By JAMES A. AMBROSIO One of the challenges for a new business is to stand out in a crowded market. The problem can be acute on the Web, where there might be hundreds of similar sites. Since many people turn to Internet search engines to find what they are looking for, it’s a good strategy to focus at least part of your online marketing efforts on making sure your site turns up in the first couple pages of their results. “It’s just like having a store,” says Carlene Viboch of San Diego-based Hot Spring Spa of North County. “People think that you can just put out a sign that says you are open, and customers will come. It doesn’t work that way. You have to let people know that you are there.” Ms. Viboch speaks from experience. She launched her family’s pool and spa store’s first Web site six years ago and has overseen its growth from a few pages of basic information with links to manufacturer’s Web sites, to one with dozens of pages and virtually no outbound links. Direct sales from the site comprise nearly 25% of the company’s total business at a time when the company’s in-store sales have continued to grow, Ms. Viboch says. “That’s business we wouldn’t have without the Internet.” How does Ms. Viboch do it? In part by focusing on where her site appears when people search for information about pools, hot tubs, spas, steam rooms or related products. For starters, she submits updates about the site to search engines to keep it near the top of search results for her products’ keywords. If she didn’t, the site likely would fall to the bottom of the results list or be dropped altogether. Most search engines favor new listings to provide users with links to active sites with up-to-date information. She gets help from SiteLab International, a San Diego-based Web-marketing firm. Pay-Per-Click Ads Ms. Viboch also participates in so-called pay-per-click advertising programs offered by the search engines. The results appear as “sponsored links,” usually at the top of the results retrieved from most search engines. (Google runs them in the upper-right portion of its search-result pages.) Ms. Viboch spends an average of $200 to $500 a month on different pay-per-click advertising programs for “sponsored links.” In a pay-per-click program, advertisers bid on keywords: The more popular the keyword, the more expensive it is. Prices can range from a few pennies a word to a dollar or more. Ms. Viboch’s favorite keywords include “portable pool,” “above-ground pool,” “sauna” and “portable spa.” Under most programs, advertisers aren’t charged until a user clicks on the ad, hence the name pay-per-click. Overture.com, based in Pasadena, Calif., pioneered the concept. Overture distributes paid links to its search-engine partners, which include Yahoo Inc., AltaVista, Lycos, MSN and others. Google runs its own paid-link distribution program, called AdWords Select. To be successful, you must buy the right keywords and keep tabs on your competitors, because they can top your bid at any time. Ms. Viboch adjusts her bids at least once a day, sometimes more frequently. She considers the programs to be “absolutely essential” to her business. “You can have a fantastic Web site, but if no one can find it, you’re wasting your time,” she says. Ms. Viboch is following a basic principle SiteLab emphasizes to its clients, says Dana Todd, a SiteLab founder. “It’s all about product, price, placement and promotion,” Ms. Todd explains. “The search engines are the retail channel for Web sites. If you can’t achieve a top-shelf position, then you’re limiting your audience.” But not all start-up businesses can afford to spend several hundred dollars a month on Web advertising and promotion. In those cases, Ms. Todd recommends making manual submissions to search engines every two weeks or so. The submissions are done manually because the search engines frequently block software that automatically submits pages to them, Ms. Todd says. Otherwise, they might be flooded with submissions. “The major search engines generally prefer you to take some time and fill out their questionnaires to better help them make decisions about the cataloging of your site,” she explained. “That is especially true with human-powered directories such as Yahoo and Open Directory. They appreciate you taking the time to really think it through. A little elbow grease goes a long way.” Another fundamental is to ensure that your site is “search-engine friendly,” Ms. Todd says. Simply changing the copy on the page can help. “Using the word ‘dog’ won’t necessarily get you people looking for German shepherds if that’s what you’re selling,” she says. “The search engines are very literal,” she notes. “People put in the plural form of a word and assume the search engines will assign the same weight to the singular,” she says. Both forms need to be included in the text. It’s also important to not overuse fancy features. “If you design an HTML page that has a Flash element in it, such as a rotating logo or other cool eye-candy on the page, it’s fine as long as there is real searchable text on the page,” Ms. Todd says. But a site done entirely in Flash — which can be visually striking — won’t be read by the search engines. The same is true for copy enclosed in graphics. “If you can’t highlight the text, then the search engines can’t read it,” she says. Frames are also problematic, as are online catalogs that use pull-down menus to list products or categories, because the search engines can’t read what’s in the pull-downs. There are workarounds for these issues, Ms. Todd says, but as a site operator you need to be aware of them. “Don’t defeat your search-ability.” Optimizing Your Site Another option is to have someone “optimize” your Web site for search-engine results. Search-engine optimization firms will analyze your site and write relevant “meta tags.” Meta tags are codes that describe the contents of a Web page. Search engines use meta tags to index a page so that it’s easy to find. Anthony Muller, a New York City-based search-engine optimization specialist (www.zenhits.com), says optimizing a Web site can produce significant improvement in its positioning for a fraction of the cost of pay-per-click ad programs. “Optimization is the most cost-effective way to improve your search-engine position,” Mr. Muller says. He contends that site operators that use search-engine optimization effectively will spend between four and eight times less than they would for a pay-per-click program. A good search-engine-optimization (SEO) company will focus on making your site readable to the search engines by building in keyword tags that are relevant to your business, without resorting to techniques the search engines dislike. Those include creating numerous “mirror” sites, or numerous extra pages within a domain name, both of which have no purpose beyond repeating keywords to generate more hits on search-engine results. Repeating the same keywords, or writing hidden words in the same color as the site’s background, also is considered taboo. If you’re thinking of hiring an SEO company, Mr. Muller suggests getting proposals from several and asking each to provide two to three references. He advises staying away from companies that “offer ‘guarantees’ or submissions to 300,000 search engines.” Those are “no more likely to bring high rankings than sticking your tongue in an electrical socket,” he says. The Judith James Salon in Huntington Point, N.Y., has seen the improvement optimization can yield. After spending approximately $8,000 on a Web site (www.judithjamessalon.com) two years ago, the owners had little to show for their investment, according to Renee Newham, the salon’s business manager. “It didn’t even have a shopping cart, just a list of the products we sell,” Ms. Newham says. Mr. Muller offered to redesign and optimize the site, saying the salon’s owners could pay him if they liked the results. His new version gave the site a professional appearance. He eliminated several large graphic images that made the site slow to download and streamlined its navigation. He wrote clearer meta tags, revised some of the site’s copy and made proper submissions to the search engines. An online store and shopping cart on a secure link also was added. The salon’s owners paid him $8,000 to $10,000 over the course of a year, but they’re pleased with the results. “We figured we had nothing to lose. Our product sales online have since doubled and tripled,” Ms. Newham says. “I don’t know what he does, but it brings in traffic.”– Mr. Ambrosio is contributing editor of Small Business Web Update, a publication of Tramp Steamer Media, a publishing company based in Trenton, N.J.
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