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Search Visibility – The Paid, The Natural and The News:

Part 2 Natural Search

In a recent post we took a look at how paid search can help you get visibility quickly in the search engines. This week, we’re looking at the other end of the spectrum for both speed and (to some extent) cost.

Natural Search– Also known as organic search requires patience, skill and consistency. Did I mention patience? It can take months before your website is found in natural search – but it’s a great bonus when you start seeing results! Click through on natural search results is far greater than that for paid results (about 2 to 3 times, or more, depending on the search phrase).

If you’re new at this search stuff, you have probably heard a lot about SEO – this is short for “search engine optimization,” a term coined by Bruce Clay about 15 years ago.  If you are not familiar with Bruce Clay, definitely click through on the link and check out his company’s blog. Great information there once you get your feet wet.

Similar to how Google has become a verb, SEO has become one – SEOing one’s website means taking a critical look at it the way a search engine would look at it, and making certain that search engines are able to understand what the site is about.

For natural search, Google’s objective is to provide the best possible answers to people who have given them two, three or four word questions. This is far more complex than you might imagine – given that they handle millions of these queries daily.  The process that they use to organize information to retrieve the right answers is called an algorithm. Much has been written about the Google algorithm – all of which is based on conjecture or (in some cases) exacting tests. It is, however, a very closely guarded secret. However, here is a simplified version of how natural search works:

  1. The search engine sends bots (a computer program) throughout the Internet, following all the links that they find.
  2. When the bot reaches a page, it reviews all of the text on that page.
  3. The algorithm then categorizes (or indexes) that page based on a number of factors, including the page’s title, text, web page address and keywords that link to the page.
  4. When someone enters a phrase the algorithm displays search results that are relevant, fresh, unique and valuable.

So what does understanding how Google finds and indexes the web help a site owner? Here are specific items you should consider with each one of those steps above to help your site be found.

Step 1: Make certain that you can get to every important page of your website by clicking a link. One good way to do this is to add a sitemap to your website. If you are using blog software for your site, set up tags or categories, and make certain to tag each of your articles.  If you can get through your site with regular links, this means your site is search-friendly, and is the first, basic step in optimization. If you have to enter a form, the search engines cannot find that content. There is a tool that I use frequently to test links, available at AuditMyPC. Put your domain name in and it will show you all the pages that a spider can reach.

Step 2: Make certain your important content is in text. Although images with words in them can be prettier than plain text, search engines cannot “read” images. The closest they can get is reading an image alt tag. This is true for Flash, as well.

Step 3: Search engines expect web pages to be organized similarly to term papers. The title is very important to state what the page is about. The synopsis gives some more information about the content. The title tag and meta description serve as your web page’s title and synopsis – and each page must have a different title and meta description (can’t stress that one enough!). Then the content on the page is organized under headings and sub-headings. Make your title and headings descriptive of the content that is on the page. A catchy headline might give you some reader value, but if it is not related, at least somewhat, to the content, then you’re going to confuse the search engines.

Step 4: Choose carefully which phrases (also known as keywords) you highlight on each page. Use phrases that make sense – but do not OVER use them. If you use a keyword or keyphrase too much the page doesn’t read well, and Google prefers sites that read as if they are written for visitors rather than search engine bots. Using a keyword too frequently is referred to as keyword stuffing – and harms your whole site’s positioning in search.

Some other key points to optimizing your site – Google looks for fresh content, meaning that the page or site is updated regularly, provides value to readers (has enough content on it), and other people find it valuable enough to link to.

That said, get other people to link to your website. Google views these links as both votes for your site and indications of what other people think your site is about. Link building is an art – and there have been a lot of articles written about getting links. Here’s a rule of thumb, though – if someone is selling you links or promises 10,000 links overnight, run the other way FAST.

Because natural search is “free,” it is extremely competitive. Unless you want to invest a great deal of time in learning and implementing search engine optimizations, my recommendation for business owners is to find a reputable SEO company to help you. But having some understanding of what is involved will help you in talking with your SEO service provider.

If you want to learn more about search engine optimization, or how to get found in Google, a good starting point is Search Engine Watch.

Here’s an interesting article that discusses the philosophy behind choosing between SEO and PPC.

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