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Search Engine Essentials: What Canadian Businesses Need to Know

By Julie King |

When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO), Jonathan Allen is an authority.

He has over ten years of experience doing SEO work and currently runs Search Engine Watch, the longest running search marketing blog that pre-dates Google and features content written by a community of experts who give their time freely to help the search community.

"If you need to find out how to succeed in search or social media, whether you are a small business or huge enterprise, you will not find a better place for no-nonsense how-to guides and commentary to get you in action and making money for your business immediately," says Allen.

Allen will participate in the Search Engine Strategies (SES) Toronto conference on June 13 to 15, 2011, where he will join a round table discussion on video optimization and hold a special round-table discussion, "The Panda-pocalypse Survival Guide For Canadian SMBs". [CanadaOne readers: you can save 15% on any conference pass using the Twitter code: TW33T.]

To help Canadian small business owners better understand how they can use SEO to improve their online marketing, CanadaOne caught up with Allen to ask him about the latest trends and ideas in search.

Julie King :
Small business often operate with tight budgets. They see search engine optimization as an important way to get their business name out to the world, but are confused by the different messages from competing SEO sales pitches. What advice would you have for a small business owner who knows that SEO is important, but doesn't know where to begin?
Jonathan Allen :

Small businesses face the biggest challenges with SEO but stand a chance of generating the biggest rewards. Most of the time success and failure in search marketing really comes down to commitment to getting the results and little else. Nearly any type of SEO strategy can work but every strategy will fail if you are not prepared to put the time an effort into make it work.

Small businesses are the most time poor of any business and have the least resources in terms of staff and budget. This means that their only competitive strength is 'sweat equity' – the ability to generate business results from labor alone.

Therefore, small businesses really need to focus on what the physical limits are in terms of how much they can get done in a day or a week to further their SEO strategy. Once a realistic picture of their resources is painted, a strategy can be developed that is of the right pace and pitch of the founders. If PPC is the Hare in a race, SEO is the Tortoise, and the small business with the most stamina wins. Slow and steady wins the race.

Julie King :
Is SEO something a business owner should do themselves or should they hire an expert to optimize for them?
Jonathan Allen :

Personally, I believe that to really succeed in SEO as a small business, you need to be prepared to become the SEO expert. So in that sense, a little bit of both is required. You need to hire an expert who can help you to see round corners, prioritize your next steps and help you to recognize your niche and leverage your strengths. An outside SEO expert should take all the heavy lifting off your hands from a strategic, technical and market research perspective. Expect that from anyone you hire. However, to truly succeed you, the business owner, need to work out how to make the most efficient use of their recommendations. In most cases, for a small business, you eventually have to become a content publisher of sorts.

To become a content publisher is no small endeavor, but neither is it insurmountable. It's a question of resources and understanding the role that content plays in lead generation and striking winning partnerships. People want to share and link to great content on the web. It's no secret that to really succeed in SEO, you have to generate links – it is the most important factor – and to get links ultimately comes down to developing great content.

However, how you generate content does not need to be a chore or a case of simply hiring a writer. Often the best content comes from your community – which only the business owner knows best. Just by listening to your community you will find out what their information needs are, which will enable you to create content that they really can identify with and share with others. Therefore the key to success for business owners is to actively engage with your community via every medium possible and hire an SEO to make sure the great content you are developing is optimized for maximum exposure.

Julie King :
If a business decides to hire an SEO expert, what should they look for? Also, what warning signs should they watch for?
Jonathan Allen :

There is a certain amount of trust needed between an SEO expert and a company for the business relationship to really be a success. Confidence is one thing, but as the industry is changing every day, tactics and tricks can become out of date quite quickly.

Businesses should enter into any partnership with an open mind and a lot of patience, and focus on the big picture rather than any quick fixes. Equally the SEO expert needs to be extremely candid and open about what tactics and strategies they intend to use and how they propose to improve your exposure on search engines. I would personally be wary of any SEO expert that presents themselves as having all of the answers, but does not give advice freely, or tries to guarantee results. That nearly always ends in disaster. Equally businesses should not look to simply pay on results and instead look for a strategic partner where there is sense of shared ethos and vision.

