Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of boosting the ranking of a site on SERPs. It is of crucial importance because the ranking greatly affects site traffic. Most users do not look beyond the first SERP (each Google SERP contains 10 results), and the higher a site ranks on this list, the higher the probability the user will visit the site. According to Google 94% of users click on a first page result and 35% click on the top result.

A typical user query generates millions of web pages with helpful information. Google’s algorithms rely on more than 200 unique signals or “clues” that make it possible to guess what the user might really be looking for, and accordingly rank the results. These signals include the website’s content in the context of how well it relates to the search query, the freshness of content, region, and importantly PageRank, an algorithm used for determining the authority of a web page based on the number of inbound links.

PageRank is based on the notion that the most important pages on the internet are the pages with the most links leading to them. (This approach is similar to the citation based criteria for assessing the importance of academic research papers.) However, PageRank is not a simple count of inbound links; recursive in nature, it weighs the importance (i.e. PageRank) of the page that contains the link. Links arriving from pages with higher PageRank have more weight than links from pages with lower PageRank.

The other signals that Google employs are used to assess the relevance of the page to the information or the services that the user is seeking. To score on relevance, marketers need to craft the content on each page such that it relates tightly with what their prospects are seeking, and serves the intended site objective. In particular, they need an understanding of the range of words and phrases that target customers enter into the engine’s search box, when they are seeking the information or services provided by the site. Those words and phrases, known as keywords and keyword phrases form the basis for SEO.

“Knowing your customers”, the immutable success formula remains as relevant for e-commerce. On the net, marketers are empowered by web analytic tools that allow them to “see” what their prospect are doing, and track the words and phrases they use to get to specific pages on their sites and their competitors’ sites. They may also use PPC advertising campaigns to test alternative keywords in their ability to draw traffic and convert prospects.

The selection of keywords and keyword phrases to target for optimization is a vital step in SEO. Marketers should narrow the possibilities down to a manageable list, choosing those keywords and keyword phrases that are not only relevant, but also more specific (i.e. less generic) to their site.

For example, a company that specializes in simulation methods for training marketing professionals in the consumer goods sector might consider the phrase “experiential learning programme in consumer marketing” (option 1), or the phrase “consumer marketing training” (option 2), or the phrase “marketing training” (option 3). The search volumes vary drastically for each of these phrases. Google search for instance yielded 2 million results for option 1, 174 million for option 2, and 912 million for option 3.

Clearly option 3 is too generic and poorly targeted; it will likely draw visitors from non-consumer goods sector. Moreover, it will be far too difficult to secure a high rank amidst the millions vying for a place on the first SERP. Option 1 is finely tuned and will drive well targeted volume to the site. In addition, the company might also consider option 2 (“consumer marketing training”), which is less generic than option 3, and may attract prospects who are open to experiential learning, though that may not be their prime consideration.

The company might also need to consider alternative phrases like “simulation based consumer marketing training” or use terms like “FMCG”, “CPG” and “consumer durables” to cover a wider range from the vocabulary that prospects are likely to use. Note, however that it is not necessary to cover all synonyms because Google does that for you. Their algorithms recognize words with similar meanings.

Since search engine algorithms operate at the page level (SERPs is a list of landing pages, not sites), optimization efforts need to be directed on a page basis. This provides for greater flexibility — different landing pages on the site may target different prospects, with different set of key words.


Exhibit 13.11   Screen shot of a SERP (search engine research page). Note the titles are also the hyperlinks to the listed web pages.

Once chosen, the keywords need to be weaved into the contents of the page, especially in the following areas that strongly influence page ranking:

  • Page Title: Information intended for the browser is contained in the page’s title tag. Titles are accorded great importance by the search engines for ranking, and should therefore contain the most important keywords. The order in which they appear within the title also influences the search results.
    Title length varies depending on device. Google’s cut-off for instance, is about 70 to 78 characters.
  • Meta-description: The description of the web page (which is stored within the page’s meta-description tags) appears below the title, on the SERP (refer to Exhibit 13.11). Should any of the words that users use in their query, appear in the title/description, they are highlighted. Thus by weaving keywords into the description, marketers may draw the users’ attention and increase the likelihood that they visit the page. However, unlike the title, the description is not used by the search engines for ranking purposes.
    There is no official rule on length of page title and meta-description. In December 2017, Google expanded meta-descriptions to 320 characters, and the title length, as mentioned earlier, was increased to 70 to 78 characters.
    Note also that instead of the meta-description, Google’s algorithms may use sentences or phrases from the webpage that best match the searched keywords.
  • URL and domain name: The URL (i.e. the address of the web page) is another criteria used by Google for ranking pages. The same applies for the domain name, which appears in all URLs on the same website. This incidentally explains why keyword-rich domain names are being sold at premium prices. Keywords also make the URL text more meaningful; particularly when the URL acts as the anchor for inbound links to the web page.
  • Headers (h1, h2, h3) that are keyword-rich improve the web page’s ranking for those key words.
  • Images: HTML (HyperText Markup Language), the language used for creating web pages, provides an attribute called “alt” that may be used to describe images. Search engines use these descriptors for ranking images, and some engines also use them for page ranking.
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