The Importance of SEO
By Tom Lassiter
Marty Heim had a career in graphic design and corporate marketing before launching Marty Designs, a North Carolina web development company, in 1996. Her firm serves more than 500 clients, including retailers, service companies, manufacturers, and municipalities.
Hearth & Home: Apparently, SEO is all about getting your website found by the consumer. It’s all about jumping through Google’s hoops so that your store’s ranking improves.
Marty Heim: “That’s not all. One of the biggest strategies for SEO is to improve the user experience across the entire website. Regardless as to whether you’re selling products online or not selling, adopting smart SEO strategies will improve the user experience across the entire website.
“What you’re trying to do is change the mindset of the user. The online shopper uses Google when she doesn’t know what she’s looking for. She uses Amazon when she knows what she’s looking for.”
When Google’s bots, also called spiders, check out a website, what are they looking for?
Heim: “The bot comes to your website and it reads everything on the page. It also reads how long people are spending on that page. It reads how many times an image was clicked on in a Google search that ultimately went to your page.
“The bot checks how the user got to your page, tracing the links through Google technologies. It knows whether the shopper came to your page from the website of the manufacturer of that grill. Perhaps you were on the manufacturer’s website and you entered your ZIP code to get a list of local stores where you could purchase that gas grill. These all become factors into ranking your website with Google, or any search engine for that matter.”
So, SEO is affected by not only what I control as the owner of my website, but it’s how my website relates to the manufacturer of the products I sell.
Heim: “That is correct. A lot of manufacturers are starting to take more control of their brand by offering retailers an option to carry a lot more information about that grill. The manufacturer may be giving the shopper a link from the manufacturer’s website directly to the retailer’s website. The more links you have to your website, the better.”
We’ve been to tech seminars where the experts say that the website experience should mirror the experience that the shopper actually gets at the store. How do you pull that off?
Heim: “You can do that by thinking in terms of communicating to that online shopper as if he had walked into the showroom. In other words, show options. If the online shopper has clicked a link for a particular grill, it may or may not be the right grill for him. Program the web page so that it shows him four different grills that he hadn’t even considered. That’s what I mean by enhancing your website.
“You can also do that with a showroom tour; you can do that with visuals, and you can do that with a slide presentation. I’ve never been in your showroom. Talk to me. Invite me in. Use video. Show me your showroom. Google owns YouTube, so you have another Google link to your site, and vice versa.
“Many people will search YouTube for a gas grill, or any outdoor living product. I believe it’s really underutilized. Businesses should host their video on YouTube rather than hosting it on their own website and streaming it from their own server.”
We always hear about keywords when talking about SEO. What’s the current thinking on that?
Heim: “I think we’re just about over keywords. Today it’s more important to have a descriptive phrase that uses a keyword or several keywords. Now the term is cluster words. For example, if you Google “gas grill,” a zillion will pop up. But if you search for ‘gas grill good for tailgating,’ you’ll get more specific hits. Another example is ‘built-in gas grill for outdoor kitchen.’
“To take advantage of cluster words, organize your gas grills that are good for tailgating onto one web page and give it a very distinctive page name using those cluster words. I highly recommend that retailers work with their web developers and dictate what their page names should be, because retailers are the ones that have the inside track to consumers. The majority of web designers have no inkling about consumers or purchasing habits. They’re coders.”
So a web page name should really reflect the specific page contents? For instance, “best infrared, stainless-steel gas grills”?
Heim: “Correct. You no longer name the page ‘gas grills.’ Use a name with a topic cluster. What kind of gas grills? Now, when Google indexes your website and all of its pages, it will register those specific page names. When someone searches for a term that uses that word cluster – ‘best infrared stainless steel’ – that individual page on your website has an opportunity to come up in that search.”
Some web developers say important phrases should be repeated several times on a web page, so that Google will interpret that as more focus on the specifics of the page. Does that make sense?
Heim: “It does, but remember that bots are not human. They’re machines. If you are too repetitious, the bots may interpret the page content as spam. You have to be extremely cautious.
“You’ll want to repeat the page title, obviously. ‘Best infrared, stainless-steel gas grills.’ But your description should only be three to five sentences, a very short paragraph, which incorporates the cluster words. The retailer can use her knowledge to help the web developer with the wording.
“In your descriptive paragraph, you don’t want to use the same word count in each sentence. One sentence may have four or five words. The next could be six words. The next might be just four words. You want to bounce back and forth, because Google’s bots and spiders are only going to read a maximum of seven words in a sentence.
