I am encouraged each day when I see the number of people who have taken the time to visit and read my blog. I will do my best to continue providing useful information to my readers. I also want to thank PhotoBookPress.com for their very flattering blog post about the book I did with them.
So far I have talked getting yourself online, getting paid, getting “stuff” your customers and keeping your customers happy. In this installment I will talk a little about getting yourself noticed when people are looking for your products or services.
Most internet users find what they are looking for through one of two mechanisms, references from “friends” or search engines. I will focus on search engines. There are a lot of search engines out there, among the better known ones are Bing, Ask.com, Yahoo and that little newcomer, Google. Regardless of which search engine you prefer, they all work basically the same way.
The value of a search engine comes from its ability to convert your search request into a list of websites that might match it. In order to do that, they have “crawlers” that are constantly out there finding content. Crawlers are software tools that go from website to website taking in the content of each page and adding key characteristics to the search engine’s database. That provides the raw material from which the search engine produces your search results. Where search engines differ is in the algorithms they use to store the data about the website, the mechanisms they use for search and retrieval of those data and how they understand your search request.
The details of how a search engine works are very proprietary to its owner. In most cases, there is not one single person who has all the detailed knowledge. Because of that, anyone who claims to know everything about how a given search engine works is either: lying, delusional or looking for a very expensive lawsuit to be filed. Most of the search engines also make periodic minor changes to their algorithms to improve performance and/or discourage people from trying to cheat their way to a higher position in the search results.
What is publicly known is the data elements available to a search engine. Based on experience and some good guesses, it is possible to determine which of these is more important. Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) is a serious business. There are many companies out there that will try and sell you their services to improve your search engine placements. I am not a big fan of these services. Several years ago I was working at a small business that had a website. I got called one day by one of these services offering me a month free and the ability to cancel at any time. I figured for fun why not. As soon as I got off the phone I did some searches for our business on various engines and captured the results. Shortly before the month was over, I repeated the process and got pretty much the same results. A lot of factors can influence positioning in a search result, so minor fluctuations are to be expected. Since I saw no appreciable change, I cancelled the service.
Assuming that you are using a hosted solution for your online store, your hosting company probably provides you with information about SEO. Having clear concise text on your pages is one important step, but only the beginning. The remainder of the data the crawler will look for is in your site/page meta data. As you may recall from an earlier post, meta data are descriptors about your site that while not always visible in the browser are visible to the crawler (and if you know how to look in your browser you can find them). Don’t assume because there is a title on your page, or a description, that it is the same as populating the meta tag. As an example, when you see a search result for pages, it will usually have some text from the page. If you look at my Galleries page you will see that there is no descriptive text on that page. If you do a Google search for John Feist Photography galleries, you will find several listings. The one referring to my galleries page has a description. This came from the page descriptor meta tag. My hosting company, PhotoShelter.com, provides several tools that make optimization easier. First on the design page for each of the pages on my site, they indicate which data fields correspond to meta tags used by search engines. The other major tool is a SEO rater. This tool asks a few questions and then looks at the site to produce a number from 0 to 100 as an indication of how well the site is search optimized. When the results are presented, the various categories used are displayed along with indications where improvements could be made.
Aside from providing text where there is none, careful use of meta tags allows you to get more keywords about your site or page into the search engine. Don’t just repeat the text from your page in the meta text. Many of the search engines have algorithms to find and devalue those. The same applies to the old “trick” of putting lots of invisible words on the page to fool the search engines.
There has been a lot written about SEO. One guide that I found to be quite useful came from Google. This is a .pdf that is freely available and provides a lot of good information about how to optimize your site for their engine.
If your site has more than a few pages, you can submit a site map to the search engines. Each search engine has its own tools for creating these maps. In most cases, you might need to ask a techie friend for some help in putting them together as most assume you have certain technical skills. There is another reason for submitting a site map. Most search engines will have their crawler revisit your site when they get a new or revised site map to be sure that their data are up to date.
Finally, having done all the work, you probably want to know if your site is being visited along with a host of other data about visitors to your site. Your hosting company many provide some of those data. Google provides a free set of webmaster tools to help you with this. The key is setting up for Google Analytics (part of the webmaster tools). Again, this may take a little time and could require some techie help, but not much. The basic process is to register your site and prove that it is yours. From there, you get a bit of code to embed as a meta tag. Most hosting services have existing options to facilitate this. Once that is in place, every time someone goes to your site, the data are added to the Google analytics database where you can view and analyze them. As with site maps, there are other hosting resources (free) for tracking site traffic. Unlike site maps where it makes sense to submit them to a number of engines, you only need one tracking service.
As I said at the start, SEO is a big complicated topic. You can find tons of material online. I hope that the above gives you a basic understanding and helps you to increase your visibility and sales.