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Innovation Economy

In Web world, a successful marketing effort means gaining inside track on searches

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / January 24, 2010

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Back in the last century, ensuring that customers knew you existed involved buying a billboard alongside a busy highway, or leasing space for your coffee shop next to your town’s biggest office building. It was simple.

But in the 21st century business ecosystem, there are three powerful players that can either help new customers connect and find you, or ensure that you’ll lose market share to your competitors. They are Google, Yahoo, and Bing, the most-frequently-used search engines in the United States. (About 65 percent of Internet users start their searches at Google.com, according to the measurement firm comScore.)

Showing up prominently in their search results has become an important part of basic sales and marketing strategy for businesses - but one that isn’t well understood.

“Lots of companies invest in building a great website, but they don’t pay attention to the factors that drive you up in a search engine’s rankings,’’ says Jeff Demers, director of search marketing at Wakefly Inc., a consulting firm in Westborough. Demers says that about 50 percent of Google users will click on the first site that shows up in the search results.

There’s a whole community of consultants in the Boston area that peddle advice about how a business can improve its position on various search engines. The field is typically called “search engine optimization,’’ or SEO. (“Search engine marketing’’ is what businesses do when they buy ads on sites like Google, to be guaranteed that they will show up when a user types a particular search term. SEO doesn’t involve paying for ads.)

Last week, I asked a handful of local SEO experts for their best advice on how a business can raise its profile on sites like Google - and whether it’s necessary to hire a consulting firm to help you. Here’s what they said:

Valid links. Getting other sites to link to yours is a surefire way to raise your ranking on Google and other search engines. But you can’t buy links, explains Dharmesh Shah, cofounder of the Cambridge marketing software firm HubSpot Inc. “Hiring a firm to get a massive number of links is a bad idea,’’ he writes via e-mail. “What many of these firms do . . . is leave comment spam on blogs (with a back link), submit to worthless directories, put links on their own low-quality websites, and any number of other tactics.’’ When Google sees that lots of sites with low credibility are linking to you all of a sudden, it tends to lower your ranking rather than raising it. Far better are links from well-read blogs and media sites.

Fresh and useful content. So how do you get those sites linking to you? “If you create content that is helpful, people will link to it,’’ says Akshay Vazirani, the founder of Boston-based Dreaming Code Inc. If you’re a veterinarian, it may be occasional reviews of new kinds of pet food and treats; a realtor might start a blog collecting advice for people preparing to put their house on the market. “You do have to think more like a publisher or a media company, as opposed to just building your site and then letting it sit there,’’ says Steve Skroce, the SEO manager at the Boston office of Media Contacts, an interactive agency.

The less flashy, the better. Many businesses build their entire websites in Flash, a format that can deliver video, sound, and nifty animations - but which is effectively invisible to search engines, which prefer plain old text. Same thing for sites built entirely of graphics. “My kid’s nursery school had a website that was made up only of images - no text,’’ says Niraj Shah, the chief executive of CSN Stores Inc., a Boston e-commerce company. “You just couldn’t find it on Google.’’ If you do choose to use Flash for aesthetic reasons, make sure it’s accompanied by text, which is more intelligible to search engines trying to figure out what your site is about.

Smart titles. At the top of your browser window, you’ll notice that different text appears when you visit different Web pages - that’s the title. Many websites use the same title on every page, such as “Acme Corp.’’ But if you use unique title text to describe what’s on each page, like “Acme Corp.: Information About Our Green Cleaning Products,’’ it can improve your search engine ranking, says Greg Jarboe of SEO-PR LLC, a consulting firm in Concord.

On hiring a consultant. Universally, everyone with whom I spoke cautioned against working with SEO firms that promise to make you number one on Google by next Tuesday. “There are a lot of charlatans around whose pitches appeal to small businesses because they are so cheap’’ - but not necessarily because they work, says Eric Enge, founder of Stone Temple Consulting in Southborough, which helps clients like UnitedHealthCare and Extra Space Storage with SEO. Many firms work on retainer, charging anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars a month to continually tweak a client’s website. “Being charged $5,000 a month to manage the SEO process is crazy,’’ says Mark Sprague, a Lexington consultant who mainly focuses on training sessions in which he teaches companies to do SEO on their own. Sprague recommends that those just starting to learn about SEO read the book “Search Engine Optimization for Dummies,’’ by Peter Kent. Google also offers free advice and tools; just search Google for “Google quick start guide.’’

Be patient. Your search rankings won’t change overnight, but will rise as you add more content to your site, and ideally as you generate more links from other sites. “A lot of what matters is time,’’ says Steven Conine, the chairman of CSN Stores. “It can be hard to tell if you’re moving up because of something smart that you’ve done, or something an SEO consultant has done - or just because time has passed.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.