The Press, May 2014

According to a recent American study reported on Stuff, 11 per cent of respondents thought the abbreviation HTML (hypertext mark-up language, used to create web pages) was a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

They were also confused about ‘‘gigabyte’’ (27 per cent thought it was an insect found in South America), ‘‘motherboard’’ (42 per cent said the ‘deck of a cruise ship’), ‘‘MP3’’ (23 per cent thought Star Wars robot), and ‘‘Blu-ray’’ (18 per cent saw a marine animal).

It is unsurprising then that 77 per cent of the sample had no idea what the term ‘‘SEO’’ meant. Many Kiwi business people will know it stands for ‘‘search engine optimisation’’, but will be hazy on the term’s meaning or application.

Like much technology jargon, it is shrouded in mystery and invested with all kinds of semi mystical properties only understood by those with special knowledge.

SEO can be something protected by what Kiwi tech legend Sir Gil Simpson called the ‘‘high priests of technology’’, who keep us poor regular people imprisoned in a world of jargon and confusion.

What is SEO, and how relevant is it to the average company trying to sell a product?

In simple terms, SEO is making your website as easy as possible to find when people are looking for your kind of product or service using a search engine like Google (representing about two-thirds of all searches), Yahoo or Bing.

Given most potential customers, no matter how big or complex your product, will search the internet to help with their purchase decisions, paying attention to SEO is important. Where do you start? Search for ‘‘search engine optimisation’’ and you will find a confusing array of terms (eg, link-building, meta tags, keywords, alt tags, indexing, MOZ) and a huge variety of experts, from people promising the secrets of SEO to self-professed ‘‘magicians of SEO’’. The only thing missing is suggestions that blood sacrifices will improve your search page ranking.

Should you simply ignore this noise and carry on with your website? Are all of these SEO people charlatans and snake oil salesmen?

There are a number of basics that need to be in place to help search engines more easily find your website (for example, the way pages are named on your website), and there are reputable local web companies that provide this advice, or you can find it online.

However there are thousands of SEO advisers trying to ‘‘game’’ the system by trying to fool search engines into thinking you are a highly relevant website.

For example, the number and quality of websites linking to yours helps with your ranking, so unscrupulous SEO companies will manufacture thousands of links to improve rankings.

The problem with this approach is that you enter an ‘‘arms race’’ with Google and other search engines, who are constantly changing the rules to try to overcome these manipulations. Wikipedia states that in 2010 Google made over 500 changes to their search algorithms.

There is a radically simple alternative to good SEO – simply try and focus on helping real humans find your website rather than trick search machines into thinking your website is relevant.

The key thing for a business person looking to market their product is to focus on helping your customers buy.

For example, we recently reviewed how a website was supporting a customer’s marketing strategy. They are an international exporter with good website traffic.

What fascinated them was that most of their traffic was not from people searching for their type of product, but those trying to answer a specific problem they had.

Visitors to their website virtually ignored product or service information, and focused on the wealth of useful background information about their industry on the website. The website ranks well on search engines without any regular ‘‘optimising’’.

There’s a virtuous cycle going on – genuinely try and be relevant to your target audience and Google will reward you. Their aim is not to help promote your website, but help web surfers find what they are looking for easily and quickly.

Where can you start with improving your SEO? Apart from getting some good advice from a reputable web firm, ensure you have the three ‘‘I’s’’ in place:

1. Individual: It’s important to know what kind of people buy your product or influence its purchase, and where in their purchase process they tend to search on the internet for information.

2. Irritations: What problems are these individuals looking to solve, because that is increasingly what people search for.

3. Information: Give them answers to those problems. Don’t just serve up product information on your website. Give them useful content that helps with their purchase decision.

SEO is not an STD, but is still something you should be careful about when marketing your product given how important the internet is to anyone’s purchase decisions. The challenge in doing it properly is to remember you are selling to real humans, not to some remote search engine bot.


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