What is SEO?

You're the CMO of a company that makes blue widgets. But when you enter the phrase "blue widget" in a major search engine, your Web site pops up in the 4,500th spot on the results list. Talk about a visibility problem: A study conducted by The Pennsylvania State University, published in 2003, found that 54 percent of users review only the first page of search results, and 19 percent stop after the second page. Clearly, poor search engine ranking is costing the company business. The remedy? You can't write to Google or Yahoo and ask them to please, pleeeeease rank your site higher for "blue widget" searches. Search engines use complex, secret and ever-changing mathematical algorithms to rank sites. To improve a Web site's search rank, marketers can turn to search engine optimization, or SEO.

How does SEO work?

"SEO is the attempt to modify something about your Web site to improve the quality of your organic or algorithmic rankings at the big search engines," says Eric Peterson, a JupiterResearch senior analyst. That sounds straightforward enough, but the devil is in the details. SEO expert Shari Thurow says the first step is to build a user-focused site. This may sound obvious, but many companies fail the test, says Thurow, author of Search Engine Visibility. "There is a complete overemphasis on positioning. Just because you have a number-one position doesn't mean you'll get qualified leads, and it doesn't mean you'll close the sale," says Thurow, webmaster and marketing director of search engine marketer GrantasticDesigns.

Simply put: You gain nothing from a site that ranks high on search engines but turns off visitors.

What are some basic SEO principles?

A Web site built with users in mind is likely to fare well with the software "spiders" that search engines use to index content and rank sites, Thurow says. The three building blocks of such a site are:

-- Text: Use content that includes words and phrases your company's target audience is likely to type into search queries. If you're selling mountain bikes, that term should be everywhere -- in page headings, navigation buttons, photo captions and the like.

-- Links: A site's navigation scheme should be accessible, coherent and consistent so that spiders and humans can easily traverse it.

-- Popularity: A good site will prompt others to link to it. External links from reputable sites will enhance your Web site's ranking in search engines.

Why should a company bother to use SEO if it can buy pay-per-click ads?

A company can always buy pay-per-click (PPC) ads on search engines. These ads appear whenever users query specific keywords. However, JupiterResearch has found that the average company gets about 80 percent of its commercial search engine referrals from organic results and the rest from PPC ads. So while PPC ads can complement organic search results, particularly when doing seasonal promotions, they are no substitute.

How much should a company expect to spend on SEO consulting work?

It depends on the size of the Web site and the condition it's in, says Chris Winfield, president and cofounder of search engine marketer 10e20. Most of his company's clients sign up for a year's service, paying between US$5,000 and $15,000 per month, plus sometimes an initial, one-time fee, he says.

What should CMOs look for when evaluating SEO consultants?

In addition to checking the obvious -- references, expertise and resources -- it's critical to hire a consultant who abides by a search engine's SEO guidelines. Avoid search engine marketing firms that offer to elevate rankings for a low, one-time fee, since the only way to legitimately guarantee top positioning is with a PPC ad. Unscrupulous firms typically try to trick search engine spiders by employing so-called black hat techniques, such as stuffing a Web site with hidden keywords. When a search engine detects such a trick, it will ban the site from its index. Then no amount of SEO will make it appear.

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