August 27, 2007
Small companies may not have to take big steps to raise the likelihood that potential customers can find them on the Internet.
One or two changes in the way they do things often can help lift a Web site's visibility online, says Rudy De La Garza Jr., manager of search-engine optimization at Bankrate Inc., an online consumer-banking marketplace.
|Bankrate Editor in chief Julie Bandy and Rudy De La Garza Jr.|
Search-engine optimization, or SEO, makes a site more friendly, or "optimal," for Internet search engines such as Google Inc.'s, Yahoo Inc.'s and others. SEO can improve a site's listing in "natural" search results -- the unpaid rankings on search engines that many people use to look for information online.
Bankrate hired Mr. De La Garza last year to integrate SEO into how it thinks and operates.
With its interest-rate information, calculators and consumer-finance articles, Bankrate.com had a solid foothold in its niche. But the company was concerned that competition for search rankings based not just on a few keywords, but on thousands, could chew away at its visibility in search results. It started looking at other ways to expand its SEO efforts to give its editorial content greater exposure.
To emphasize SEO planning across the business, Mr. De La Garza, 35 years old, works closely with programmers, writers and Web designers at the 163-employee company, based in North Palm Beach, Fla.
"Part of it is having the interpersonal skills to get a midlevel manager to do something different than he or she did over time," says Mr. De La Garza, who has been a consultant to small and midsize companies.
The Wall Street Journal spoke with Mr. De La Garza about SEO tactics for small companies and how they've been put into practice at Bankrate's Web sites. Here are some of his tips.
Focus each page on one theme. The keyword or keyword phrase you choose for a page should directly reflect the page's content. Headlines, subheads and formatting, such as bold and italics, also should be related directly to this central subject. These indicators will signal to search-engine spiders that the keyword or keyword phrase is more prominent or prevalent than other words on the page, increasing the likelihood of a higher search ranking.
At Bankrate, Mr. De La Garza showed editorial employees that, for some articles, deciding on about 10 main keywords before writing could help increase their number of page views. Writers were already vying for bragging rights to the most popular articles. He told them: "You know what, guys? If we apply a few SEO tactics here, I can help you win the weekly battle," he says.
They began to coordinate metatags -- Web coding describing a page's content to search engines -- headlines, and keywords' frequency, formatting and placement. Content that's higher on a page, where spiders will read it soon after beginning to scan the page, tends to help get that information featured in search rankings.
"I would get one or two writers to take part, and it would slowly, over time, creep into the process with everyone, because they all wanted their stories to do well," he says.
Resist the temptation to overload pages with keywords. Among other factors, search engines may look at keyword density -- the percentage of words on a page that match the keywords -- when determining whether a Web page is relevant to a search term or just "keyword stuffing."
"You can out-optimize yourself," he says. Bankrate's target keyword density range is 2% to 9%, he says.
When writers don't think about keywords, they can easily leave out the search terms that could help readers find their story online, he says, "but when you get people mindful of it, it's not that hard to get it into the right range."
Know what you want visitors to do. In marketing lingo, this concept is known as a "call to action." A company might want a visitor to add a product to a shopping cart or complete a survey or newsletter sign-up, for example. Mr. De La Garza says he sees many small and midsize companies stumble on this step.
"They inundate the visitor with too much information without saying: 'Click here to buy it now,' " he says.
Bankrate.com articles, when their topics allow, often remind readers that the site has related rate information and calculators handy, by embedding links or placing them nearby.
"We keep our eyes on the prize," Mr. De La Garza says.
Study your traffic data for trends. Web-site hosting services and search engines have tools offering an array of statistics about what pages were visited on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, the Web pages that visitors used to reach your site, how long they stayed and other data. Sit down once a day or week to see how people are using your site, so you can learn what's working and what isn't.
Bankrate uses several sources to look at how much traffic there is to be had, what percentage of the traffic it is getting, and how much business the company is getting as a result.
The company's number-crunching helps it make revenue projections and sometimes guides business decisions. "We know the difference in revenue to us if we move from No. 5 to No. 12 for a particular keyword phrase," Mr. De La Garza says.
Search engines, for example, tell the company where its sites stand in rankings associated with specific keywords. Data from sources like mortgage associations and banking groups give indicators of overall industry activity, and online-rating services can show how much traffic is going to a specific term. Bankrate also uses a Web-analytics tool from Omniture Inc. to estimate how many visits particular search terms generate, and how much business the site gets from those visits. The company can learn, for example, whether the site is getting one click out of every two searches on a given keyword, or one click out of a million searches.
"It's like trying to drink from a fire hydrant," Mr. De La Garza says. "The information is constantly there, and every second you're gathering more."
Make your site easy to navigate. It should be friendly not only to the human eye, but also to search-engine spiders programs that crawl the Web looking for up-to-date information.
A site's structure can make a big difference in how easily a spider can crawl it. Web addresses that use keywords related to the content of the page generally help a search engine better correlate them with the site. For example: www.yourwebsite.com/keyword/filename.html. The closer the keyword is to your homepage in the Web address, the more relevant a search engine will consider the page to be for that keyword, and the more likely the search engine will be to give your site a better ranking. Bankrate condensed the Web addresses of several pages to help get more hits.
Another consideration is where content is placed on the page. Spiders read pages starting at the top left corner of a page, so on Bankrate's pages, keyword links to content that's especially important for search engines to see, such as "home-equity loans" and "mortgage rates," were moved there.
Use free tools from search engines. If your site hasn't added a Google Sitemap page, consider doing so. Google and other major search engines share a common feature that allows Webmasters to tell them about each page of their sites available for crawling and how often it changes and how important it is to the site. "You're actually producing a page to have the search engine come to you," he says.
Last year, Bankrate simplified its sitemap to make it easy for search-engine spiders to find it.
Another free tool especially useful for small companies with a local clientele is Google Maps, a free local business-listing service, which displays an address, hours and description, sometimes at the top of a search-results page.
"It's hard to pay for that kind of advertising," Mr. De La Garza says.
Write to Laura Lorber at email@example.com