SEO for CEOs

Written by Diane Peters

Patrick Boening was puzzled. The president and CEO of Diamond Wholesale Corp. had hired a designer to give a makeover to his website, his only sales channel. Yet even though the site now looked good and was easy to use, sales of the Richmond Hill, Ont.-based firm’s diamonds and diamond jewellery had crept up barely 10%. “We were wondering if this was the right business for us,” Boening recalls.

So he tried Googling his site. It didn’t come up at all. Boening discovered that was designed all wrong to nab the attention of search engines. He then boned up on search-engine optimization (SEO), rewrote his title tags and made sure the right keywords were on the right pages. Boening even bought paid listings on Google, which has a dominant 59.2% share of all U.S. searches, according to Hitwise, a New York-based online measurement firm. Within four months, his sales had spiked by more than 40%.

Results like these show the potential payoff from making your site search engine smart. Since you’re unlikely to take personal charge of SEO the way Boening did, you should ask your webhead these five questions — and be sure he or she has the right answers.

Do spiders like us?

Search-engine “spiders” crawl the Web constantly, seeking content written in HTML code to index. They ignore graphics, Flash animation, pictures, games and sometimes even content picked up from databases. “Anything that gets between a search-engine spider and written content is going to create problems,” says Gord Hotchkiss, president and CEO of Enquiro Search Solutions, a Kelowna, B.C.-based company that offers search-engine marketing services.

Spiders latch onto title tags, the names of individual pages displayed at the top of browser windows. So make sure each page has a title and that it’s loaded with keywords that pertain to the content of your website, if not the specific page.

Spiders adore site maps, because they make indexing a snap. But meta tags — keywords and descriptions of a Web page that are invisible to site visitors — matter less than they used to. In no small part, that’s because search-engine programmers caught onto website owners stacking their meta tags with terms that were misleading (e.g., “sex” on a furniture website) or repetitive (e.g., “sex sex sex”). Still, because your meta tag could appear as the blurb below your URL on a page of search-engine results, you should take the time to make sure it’s well-written and describes your site properly.

Are we highly linkable?

From a search engine’s perspective, the Web is like high school: popularity is important. You’re popular if many other sites link to you (and, to a lesser extent, if you link to many other sites). But search-engine algorithms aren’t dumb: they know the difference between a porn and a university site, and can tell if your links are unrelated to your business.

“A few well-chosen links can make a world of difference,” says Hotchkiss. Don’t have your Web guy waste time trading links with every dot-com that will have you. Featuring history, scientific data or other useful information on your site related to your product line should attract links. Or get creative. One of Hotchkiss’ clients, a whitewater rafting company, offered key tourism websites quality pictures of local rivers and scenery in return for links.

Should we pay for it?

You can optimize your page to the nines, but that will only do so much. Even if you pull off the Herculean feat of landing the top spot on Google for a specific search term, only about 50% of searchers will give you a click, says Hotchkiss. (Just 20% scroll down far enough to see the 10th-place match, let alone click on it.) Plus, it can take months to get noticed by spiders, which need time to prowl around, find your site and add it to their massive indices.

If traffic isn’t what you had hoped, or you have a timely promotion, you can pay for serious real estate via sponsored links, paying each time someone clicks on a keyword string you’ve bought. On Google, for instance, these links sit to the right of the “organic” (non-paid) listings and are typically highlighted in blue. Yahoo!, which has a 28.8% share of U.S. searches, and MSN, with 5.5%, also offer paid listings.

However, it’s time-consuming to pick which words to buy and then test their effectiveness. “A lot of companies start on their own and they start getting results,” says Hotchkiss. “But then they find a staff member is spending all their time on this and not doing their job.” For a fee, typically starting at about $3,000, SEO firms can do the bidding for you and track whether the keywords you’ve purchased are working.

Do searchers use our lingo?

To narrow down a list of terms that your audience might actually search for, start by talking to your existing customers and the staff who deal with them regularly, and read mainstream media coverage of your industry to see which words they use.

Andrew Goodman, founder of Page Zero Media, a Toronto-based SEO service firm, says your webhead should be able to review your server logs to see which terms visitors used to find you through a search engine. You should also check out services such as, which collects data on popular keywords. “But don’t go for the keywords that are popular if it causes you to write a silly website,” says Goodman. An SEO company can help you as well by researching your economic sector, testing keywords and installing tracking software to see which words work.

Are we trying to cheat? Everybody wants to be No. 1, but getting there on the sly isn’t worth it. Setting up numerous links unrelated to your business or overloading your site with keywords in your text or meta tags, for example, can get you in trouble with a search engine.

If you’re caught, the search engine will drop you to the bottom of the index or, if you’re really unscrupulous, kick you off altogether. The porn and penis-enlargement sites that are nailed most often simply change their URLs, but for most firms it’s crucial to keep the same address. If you’re booted for bad behaviour, you’ll have to appeal to the search engine’s operators for a manual review of your case — during which your site is certain not to be found.

© 2005 Diane Peters

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