You know that you're the best at whatever you do - writing, photography, design, etc. - and everyone should want to hire you. But can they find you? While the realities of the 21st century mean you may not have a physical location for your business, you should certainly have an online property. Just as you probably wouldn't want your coffee shop tucked away in a nondescript location with little visibility, you don't want your digital presence hidden - which is why it's so important to ensure your website is optimized for search engines and user experience.
What is Search Engine Optimization?
A search engine works by "crawling" and indexing web pages and using an algorithm (and sometimes human input) to determine a site's quality and authority. Based on this, the engine assigns a ranking to the pages it has indexed, which users see after typing keywords into the engine. Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the process of making a website more visible in these "organic" (unpaid) search results. The process usually involves techniques such as allowing a page to be found by search engines in the first place, editing code (especially in page content, title and headers) and promoting links.
Paid search results, on the other hand, function more like targeted advertisements. The most well-known type of paid search result, Google's AdWords, usually consist of 25 character headlines and two text lines of 35 characters each. Advertisers select the keywords they'd like to trigger their ads to be shown, as well as the maximum amount of money they're willing to pay per click on their ad. When a user searches on Google, the ads are displayed as "sponsored links" on the right side of the screen and above the main search results. Click-through rates for the first three AdWords ads displayed range from about eight per cent to two and a half per cent.
Why is it important?
At its most basic, SEO can help ensure that your website ranks high in search listings for keywords relevant to the work you do. That can mean higher site traffic and more business coming your way. And since most people don't even look at (let alone click) links after the first three results, it's incredibly important to ensure your site ranks as high as possible.
Luckily, creative professionals have a few advantages in the area, including familiarity with the importance of digital marketing and the ability to market themselves as individuals - namely, utilizing noncompetitive URLs based on their names (i.e. "www.johndoe.com" or "janedoephotography.com").
Professional SEO services are readily available to both evaluate and optimize your site, but there's a lot that you can do yourself. Of utmost importance is the ability for search engines to "crawl" and index your page. If your page is inaccessible, it won't show up in organic rankings. Relevant keywords should also be used both throughout your page's text as well as in its page title, the place search engines consider to be the most important in associating a website with a topic. You should also consider the following:
- Use appropriate keywords - "graphic designer", "professional writer", "wedding photographer" - that potential clients are likely to type into a search engine at least four or five times throughout your page...
- ...But avoid "keyword stuffing", or the practice of repeated use of a particular word or phrase in an effort to produce better search results. Writing "Looking for a graphic designer? I'm a graphic designer who does great graphic design!" in the body of your page can negatively impact your rankings and takes away from the user experience - not to mention makes you appear unprofessional.
- Place a relevant keyword - like one of those used above - at the front of your page's title tag.
- Use a keyword in the URL of your site - but just like in the site's body, using it repeatedly could negatively impact your rankings.
- Use static URLs (though Google says it has made progress in its ability to index pages with dynamic URLs), or rewrite your URLs so that they reflect page content: http://4ormat.com/ecr/creative-workspace instead of http://code.google.com/p/google-checkout-php-sample-code/issues/detail?id=31
- Avoid duplicating content without adding value. If you're going to use the same content as another site on the web, be sure to add something new and original to it. This allows you to avoid potential penalization by search engines and gives visitors a reason to go to your site in the first place.
- Avoid having an excessive number of outbound links. Linking to other relevant sites is a good thing, but linking to the nearest 100 businesses may appear suspicious to search engines and gives away too much of your "link juice."
You may also consider using a search engine submission tool to flag your site to search engines. Although the world's four largest search engines - Google, Yahoo!, Bing and Ask.com - do have the ability to discover new pages on their own, it doesn't hurt to give them a heads up about yours. Be patient, however, as Google can take some time to incorporate your site into its results.
Social sharing and the future of SEO
Relevant keywords, a strong URL, just the right number of external links - perfect, right? Garnering traffic from the web has traditionally been accomplished through ranking high in organic search results, but social sharing is playing an increasingly important role in helping potential customers and clients find the sites they're looking for. The recent launch of social networking site Google+ has resulted in increased usage of the +1 sharing button, and Facebook shares have been found to indirectly boost Google search rankings. Twitter also carries weight in the world of SEO by helping to send traffic to your site, increasing important usage data used by search engines to determine the quality of web pages. In short, there's a great deal to gain by spreading the word about your site via social networks. But where to begin?
Start by optimizing your site for social sharing. Consider adding sharing buttons to popular social networks, or a multipurpose button such as the AddThis share bar, which allows users to share content to more than 300 online services. Facebook is by far the most popular social networking site on the planet, so chances are the audiences you want to reach can be found there. It's worth your time to, at the very least, include some of Facebook's social plugins on your site.
If you're already active in the social space, you'll want to leverage your existing profiles to drive traffic to your site. This allows you to tap the networks you've already developed and helps increase your site's relevance, since your older, regularly updated social profiles are considered to have more authority by search engines.
Of course, none of this will matter if the content of your site is uninteresting or irrelevant. Where appropriate, use interesting and catchy headlines, provide free, useful content to potential clients and keep the amount of copy on your pages to a minimum. If your content is good enough to share visitors will share it, and you'll be able to sit back and relax, knowing you didn't have to spend a dime on marketing.
Where to begin?
There are plenty of resources available online to help you optimize your website or hire someone to do it for you. It's also well worth your time to read Google's Webmaster Central Blog, dedicated to SEO news, and also to familiarize yourself with search engines popular in countries you may want to target, such as China's Baidu, which receives more than 50 per cent of the country's 4.02 billion searches each quarter.
SEO is important in ensuring your digital property can be found by potential clients, but the most important web strategy you can have will always be developing high quality content for your site. Without it SEO won't mean much, and those who initially find your site will quickly find someone else to do the work you know you can do best.