How to use search engines and advertising to boost your online business and bottomline

You can’t simply open a new Web site, sit back, and expect to welcome a horde of visitors showing up at your virtual storefront. If you want your online business to be successful, you must promote your site.
Both search engine optimization (SEO) and paid advertising on search engines can help drive visitors to your e-commerce site. More visitors can ultimately lead to more customers for your online business.

How can you use a combination of SEO and search engine ads to increase your online business and boost your bottom line? I’ll give you useful tips on both, based on my real-world experience promoting my sites and those of my clients.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO refers to modifying your Web pages to enhance your visibility in search engine results. If your business sells, say, left-handed widgets, your goal is to be listed near the top of the results if someone performs a search using the keywords “left-handed widgets.”

Research shows that if your site isn’t within the top 30 search results, very few visitors will click through to your site.

How do you reach that coveted high rank in a search engine? You have to learn to think like the robots (also called spiders and crawlers) that search engines such as Google use to find and catalog Web pages.

First, learn to describe your products and services at your Web site using words that your prospective customers would likely use in a search (most search engines understand words, not images).

Search engine robots give certain aspects of a Web page, such as the page’s title and its major headings, special emphasis. Don’t squander the potential benefit by using a nondescript title such as “Home Page of Rick’s Online Store” (the search bots wouldn’t even notice that).

Instead, develop a title that reinforces your search term for that page, such as “Left-Handed Widget Superstore, San Francisco, CA.”
Links to your site from other, well-regarded sites can also give you a boost in the search results rankings. I recommend that you contact the Webmasters of related–but not competing–sites for link opportunities. Contact them personally, not through an annoying automated link spammer (which will usually be ignored).

How do you tell if a potential link partner site is well regarded? Google’s Web browser toolbar offers a PageRank, which rates the popularity of a given site from zero (worst) to ten (best). A link from a site with a PageRank of 10 can be quite valuable to you, while a link from a site with zero PageRank is virtually worthless.

Monitor your progress by checking your site’s referer log (yes, that’s how it’s spelled, typically) to see where your visitors come from, as well as the search terms they use to reach your site.

Don’t expect instant results from SEO. Because the robots take some time to comb through the millions of pages on the Web, you may have to wait three months or longer before you see the full benefit of your “optimized” site.

After you’ve implemented the basic SEO measures, you can do even more. The Search Engine Optimization Forum (run by High Rankings, a Boston-based SEO services firm) offers a cornucopia of SEO tips and discusses additional techniques.

Search Engine Advertising

If you don’t like waiting months for SEO benefits to kick in, I recommend advertising on search engines for fast results. The paid approach might bring increased traffic to your site within as little as 24 hours.

The most popular type of search engine advertising–and the easiest to set up–is the pay-per-click (PPC) text ad. You write short text ads that display next to the search results for specific terms or keywords that people enter in a search engine. You pay for each visitor who clicks on your ad and is then directed to your Web site.
According to Hitwise, the most popular search engines in the United States are Google (with an overwhelming search share of 66 percent), Yahoo (21 percent), and MSN (5 percent). Given Google’s dominance, I recommend that you first consider PPC ads on Google AdWords, since it has the capability to deliver the greatest number of visitors to your site.

Running PPC ads on Yahoo and Microsoft, however, will increase your advertising reach and may cost less for certain search keywords.

The cost spans a wide range, from a few cents to several dollars per click, depending on how much a certain keyword is in demand among advertisers. You can set a daily or monthly maximum charge to ensure that you don’t outspend your budget.

Crafting your PPC ad is a little like writing a short two-line classified ad with a heading. Carefully consider your phrasing and the keywords you select to attract the visitor you want. Test several ads to determine which works best.

If you sell only locally, use the service’s geotargeting capability to restrict ads to visitors from a limited area, such as your city or state. Don’t waste money advertising nationwide.

Ad services provide code for conversion tracking, which I recommend you add to your site to measure your results. Just remember that “conversion” means different things to different people, depending on the nature of your business. If you sell $50 widgets online, you’ll probably expect your ad to convert to an immediate sale of the widget (make sure you’re set up for that on the back end before placing an ad).

If you’re selling something with an extended or more complex sales cycle, such as long-term consulting services, a successful conversion might mean the generation of a promising sales lead, including contact information for a follow-up call.

Both SEO and PPC advertising have a role to play in e-commerce site promotion. SEO, using a few select keywords, pays off over a longer term. PPC ads cost more but work quickly and can be tailored to target any number of specific market niches.

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