CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- Glance at a company's Web site, and you'll get a quick insight into its soul. Businesses that strive to be hip invest in the latest bells and whistles, while others put up just-the-facts homepages that value clarity more than cleverness.
In recent years, small-business owners outside the tech industry have become more comfortable putting a personal stamp on their sites, posting blogs and adding comment sections. But they often overlook a critical element of their site's design: Can people find it online?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is one of the cornerstones of 21st-century marketing for large corporations and tech-savvy companies. "Optimizing" a Web site means tailoring its layout and content to make sure it shows up near the top of the results for related searches.
SEO is different from paid search, the advertising model that has made a bundle for
. Yes, you can guarantee your company shows up next to search results by paying a fee for particular keywords. And yes, some people will click on that link. But users will know your Web site showed up because you paid to be there, not necessarily because your company is the best fit for their search. And because paid listings are relegated to the side of the page, many Internet browsers simply ignore them.
If, on the other hand, your site appears high in Google or
regular search rankings, the assumption is that you deserve to be there, because your business is relevant to what the user wants. It gives you a certain authenticity that paid listings don't.
So how do you optimize your site?
Google, Yahoo and
Bing, the leading search engines, use complicated algorithms to determine their search results, taking into account dozens of different factors. Google offers a
of how to optimize a small-business site on its Web site.
While some enhancements require substantial Web design knowledge, other quick fixes are easy. The most critical section of your homepage when it comes to search is often the most overlooked: the page title. This simple text, which appears in the top left corner of your browser, is what helps search engines categorize your site.
Too many companies use their names or Web address as their homepage's title, missing a chance to include keywords that could be picked up by search engines.
A party planning company, for example, might simply use "Classic Events" as their page title. Suppose the page title was changed to "Classic Events: specializing in wedding planning and corporate events in Orange County, CA." By including the company's location and its expertise, it's more likely to appear as a match when someone types in the search terms "Orange County" and "wedding planning."
Ideally, each separate page of your Web site will have its own unique title, with relevant keywords.
Organization also counts. Unless your site has only a few pages, it's a good idea to include a sitemap, one page that lists all the sections and subsections of your site. This simple hierarchy helps customers and search engines find the information they're looking for.
High-quality content will also help your Web site stand out. Search engine results take popularity into account, so you want to give people a reason to visit your site and recommend it to others. Sites with well-written text, a clear layout and easy-to-follow links not only appeal to potential customers, they give you an edge in searches.
If you have a large site that depends on e-commerce, consider hiring a consultant to guide you in technical upgrades. Professional search engine optimizers can overhaul your site on a per-project basis.
Just remember that most businesses don't live or die by their search rankings. For long-term success, you have to keep marketing your company the old-fashioned way, by networking and building strong ties in your community and industry.
Think of listings on Google or Bing as the newest version of the Yellow Pages. Some new customers will call because you're listed there, but you'll get more consistent work from personal referrals. In the case of online search, coming in first doesn't necessarily mean you're the ultimate winner.
Reported by Elizabeth Blackwell in Chicago
Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.