Vol. 37, No. 2

SEO, keywords, and good, old-fashioned marketing: Expert strategies for Web success

by Marilyn Cavicchia

You’ve just revamped your website to do a better job of attracting local reporters, prospective LRIS clients, potential bar members, or anyone else who might find your bar association via a Google search.

Are you seeing the kind of traffic you’d hoped for? If not, said Natalie Henley, marketing manager at Denver-based Internet marketing company Volume 9, it might just be that your website is not speaking your customers’ language—or Google’s.

At October’s National Association of Bar Executives Communication Section Workshop in Denver, Henley shared some search engine optimization tips that can help you get that great website found.

Think like your audience

Before getting into how to “talk” effectively to Google, Henley addressed the need to get out of your own perspective and consider whether you’re using the kind of terms your audience will search for.

She gave an example from far outside the realm of bar associations, that of Pat Parelli of Parelli Natural Horsemanship. Parelli, who offers a system of Horse Whisperer-type training tips and materials, was dismayed by low sales through his website even though it was No. 1 in Google’s ranking for the keyword he’d selected.

The problem? Parelli had chosen “natural horsemanship” as the keyword because it expresses his philosophy that working with horses is not about training the horse but instead about building the relationship between horse and human.

The 22,000 searches per month for the rather obscure term “natural horsemanship” were likely by people already familiar with Parelli’s system, Henley said;  meanwhile, 167,000 searches per month were being done by potential new customers looking for “horse training” or to solve specific problems. Averse though Parelli is to the term “training,” Henley said, sales improved considerably when he added “horse training” and a few common problems as keywords.

Similarly, Silverson Machines was seeing great traffic with the keyword “industrial mixer.” The problem, Henley said, was that many of those searchers were looking for large home kitchen mixers to handle their holiday baking—whereas Silverson makes mixers for factories, including some models that are large enough to fill a whole room. Changing the keyword phrase to the industry term “high shear industrial mixer” ensured that the company was speaking only to its intended audience, Henley said.

When choosing keywords, Henley advised, try to think like your potential customers and consider what it is they might be looking for that the bar can provide. Then, she added, make it clear what it is they’re supposed to do next, such as “call for information” or “sign up now.” The ideal keyword phrase, she noted, contains three or four words—studies have shown that phrases of that length are most effective in persuading people to click.

Think like Google

As for how to create a strategy that works well with Google’s internal mechanisms, Henley said, it’s helpful to know something about the search engine’s history: It was created by professors at Stanford, who initially used it to rank how doctoral theses should be graded.

Professors often look for certain technical specifications, Henley said: Are the margins correct? Is there a cover page? Having those specifications in place doesn’t guarantee an “A,” she noted—the content matters, too—but the more you follow the conventions, the better the first impression you make.

One problem, though, is that there’s no clear list of the 200+ factors that Google looks for, Henley noted. But there are some free tools that can help you learn how you’re doing and what you can do to improve your position in the search rankings; Henley mentioned these three: Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, and HubSpot’s marketing.grader.com.

Google considers each page within your website separately, so “Each page of your website is its own keyword strategy,” Henley said.  For that reason, she added, think carefully about how you name each of those pages. Names such as “information” or “about us” make Google think you want to be No. 1 in searches for those terms, she explained. If you do want to use those general words, she advised, make them part of a longer phrase: “Information about [whatever it is you’re highlighting]” or “About X Bar Association.” Similarly, because your goal is not to be ranked No. 1 for “click here,” Henley said, make sure there’s a keyword in each hyperlink.

Weave keywords throughout your page, being careful not to create a meaningless jumble that is clearly written only for Google’s benefit, Henley suggested—but do take advantage of every opportunity you have to gracefully include a keyword.

One such opportunity that is often overlooked, she said, is the titles of images. Much better than a string of numbers followed by .jpg, she explained, is something more descriptive, like “CO DUI lawyers legal advice.jpg” (for a DUI lawyer who practices in Colorado). And don’t forget to include alternate text that describes each image, Henley added, explaining that Google’s ranking system is automated, so it isn’t as if there’s a person looking at your images to see how relevant they are to your subject area.

Alternate text is great for another reason, she said: It helps make your site ADA-compliant, because software used by those with impaired vision can read the text description. Not only does this help those users, Henley noted, but it can also help your ranking. “Google doesn’t like it if you’re a jerk,” she said, meaning that ADA compliance is one factor it looks for. One attendee asked if you still need alternate text even if you have descriptive captions for each image; Henley said that each image should include alternate text, regardless of whether it also has a caption.

Google also looks for something called “domain authority,” Henley said; that is, it uses various means to determine to what degree you are a trusted expert in your field. A big part of that, she added, is how much content you provide on your site, and whether people find it useful enough to link to it and share it. Both the sheer number of pages you have and the number of people linking to you help convince Google that you have the kind of information its users are looking for.

They found you … now what?

As useful as SEO is in getting your website found, Henley noted, it means nothing unless you can then convert the Google searcher into a client, member, or whatever it is you want him or her to be.

“Make it obvious what you want them to do,” Henley said, adding that this seems simple, but is often overlooked. Don’t bury important information regarding next steps, she recommended, and don’t make your visitors hunt around for forms they need to fill out. Henley cited studies that have found there’s about a 20-minute window in which to convert someone from a website visitor to a customer. 

“Don’t put your marketing on autopilot,” she advised; that is, don’t forget that your website is, above all, a communication piece—one that requires clarity and persuasion, not just killer keywords.