Demystifying SEO and SEM for Startups

SEO and SEM Strategy for Startups – SEO is the easiest way to get users to your door, but is very often the most neglected tools as well.

[Guest Post by Mayank Bidawatka, Head of Marketing at RedBus.in. In this post, Mayank demystifies SEO and SEM concepts and shares his experience/learning while implementing the same at RedBus.

Mayank will share some of his learnings at the upcoming UnpluGGd event, scheduled for September 19th, 2009.]

Have meager resources? Read-on.

Companies that have their revenue model largely concentrated on e-commerce, or those with a constrained budget, have found a reliable friend in the WWW (World Wide Web). Many companies that like to complement their main-line (or above-the-line) spends have also started using the internet as a key alternative medium.

Key reasons for this shift are:

  • Internet penetration is growing and is about 30 million (about 3% of India’s population) today
  • Most in urban areas have easy access to the internet due to falling broadband prices and new products that give wireless access
  • Library of information that can be “Googled”

The internet and the mobile were recently voted as a medium people can’t live without. Higher than television!

It’s all about Relevancy

Anyone who makes a living off communication knows the importance of relevancy. No advertising can be worth its quality if it’s talking to its target market at a point when the category is not relevant to their frame of mind. It would be useless for me to talk about online bus tickets when someone is sitting at a café. However, it could be extremely relevant when they are “Googling” for bus tickets or when they are waiting for their bus at a bus stand. Even average advertising messages can do wonders when it’s delivered at the right time.

This is where companies can and must leverage the net. Search has changed the way people use the net. Majority of the net-surfing population uses Google as the gateway to their internet exploratory journey. The way Google is engineered it gives companies with a genuinely good product an excellent chance to reach out to their customers without incurring a cost, or incurring minimal cost.

I have concentrated on Google in the article because anyone trying their hand at internet marketing must master this search engine more and before any other. If you have Google covered, you can go to sleep.

Search Concepts

Two important concepts one needs to master are Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM). In simple terms when someone searches for online bus tickets on Google, the results that pop-up are ranked by Google based on relevancy. The most relevant site with information on online bus tickets will be featured right on top. Since users know that Google’s searches are relevant, they will usually consider the first 4 sites only (unless the sites don’t have what the user is looking for). To ensure that you show up right at the beginning, you have to OPTIMIZE your site so that Google considers you to be most relevant in terms of that particular keyword phrase (online bus tickets). This process is called SEO.

When someone does a search for online bus tickets, they will notice some ads on the right-hand of the page. These are sponsored results. This means that companies have advertised their products for that particular keyword phrase. In their quest for relevancy, Google ensures that they will only show your ad when it’s relevant to the user’s search. For this, the company has to choose the keywords they want to show up for and have to bid a rate. Using some fair calculations Google decides whose ad shows up right on top. In case your ad is clicked more than that of competitors, Google lowers the cost per click for you and in all likelihood you will show up above your competitor, assuming that both of you have the same bid. This, in short, is called Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

So, SEO is not-paid-for and SEM is. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure that it’s best to have SEO rather than SEM. However, it’s not that easy to master SEO. Google has a very complex algorithm (a set of logic) that decides which sites will show up right on top and subsequently. This is a magic sauce that has not been revealed, and never will be. Unless of course Larry Page (Google co-founder) blabbers it out in sleep.

Any new company must work on SEO and SEM at the same time and as time passes they must rely more heavily on SEO more than SEM to generate traffic. This graph explains the relationship between your reliance on SEO vs SEM.

seo sem graph

The more time you spend on SEO, the lesser energy and money you will have to spend on SEM.

SEM

I will spend more time on SEO than SEM because there is enough and more on SEM. You can log on to www.Google.com/adwords/learningcenter to know more about SEM. One insight that I can provide is how to use AdWords and your SEO strategy together. If you have an SEM campaign running, you can use that to understand the keywords that get the highest number of impressions and then gain insights on keywords you must master your SEO for.

SEO

I will share with you some invaluable lessons without giving out specifics. It’s fun to explore on your own ?

Keywords: This is the most important beginning for SEO.

