feature story

Why can’t Google find my web site?

The basics of getting your Web site to place higher in search-engine rankings.

by Morgan Chilson


Type the word “florist” into Google, and you’ll likely come up with at least 20 million hits—thousands of pages of listings. Since research shows most people look only at the first two or three pages, effectively marketing your floral business online means getting at or near the top of that list.

The high-tech term for this practice is “search-engine optimization” (SEO). But just how do you go about making sure you place high in search-engine rankings? Here are several tips that we’ve compiled from two authorities in this field.

how search engines work
Before you can determine how to adapt your Web site to place higher in search-engine rankings, you must understand a bit about how those rankings occur. One thing to be aware of is that search engines like Google and Yahoo automatically and continuously search the Internet for new Web sites and to update their databases about already identified sites. The sites are scanned for pertinent information, and each search engine has complicated formulas for determining what information is relevant. For instance, if the search word entered is “bonsai,” the search engine would give a higher ranking to a site with that word in its title than to one with the word buried deep in the Web site and/or occurring in only one paragraph.

Because of how search engines look at Web sites, one of the most critical aspects of designing a Web site is placing keywords prominently. “There are probably at least 3,000 florists’ Web sites today that don’t even have the physical addresses of the businesses on their home pages,” says Cathy Hillen-Rulloda, AAF, AIFD, PFCI, owner of Avante Gardens—Florals Unique in Anaheim, Calif. She has studied the Internet and its workings for more than a decade and presents seminars on how florists can best utilize their Web sites.

Ms. Hillen-Rulloda encourages florists to assess their Web sites honestly, keeping in mind whom they are trying to serve. For example, a consumer out of state wanting to send flowers to a funeral might search for the funeral home’s name. Is that on your Web site?, she asks. Or how about the names of hospitals in your service area? “If those names are not on your site, your site will not be relevant to those searches,” she says.

concentrate on your local service area
Keep in mind that you probably are going to compete primarily on a local level rather than globally, says Greg Jarboe, president of SEO-PR in Boston, Mass., a company that helps businesses maximize their Web sites. “It costs a lot of money and requires a lot of effort to get a top ranking in a global search like ‘florist’ on Google or one of the other major search engines,” he says. “Most businesses should concentrate on coming up high on the list when someone searches for local Internet listings.”

There are three important things to think about in designing your Web site, Mr. Jarboe says:

1. What are the search terms that you want to pull up your Web site?
Terms such as “florist” and “flowers” are general, so reach further than that when thinking of search terms. Keep in mind the store name; physical address; telephone number; delivery areas; area hospitals and funeral homes; weddings, event coordination and other specialties; and so on.

2. Where do you put those terms on your Web site?
Search engines use varying formulas to determine how relevant a Web site is to a search. Important terms should go in the Web site title and be in visible headlines on the page, Mr. Jarboe explains. Ms. Hillen-Rulloda cautions against using only an image of your store logo that contains the address and telephone number of the store, however, because search engines do not pull text from images, “so that information doesn’t show up,” she says.

3. Get links to your Web site to help your search standings.
“Links are the lifeblood of the Web,” Ms. Hillen-Rulloda notes. “The more inbound links you have on a topic, whether it is based on your city or your category of florist or flowers, the more relevant you become to those search terms.”

When a Web site has multiple sites linked to it, it achieves a higher standing in the search-engine rankings. For instance, being listed on and linked to a local chamber of commerce Web site as well as a state floral association’s site help raise a site’s ranking, Ms. Hillen-Rulloda explains.

It is important to consider how those links are listed, also. If a search engine goes to the chamber of commerce site and your Web site is listed as “Avante Gardens,” that’s OK, she says, but it would be even better if that link says “Florist,” or better yet, “Florist in Anaheim.” The more information and key words that can be on the link text, the more effective the link will be in raising search-engine rankings, she elaborates.

tips for hiring help
If your eyes glazed over as soon as you read “search-engine optimization,” you might want to consider hiring someone to optimize your Web site. But both Mr. Jarboe and Ms. Hillen-Rulloda offer cautionary notes about SEO companies that promise No. 1 listings.

Some companies have taken advantage of the SEO process, using questionable tactics that get the Web sites they promote listed for a short time at the top of search-engine lists. But Google, Yahoo and others have gotten better at identifying the “dodgy” tactics, and they have started banning offending Web sites from their search engines for specific periods of time. BMW Germany, for instance, was banned from Google for a few days in early February 2006 for employing “doorway pages,” a search-engine marketing technique used by so-called “black-hat” SEOs that is against Google’s regulations.

A ban from a search engine can do tremendous harm to online sales, so be careful in choosing a company to optimize your Web site. Mr. Jarboe recommends that people look for local companies that specialize in SEO. Check references by talking to other clients, and, generally, you can have confidence in knowing that a local presence means the person wants to do business in the community in the future.

Search-engine optimization can be expensive, ranging from $500 in smaller areas to as much as $5,000 in large cities where there is more competition for the coveted rankings. “If you want to position yourself locally in a smaller market, say a town of 50,000 to 100,000 people,” Ms. Hillen-Rulloda explains, “you probably can get your site cleaned up well enough and get the proper signals for the search engines to place well for $1,000 to $1,500. But in a major metropolitan area, it would be substantially more.”

what’s the value?
So, is it worth those kinds of dollars to pursue a top placing? Absolutely, Ms. Hillen-Rulloda says. “I was told by an SEO expert—and I completely believe him—that being No. 1 in a major search engine like Google for your city, versus being farther down the page or on another page, can make a difference of $30,000 to $45,000 a year in sales.”

for more information
An excellent site containing basic information on how search engines work, how to design Web pages for search engines, how to select the right keywords and phrases, how to link effectively and much more is www.pandia.com/marketing101.

Morgan Chilson is a freelance business writer residing in Topeka, Kan. You may contact her by
e-mail at morgan@exactlywrite.net.
 

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