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Vol. 35, No. 2

Search Engine Optimization

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Say you want your bar to be more visible online to members, potential members, the public, or all three. Where do you start: Twitter? Facebook? LinkedIn?

Those and other social media sites could be great for your bar, said Rich Brooks, president of Web design, Internet marketing, and consulting firm Flyte New Media. But you should also consider something called search engine optimization, or SEO.

Why is it so important to make sure your website ranks high in the results users see when they search via Google, Yahoo, and other search engines? A full 80 to 90 percent of Internet sessions include use of a search engine, Brooks told attendees at the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop in Portland, Maine, this past October.

Whether it’s a member, potential member, member of the public, or other constituent who is looking for information or services you offer, if you can learn to think the way Google thinks, Brooks said, you can “be the needle that cannot be missed in that giant haystack.”

SEO doesn’t have to be about finding ways to fool the system and thereby improve your ranking. Brooks called that “black hat SEO.” Besides being dishonest, those tricks can backfire; they work great until suddenly they don’t, he said. Google sometimes seems to mete out punishments, he added, sending cheaters plummeting down into the depths of the search results page when their “black hat” techniques are discovered.

Brooks much prefers “white hat SEO,” which involves knowing what people search for, and then tweaking the content of your website to help ensure that it will show up toward the top of the results page for that search. It takes some work, but white hat SEO is a lot more sustainable, Brooks noted, because you’re not at risk of discovering that your loophole has been closed—and possibly that you’ve been found out and punished.

An integrated approach

SEO is an important component of what should be an integrated approach to Web marketing, Brooks believes. This integrated approach has the following four phases, he explained:

Attraction. This refers to how you get people to visit your website in the first place. You can attract visitors through a blog, a page on a social media site, through SEO, with press releases, through word of mouth, or by some other means.

Retention. This is how you keep your members or other visitors interested and engaged. Some ways you can do this include e-mail marketing, ongoing use of social media, and encouraging people to subscribe to your blog’s RSS feed.

Conversion. This is the phase where you help your visitors move closer to whatever action you want them to take—joining, renewing, buying something, etc.

Measurement. In this phase, you assess how well you’ve been doing with the previous phases. For example, you might use Google analytics, which can give you such helpful data as where your Web visitors live, how they find your site, and how long they spend there.

Another important piece of your overall Web marketing plan, Brooks said, is having a clear content strategy, so you’re not posting or sending information that is of little interest or value. “You have to know where your customers’ pain points are,” Brooks said, explaining that the first step in developing your strategy is to find out what’s important to your members or other constituents—including any problems you can help them solve.

The next step, he added, is to determine where your customers would like to have a conversation with you. Are they heavy Web users? Do they frequent one or two of the social media platforms more often than the others? From their standpoint and yours, what are some effective ways to reach them?

Keywords are key

One of the best ways to climb up the search results ranks, Brooks said, is through careful use of keywords. Each page of your website is considered separately by search engines, he pointed out, so it’s important to make sure you have keywords on every page rather than just on the home page.

It’s also very important to have a “unique, keyword-rich title tag” for each page, Brooks noted, explaining that the title tag is the text that will appear in the box at the very top of your visitor’s Web browser when he or she navigates to a particular page. Many search engines make use of these tags to identify their search listings, so making sure yours are strong and specific can greatly increase your visibility.

Besides the title tags that are visible to your Web visitors, it’s also important to think about the metatags and metadescription that are invisible but also factor into your spot in the search rankings. Every page needs a one- or two-sentence description, Brooks advised; the bar’s IT person can go into the HTML document and input the descriptions you’ve written.

If your Web visitors currently navigate through your site by clicking on photos or other images—even logos that are mainly made up of words—Brooks would suggest that you reconsider this. Using keywords rather than pictures as the navigation devices can increase your visibility.

You may have heard elsewhere that it’s no longer considered a best practice to say something like “click here” or “learn more” and have those words be the link. Brooks is another expert who believes you shouldn’t set up your navigation links that way. One reason, he explained, is that whatever your link is, Google thinks that’s what the Web page is about—which means it might mistakenly believe your page is about “click here.” Instead, he said, links are yet another place where keywords are required. If you think your visitors will be confused without an instruction like “click here,” Brooks recommended writing a phrase that has keywords at the beginning and “click here” at the end.

If your site has a page for frequently asked questions, this is another great spot for keywords, Brooks suggested. That’s because you can use the keywords in the question, and then rephrase and use the keywords again in the answer—giving you pairs of chances to be found by Google or another search engine. Other good spots might be articles, how-to pieces, or press releases.

If most of your content is behind a members-only wall, can you still make use of keywords? In this case, Brooks suggested, you could write a keyword-laced teaser abstract that gives visitors—and Google—a good idea of what’s in those areas.

While you’re peppering your pages with keywords, Brooks cautioned, never lose sight of the person who will visit your site. “People make decisions, not keywords,” he said, explaining that while you do want to leave plenty of crumbs for Google to follow, you don’t want to make a meaningless jumble for your Web visitors. Keywords should be used frequently but judiciously, he said, so as not to impede the flow.

Choosing your keywords

It isn’t enough to use a lot of keywords, Brooks said; it’s also important to choose the right ones. “If you write a really great article on rhinoplasty and everyone’s searching for ‘nose job,’ you haven’t accomplished anything,” he explained. But how can you determine the best keywords for your bar, the ones that will attract Google’s attention and ultimately pull in the visitors you want? Brooks suggested getting together a small group to brainstorm about the following:

What products and services do you especially want to highlight?

What are your customers’ problems or needs? “A lot of times, people on Google are searching [based] on their problems,” Brooks noted.

What benefits—actual or perceived—does your bar offer? Sometimes, people search by solution rather than by problem.

What are some of the best features of your bar’s products and services?

Who are your competitors? Sometimes, a person might look for information about your competitors and end up seeing your bar in the search results. For example, if someone searched for “Weight Watchers,” Google might also suggest information about, say, Thighmaster or diet pills.

Along with whatever emerges through that brainstorming, Brooks suggested some additional points to consider. Choose some keywords that are very specific and others that are more general, he advised, since different users search differently. Be sure to mention your city, state, or other such reference, too. Review your site’s traffic reports. How many visitors have you been getting? How have they found you? What have they done at your site? If you want to do a little (perfectly legal) espionage, there are services that can tell you what keywords have been effective for your competitors, Brooks noted.

Once you’ve brainstormed what you think are some potent keywords, test them with a few members or other visitors to your site, Brooks recommended. If they do seem to be relevant to those users, then revise your website to include those words.

Still stuck? Brooks mentioned the following tools that can help you analyze and select keywords. The first three are paid services, but the rest are free:

Raven SEO (