By Joe Friedlein, MD of Browser Media (www.browsermedia.co.uk)

It is rare to find a business these days without some form of web presence — it is no longer a luxury and most of your customers will expect you to have a website.

Once you have invested in a site, you will realise that you need to do something to drive traffic to it as a site with no visitors is a wasted investment.

One of the most potent forms of online marketing is search engine marketing — which will encompass any activity intended to increase your visibility on the search engines.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the art of promoting your website in the ‘free’ results (i.e. not paid / sponsored listings) and is high on most website owners’ agendas.

There is a lot of information available to you telling you how it should be done, but a lot of such information can be misleading and the simple truth is that SEO is a process, not a ‘dark art’.

It is also a process that should be at the heart of any website development project — it is much harder to optimise a site after it has been built and it is far more effective to consider SEO during the design and build process.

You must also keep in mind that it is not possible to wave a magic wand over your website and expect it to rank at the top of Google for every search term under the sun.

What do you need to be thinking about when developing a site?

Keyword Research
Keyword research should be undertaken before you have started to consider possible layouts and designs.

Why is keyword research so important? In simple terms, it is one of the most powerful forms of market research available today.

Keyword research will show you what people are actually looking for and the language that they use to do so.

Not only will this help identify the phrases that you should target with your search engine marketing campaigns, but it should be use to help inform the language that you use on the site — by using the language that your audience uses, you can ensure that you communicate effectively and offer content that will appeal to your users.

To give you an example, many motor insurance companies want their sites to rank well for the term ‘motor insurance’, but when keyword research is undertaken it is clearly evident that most real people use the wording ‘car insurance’. If you optimise for one phrase but your target audience uses another, your web traffic will suffer in a major way.

Keyword research can also help identify gaps in your products / services — are your users screaming out for services that you don’t currently offer? Use this information to develop your business and offer services for which there is a proven demand.

The organisation of content on your website can have a significant impact on the success you may achieve in search engine rankings.

Search engine spiders are not very capable browsers and will often stumble at the smallest of hurdles. By reviewing the site structure at the early stages you can ensure that the site is accessible to the search engine spiders and that all the content will be visible.

Not only will you avoid any technical issues, but a well organised site with logical groupings of content is almost invariably a very usable website — SEO and web usability / accessibility are often very closely aligned as effective SEO advice will typically concentrate on making all content accessible and easily identifiable to both spiders and humans.

A search engine marketer should not care whether a logo is green or red. They should, however, care about how the page design may affect the likelihood of ranking well for the target keywords.

Some very simple changes to the design, such as placement of content headings, can make a real difference.

Site Migration
It is reasonably rare to see brand new sites these days — most ‘new’ websites are actually relaunches of sites that already existed on the same domain.

Whilst search engines are much more capable of understanding changes to a website, there is a real risk of losing any rankings that you previously enjoyed if you proceed with a site redesign without taking some more technical steps.

Redirecting all old urls to the corresponding page on the new site can mitigate the risk of seeing your search engine referred traffic vanish overnight.

Link Building
It is no secret that links to your site are an extremely important factor in search engine marketing success. You may well have the perfectly optimised site, but you need other sites to ‘point’ at it and endorse what you are saying.

There are several ways to build links (competitor back link analysis, online PR and content syndication being very successful approaches) but you need to look hard at your site and ask yourself why another site would want to link to yours.

SEO is very much like PR — a successful press release will offer a real hook to get the journalists’ attention and you need to offer something of real substance. Link building is no different — if there is nothing special on your site, you need to think what you can do to make it special. If you offer unique content / functionality, then link building will ultimately take care of itself.

There can be no doubt that search engines offer a massive potential to drive targeted traffic to your website but any investment that you have made in your website will be wasted if it is not found by your target audience.

SEO will help you maximise exposure but it is not magic — it should be integral to the entire design process. There is no miracle cure, but there is a proven methodology that will deliver ongoing success for your business.