For many start-up businesses and small to medium sized businesses, the web is a vital tool for increasing brand awareness. Search engine marketing is a crucial part of the marketing mix, but for many businesses starting out, budget is a key consideration when it comes to investing in search engine optimisation (SEO) and pay per click (PPC) campaigns.

Neil Walker, CTO at Just Search looks at how small businesses can maximise search marketing opportunities and get the best return on investment.

Natural search

Natural or organic search is an effective way for businesses to appear on the top pages of search engines. Based on relevancy to a particular search term, various techniques are used in order to push a company up the listings.

One of the key aspects to help boost search rankings is incoming links. The more links coming into a site, the more important it is deemed by the search engines, and therefore it achieves a higher page rank. Incoming links can be achieved through a variety of methods, such as building online relationships with other influential figures in your industry. One-way links are seen as more valuable by the search engines, so these are links that come into your site that don’t link back to another site (these are reciprocal links). The key to achieving these one-way links lies with the other crucial aspect of achieving a high page rank through natural search — content.

By producing industry-relevant content, businesses can build up a readership on their site that will keep coming back for new information and comment (especially if there is a company blog that is regularly updated). They are then more likely to include a link to the website either on their site or in a blog. Using the word link before a URL in Google will provide an indication as to how many backlinks a site has. For example, entering link:justsearch.co.uk into a search engine will bring up all the sites that have a link to it.

Pay per click

A paid search campaign allows users to appear along the right hand side of the search engine results page, under the sponsored links. Companies bid on certain terms, and are charged when a visitor clicks on that link. As you would expect, popular terms are more expensive than niche keywords. The key to a successful search marketing campaign is effectively integrating natural and paid search. Pay per click advertising can provide quick results, whereas an organic SEO campaign can provide long-term results.

To achieve a good return on investment, organisations should adopt a strategy that sees broad keywords used in natural search, with cheaper and more specific niche terms used in PPC. In many markets, the cost per click is rising, so to ensure a cost-effective marketing programme, small businesses need to bid on terms that are most relevant to them and their prospects, in order to provide a greater number of conversions at the least cost.

Analyse the results

Analysing the results of a search marketing campaign is vital. It will help pinpoint exactly what aspects of the programme were successful, which pages of your site generate conversions, where traffic comes from, and how it can be improved. If you’re spending money on web marketing, you need to understand what results it is generating and if it is meeting your objectives.

Don’t dismiss social media

Whilst you may not think the likes of YouTube and Facebook can help build a business brand, they are actually effective tools for raising your online profile and boosting search rankings. There are several steps that can be taken to increase your footprint on the web through various social media, such as writing a company blog, creating strong profiles in social network sites such as MySpace and LinkedIn and using niche social networking websites that are relevant to your industry.

When writing a blog, it is vital that content is kept up to date, as this will help build up a regular readership and keep people coming back to your site. It is also more likely that people will comment on your blog or provide links to it if the content is fresh and interesting. Establishing relationships with other bloggers will also help to improve the number of links to your site and improve your rating on blogging search site, Technorati.

Don’t waste traffic

Getting traffic to your site is not the end of the process. Once the hard work has been done, ensure that users can easily find what they are looking for. If a visitor has to spend too long looking for information or a particular service/product, they will leave and look elsewhere. Ensure that you maximise the incoming traffic with a usable site and clear navigation. Three quarters of users abandon their baskets at online checkouts, so think about converting sales before your customers stray.

An integrated approach

Remember that content and links are king, so lively and industry-relevant content will really help push up your search engine position and generate links to your site. Together with an integrated paid and natural search campaign, this will make for an effective online marketing strategy and drive traffic to your site.

For further information, visit www.justsearch.co.uk

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