“If you get wordy, you’re wasting your time and energy. If you must use a longer sentence, put your cluster words at the beginning. The rest of the sentence can then inform, or build upon, the topic cluster at the start of the sentence.”
So, as marketers and advertisers we’re no longer writing for humans. We’re putting words together to satisfy the bots.
Heim: “We never were. That’s the Internet. It’s not a person. It’s a machine. A six-word sentence is much better, technically, than a 12-word sentence.”
What are some other factors of SEO that the people need to have in mind?
Heim: “Target some local searches with special landing pages or listings on your site that aren’t specifically about your products. For instance, if your business sponsors a softball team in your town’s parks and recreation department, create a page about that. Show that you’re community-minded. That’s very important.
“Then, when a person searches for ‘softball teams’ in your town, your page will turn up. And on that page, you can place what’s called a ‘self-advertisement.’ Feature those gas grills or another product, with a link to that part of your website.”
And search engines value that sort of page?
Heim: “Yes. Because you’re creating a local landing page, on your website, that can be found through a general search for a cluster topic. In this case, ‘softball teams in my town.’
“News and information pages also make great landing pages. You might title a page, ‘Five great tips for selecting durable patio furniture.’ Now you’ve got something to share on social media. You can share that link on Facebook or Twitter.”
Using social media to promote your website is always a good idea, but how does that impact SEO?
Heim: “Because it’s going to result in traffic coming to your website via outside links. Those incoming links are called backlinks. Backlinks are very important for SEO success.”
Everyone shops from his or her phone these days. Does that make a difference in how a retailer should think about SEO?
Heim: “Well, not everyone is using a smartphone to shop. My indicators say e-commerce traffic is split 50/50 between phones and other devices; laptops, desktop computers, and tablets display search results in the same way. Phones, because they have smaller screens, provide less information when your website is optimized for mobile devices. On the West Coast, as much as 80% of searches start on phones. But in most other large cities, you need to think in terms of 50/50.
“In any event, the key is to verify and claim your business address with Google. If you verify and claim your business address, you have control over the look and feel of search results on a mobile device, through Google. Google presents a page for your business. You get to fill it in with images and text, your phone number, and your hours. And you provide a link to your business’ website.
“On a phone, that information dominates the screen in search results. On a computer, it comes up on the right side of the page of Google search results.”
The majority of businesses, including retailers, have taken advantage of this Google service, right? Most businesses have claimed and verified their business address.
Heim: “No, they haven’t. But they should. It’s free. Start the process at business.google.com/add.”
Why does claiming your business address make such a difference?
Heim: “Because phones use Google’s map technologies to identify the user’s location. The results Google sends back are location specific. If you want something to eat, your phone will tell you the closest place to get a pizza. If you Google ‘outdoor living gas grills,’ the results will show businesses in that general vicinity that sell gas grills. If you have a verified business address, your ranking in the search results automatically improves.”
What should a retailer do to help her web developer make the most of SEO strategies?
Heim: “If a retailer can’t describe her ultimate consumer who walks into the showroom, I can’t help them. The retailer has to be able to describe where that individual consumer comes from. Do they have expendable income? What’s their ZIP code? How far did they travel to get to the store? Ultimately, who buys?
“If the retailer can’t explain her target customer, I can’t help her. Now, I could probably tell them how to sell more gas grills today than they did yesterday, but that’s not why we’re having a conversation. I want them to be successful. If they don’t know their target customers, it’s not going to be win-win.”
Products are always changing in the Outdoor Room industry. Regular website updates are absolutely necessary. How can the retailer know if the website and SEO are continuing to perform?
Heim: “I would look at the data in Google Analytics every 30 days. The information is free once Google’s tracking code is built into your website. You have to be willing to slice out some time. You have to be committed. But Google’s going to give you all the information about traffic on your website. So if you have a banner month in January, January’s Google Analytics data should show a spike in your website activity.”
Let’s say that a retailer’s SEO strategy begins to pay off. Store traffic and sales are up. Should the retailer take some of those profits and plow them back into the website for an even greater return?
Heim: “Sometimes I recommend using some of those profits to go back to print advertising. Remember that landing page we created with five tips for selecting great patio furniture? Place an ad in a local publication and promote that information; publish the URL to drive people to your website. Local people already know you sell patio furniture. They don’t know they can go to your website and get tips on making a great, logical choice. People like help.”
This is the first time we’ve heard of using a print ad to send consumers to a retailer’s website rather than to the store to shop.
Heim: “Maybe this should be a news flash!”