you have enough inbound links (with the right anchor text) pointing at the site."
The truth of the matter is that inbound links are still the top way to boost your rankings in search results, so partnering with other websites, asking for links, and creating great content that others want to link to should be your top priority.
This Is Just the Beginning
These tips will only help you get started. Search engine marketing is a constant process that requires trial-and-error and self-education. People stay on websites because of great content or great products, but if they can't find it, it's essentially useless.
I think Carolyn Shelby sums it up perfectly:
"The most important thing for people to know/remember is that a well optimized site provides a solid foundation for all the other promotion/advertising/marketing efforts you put into building your brand and building your traffic."
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, MacXever