It is worth pointing out that there are almost two types of SEOs: creative thinkers who possess a blend of marketing, analytical and technical skills and pure technical SEOs, who are more programming orientated. Both have their strengths and weaknesses and you really have to work out which type you gel with best.

Either way, I think the best SEO expert will approach you with a clear idea of how much traffic they think is in your market and a realistic estimate and time scale of how much they think they can target. They should provide a keyword research report and a basic site architecture audit too, as this will give both parties a sense of the scale of the task at hand. If you can agree on a time scale for meeting certain milestones and you can also agree on who owns what aspects of every deliverable then you are probably in safe hands.

I would recommend that small businesses be wary of quick fix solutions such as buying links or Facebook friends and Twitter followers. I would also say that long-term contracts are often not a good idea and you should look to review the project every 3 to 6 months.

If your SEO expert is not constantly re-evaluating their strategy or looking to grow your audience after achieving success, then you might want to look elsewhere. Personally, I think there is a limit to how much can really be achieved with one strategy – so if every new proposal sounds awfully similar to the last one, it probably is. As with anything, avoid anyone who is all talk and no action.

Julie King :
How important are things like Google Places for businesses? (I know one concern businesses have is that your competitors may show up in the ads placed on Google Places pages.) Do signals like having a Google Places page and having customer reviews affect a business' search ranking in Google?
Jonathan Allen :

Yes, absolutely they do. I can say from experience that place pages and reviews will help you get higher up the search engines. One company I consulted for had never been at the top for the most important keyword phrase in their market, despite having an SEO company work on their website for over two years. I saw an opportunity they were missing on Google Places, took it, and they were top within 3 months.

If competitors are aggressively targeting the same positions, take it as a sign that “there is gold in them hills” and tool-up accordingly.

However, don't lose the focus of your business to the competition. Turn inward to your community and assess your own strengths as a business. What do you do really well? What do you customers love about your business? Find the answer to that and then look at how you can spin that to your advantage.

For example, if you own a restaurant that serves great food, tap into the current fad for food blogging. Invite food bloggers to review dishes from your restaurant, or reward any customer with a promotion for taking a picture of their meal and sharing it on Facebook and Twitter. Create an online photo gallery of happy customer photos and give away treats to those customers who engage with your brand and share it with their friends.

Or if you are a small business that sells services rather than products, look at other local businesses that are potential allies or offer complimentary services and co-promote your businesses. Any business can be a hub of information for that local market and being that hub will not only get you recognition from your customers, but also from Google.

Julie King :
There has been a lot of buzz about Google's new Panda search algorithm. Can you tell our readers what Panda is and how it is affecting businesses?
Jonathan Allen :

Panda is an algorithm update that Google applied earlier this year. Google is updating its algorithms all of the time, but every so often makes a complete strategic change to how it ranks websites, usually in order to counter prolific spamming tactics. The aim is always to improve the results Google serves to users.

The Panda update was a specific update focused on assessing content quality and determining the source of original content. Blog spam and 'content farms' - websites made only to serves ads - were specifically affected, and suffered penalties from Google which caused them to no longer rank highly for certain search terms.

There was a lot of fear and panic over Panda as many webmasters claimed to be treated unfairly by the update. People were understandably upset as the traffic impact on many sites was severe. However, in general, Google did a good job of removing low-quality sites from the index and those sites that lost traffic, yet were original sources of content themselves, were hit by the fallout of so many spam sites disappearing from the index.

How it is affecting business is three-fold. Firstly, it's a wake up call to everyone that unique, original content is essential to exposure on search engines. Secondly, it's made a lot of webmasters really look in-depth at the user experience of their site and look for ways to improve and simplify it. If Google cannot instantly work out what your site is about, then users probably cannot either. What is good for the Goose is good for the Gander in that respect. Whatever works well for users, is likely to work well on Google.