  • It’s important to know which keywords are important to optimize for. If you are a retailer of bean bags, it’s important to know what consumers type in Google while searching for bean bags. There are many tools available on Google that help you generate this for you. Try the keyword tool in Google AdWords or wordtracker.
  • Do a search for your top keywords and analyze the results that Google throws up. Try to understand why those sites pop up right at the beginning. Analyze how many times a particular keyword appears in the title, in the description, in the URL and on the page content.

Title: This is one of the most important elements in SEO.

  • Ensure that the title of your page is not more than 60 characters. That’s all that will be read by Google.
  • Once you are done analyzing the search on your keywords, understand how you can structure the content in your title, description, URL and home page, in that order. It’s always relative, so don’t forget to ensure that you are higher than your competitor. Having said that, don’t try to stuff all your keywords in such a way that it’s non-meaningful or desperate. It’s a fight between quality and quantity.
  • It’s important for Google to know that you have not put junk in your title. The way they determine this is by checking if the words in your title match those in the content of your page. If they are not, you won’t do as well as you could. So figure how you can have those keywords on your home page too. I can’t beat Travelocity in airline tickets by just putting airline tickets all over my title. I can do that only if I have it in my title, description, URL and content and higher than that of Travelocity.
  • If you and your competitor have the particular keyword in equal quantities on your title, the next factor becomes the placement of keyword. In this case, you have to ensure that the keyword in your title is before that of your competitor’s. For instance, if the keyword is the 25th character of your competitor’s title, yours should be anything less than that. This way you will feature higher.

Multiple URLs and URL address:

  • Don’t stuff all your keywords in your home page. Optimize all the URLs in your site for different keywords. This way you won’t land up stuffing everything only on the home page. It’s important to achieve a good balance between content and form. Don’t let extra content kill the design of your site.
  • If your URL address contains the keyword, Google gives it more weight. This is the best measure of who the site belongs to.

Keywords metatag: Disregard this. Google has stopped reading this a while back.

PageRank:

  • A simple formula devised by Google to check relevancy and the quality of a site is PageRank. It’s nothing but a vote that shows how other sites look upon you. If site x points a link to site y, then that’s a vote of confidence in site y by x. This goes well in Y’s PageRank. The more links you have in your kitty, the better. Something like politics. So, you have to work towards getting more people to point towards you. Read up on PageRank on Google. There’s loads of information and misinformation.
  • If you can somehow get .edu or .gov sites to link to you, that’s invaluable. The logic being that educational or Government sites are more credible than the regulars.
  • Sometimes sites which are less relevant as yours may show up higher than you. That’s probably because they have a higher PageRank than yours. Don’t worry. You can’t help that. Just work on yours.

Content: Some simple rules

  • Google will give more weight to content right on top than that below.
  • More brownies will be given to content in H1 (header) tags than regular content.
  • More weight goes to larger font than smaller.
  • Negative marks will be given (and you will probably disappear off Google) if you try to hide content by making it non-readable (either making the font the same color as the background or making it very small). Googlebot (Google’s crawler) is blind, but not dumb.
  • Make sure that you have your keywords in a higher density than other words. Quality content is more important than quantity. So, ensure that when you are stuffing your page with keywords, it still makes sense to the customer. Otherwise, they will leave your page in no time and all time spent on SEO will be worth just that.

Images:

  • Don’t use any flash, unless people know your URL and you don’t have to depend on SEO. If you do, use good images that compensate for the lack of flash. Googlebot stops when it sees flash.
  • Did you know that you could put a name to your images? There is something called alternative text. Use this in the best way you can. What is alternative text? In case your image does not show up in a browser, the alternative text describes the image for the user. So, if I have the company logo and that doesn’t show up for some reason, the alternative text will. So, don’t stuff keywords there, but then again, don’t forget to put your company identity / or category in there.

Age of your URL:

This is another factor that Google considers important. A competitor’s site that is less relevant may show up higher if they have been around longer than you. There’s nothing you can do about this though. Once you cross the one year barrier, you will probably be in the same league as your competitors.

Results

When we at redBus incorporated some of these techniques, we went up on searches for keywords like “bus tickets”, “bus tickets online”, “online bus tickets”, “bus travel”, and many more from rank 7 to rank 1. Today if you search for most of the categories related to bus tickets, you will find redBus right on top.

I have simply outlined some extremely basic yet important points. Don’t think this is the end to it. I have simply told you some information you may not find elsewhere.

[This article was  published in March 2008 and has been republished owing to the current Unpluggd theme.]

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