C. Reid Thornley B.Sc. asked:

Howdy. I am the proud owner and operator of a web-based business that sells water purification equipment to homeowners and small businesses. I’d like to take a few moments to describe my experience in search engine optimization: the mistakes, the successes, and my resulting philosophy on getting found in the World Wide Web.

Like most small web-based startups, my business relies exclusively on traffic that is generated through the major search engines with, of course, Google carrying the most weight. When I started this business I understood intuitively that Google placement would most likely predict the success or failure of this venture but I truly had zero experience and faced a very daunting learning curve.

As many entrepreneurs on a shoe-string budget do, I started asking people that I knew – people who were experts in this field – exactly what I should do to get found. And by experts, I mean people like my web-hosting tech support guy, my graphic designer, my buddy who works for IBM, and finally my Dad’s friend who runs the “Friends of the Lower Saugeen River Society” webpage. Oh ya – I forgot about the guy I met perusing the “Search Engine Optimization” section at Indigo. What would possess me to trust the opinions of this motley crew is beyond me now, but I guess in fairness to myself, desperation and ignorance have resulted in worse decisions than the ones I was about to make.

The advice I received I acted on with reckless abandon. I bought dozens of domain names, hundreds of dubious links and read countless grossly outdated articles (“try adding a few hundred keywords at the end of every page for some added SEO punch!”). It took a few months but it soon became clear that a new strategy was necessary. I had exhausted my SEO budget going after very competitive key works like water softeners and water filters and all I had to show for it was a measly 10 visitors a day. But, it was in this defeat, that I wrested the one gold nugget that would be the foundation for later SEO success. The epiphany went like this: people were finding my website based on searches they made in Google. Wait, it gets dumber. Google was connecting these searchers to me because I was perceived by Google to be a trustworthy and relevant information source for the search string. I later came to realize that the meager traffic I was receiving was for extremely obscure searches but the learnings were of value nonetheless. The core principal I pulled from this experience was this:

Google is a business with a primary goal of making money. All of Googles core revenue streams are ultimately related to the massive numbers of people using their web search services. Searchers only return to Google if they are consistently connected with relevant results. If Google loses these searchers, they lose their ability to make money.

There it is man. Google will always reward websites that make their patrons (the “searchers”) happy with their service. They can’t afford not to. With this new mantra I took a critical look at my existing site. Ya – it was pretty, but I could not properly edit and format many of the critical fields necessary to describe to Google what I was about. I’m talking about very fundamental things like Page Titles, Meta Descriptions, and Meta Keywords.

No wonder Google didn’t send many people my way – it had no idea what my website was about. It was a risk for Google to send a searcher for Waterwise Distillers to my site because I didn’t have a single page that showed this phrase in the title, description, or keywords. Who cares that I had the content if I could not show Google that I was a trustworthy authority on the topic.

Imagine cruising down the road that most cities have, where all the car dealerships are lined up. You want to buy a Honda Civic. As you drive down the road you see a sign that say “Cars” and there’s a bus, a Ferrari, a John Deere tractor, and a Hummer in the parking lot. You gonna stop? Another sign reads “Honda Internal Combustion Engine Homo Sapiens Transporters for Sale” and there are a bunch of Honda Civics parked in a nice row. Maybe you’d stop there, but probably not if there was another sign that read “Honda Civics” and in the lot you saw hundreds of brand new shiny Honda Civics. Adding to your confidence, the sales office had an overhead sign that read “Honda Civics on Sale”. When you stopped and spoke to the salesperson he said, “We sell Honda Civics”.

My simple point is to make sure that you accurately describe the content of your website to give Google confidence in sending its valued searchers to your site. I am amazed today at how many webmasters spin 500 mph circles executing the SEO fad of the week without any apparent realization of Google’s core duty in connecting searchers to high quality content. There are many, many webmasters who spend countless dollars on SEO without paying much attention to the simple, inexpensive, and effective results of on-page optimization. Spend time creating original, interesting, and keyword rich content and then do everything possible on your own site to ensure that Google knows what the page is about. Don’t jam repetitive keywords in critical fields. Again, remember that Google’s number 1 job is connecting it’s patrons to web pages they will find informative and useful. If your Titles, Descriptions, and Keywords look spammy your website probably will too. Do you like visiting spammy websites? Would you keep using Google if it always connected you to junky sites? My point exactly.

I ultimately had to re-build my website from scratch because it did not allow me to manipulate key areas to allow me to describe my content accurately. The results of the change were staggering. With no other SEO effort – none – my traffic grew to about a hundred visitors a day. Just by accurately describing my content I had grown my traffic by 10X. Just by using my keyword in the title, the meta description, the meta keywords, and of course within the content I was able to grow fast.

After this point, I quickly realized that on-page SEO would only take me so far. I needed a link building strategy to continue to grow – but this is a topic for another time. My simple advice to novice webmasters is to avoid getting caught up in time consuming and often expensive off-page SEO until you are 100% sure that your on-page tactics are locked down. You may find yourself wasting lots of time and money in link-building strategies with little payoff if Google can’t properly decipher the content or message of your web pages. And, as a final caveat, consult as many resources as you can in your quest to becoming your own personal SEO guru. If you hear the same thing from a number of reliable sources, it’s probably true. But never abandon common sense and never allow yourself to become so self-obsessed that you lose sight of the goal of the search engine who’s patrons you so desperately need. Keeping this top-of-mind will always keep you in-bounds and on the path to web-business success.

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