And thirdly, the final lesson has been for many – don't rely on Google! If your business is overly reliant on one source of traffic than your business is in a precarious position. Diversify your marketing channels as soon as you can.

Julie King :
It's my understanding that YouTube has emerged as the second most used search engine in the world. How is video impacting search? Are people now looking for video content instead of the content mix that comes from engines like Google and Bing?
Jonathan Allen :

If we are talking about 'search activity', namely the activity of typing a keyword into a search box to find content then, yes, YouTube is the second most used search engine in the west (not sure about rest of the world).

However, you can only find video content on YouTube, which means that it naturally has a limitation compared to a traditional web search engine. Not all content lends itself to video. Furthermore, YouTube cannot generate business transactions as easily as web search. You cannot easily direct someone to a product page, let alone a shopping cart, because most of the user journey is locked up in YouTube's own interface.

Nonetheless, video is often the fastest way for users to consume information and it is the most effective way to communicate brand values. Therefore, it is fair to say that some types of queries have a tendency to generate more video views than one might expect. For example, weight-loss/exercise guides or computer game reviews are much more effective as videos than plain text. In fact, almost any how-to guide or product review stands to do well in a video format.

Due to the fact that search engines provide a content mix, it is very easy to find keyword markets that are under served by video content. If you do not see video results for search terms you aim to get traffic from, you have a great opportunity to use video to leap into the top of search results pages. The cost of video production is so low now that there is no reason for businesses not to adopt it as part of their search marketing strategy.

Julie King :
Social media is very quickly changing the online landscape. How is this affecting search?
Jonathan Allen :

Social media is only changing the online landscape in as much as it is taking more time away from other offline activities such as watching TV or reading a newspaper. Social media is not really taking away anything from search – simply put, there are no less search queries as a result of social media.

However, social media is becoming the filter by which web users want to consume content and by which they connect with brands. Social media threatens search engines to some degree simply because it is increasingly becoming the way that users discover new content rather than by doing a search. Yet, this is not really a new trend – before social media, content discovery was done via blogs and forums in much the same way. Every video that went viral, before Facebook and Twitter, did so via blogs and forums and not via search engines.

To take one viral video as an example, no one ever searched for a “sneezing Panda” before the video became a viral hit. It went viral via word of mouth until it became so popular that people started searching for a sneezing Panda video. Nonetheless, this raises an important point about the relationship between social media and search. Search is often at the end of the customer journey, when a user knows what they want, and is not so effective at targeting a user that is not able to express their intent using keyword phrases. Conversely, social media is extremely good at interrupting a user via recommendations from their friends and thus creating demand for more of that content. The real strength in social media is it's ability to create taste-makers who guide and drive demand for products and services.

Search engines like Google and Bing recognize that whilst users may trust their algorithms to find the best content, people are likely to trust their friend's tastes even more – and so we are seeing all kinds of innovations such as Facebook integration with Bing and Google's +1 button.

Julie King :
How is this going to affect searches for businesses online?
Jonathan Allen :

I think it is important to recognize that search IS social media. Google in particular has always relied on a crowd-powered data on which to base its ranking algorithm. Links between websites was the original social signal. Now, all that has changed is that social sharing creates a signal that is similar to links – and more weight is being assigned to it.

The most immediate and recognizable impact will be that search engine results pages change more frequently according to sharing trends. Sites recommended by friends will leap into the top results for even highly competitive and generic terms.

I do not think we will see a drastic change, so there is no need to panic, but over time the businesses that engage with their community now will be the ones that continue to thrive and achieve market dominance, whilst those that still think social media is not for them, may end up finding they're not on the web. Ultimately, it's going to put pressure on all businesses to have a concurrent social media strategy alongside their keyword search strategy to differentiate themselves from the competition or risk getting left behind.

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