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Boosting your search engine rankings to drive more leads

In a recent study of professional services firms, Hinge Marketing found that high-growth firms — those that grew five times faster than the average — shared one thing. They generated twice as many leads online, and attributed that success to search engine optimization.

However, many companies remain skeptical about SEO.

“They believe if they haven’t been already getting clients online, that means people don’t look for firms online,” says Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D., managing partner at Hinge. “But people are on the Internet all the time looking for solutions. They do look for companies that way; it’s just that you’re not optimized for those things.”

In an increasingly digital world, it’s critical for businesses to build, maintain and promote their websites to be found and to find new business online. However, ranking for your prospects’ specific searches isn’t easy or instantaneous. It may take months of committed effort to see results, which is why most SEO firms require at least six months of service.

“A website is not meant to be a static brochure; the set-it-and-forget-it mentality won’t get you anywhere,” says Brian Swanson, principal of Flashpoint Marketing. “It does take time to refine, and the more you refine, the higher quality leads you’ll get. But you have to give the search engine something to visit for.”

What search engines want

Search engines such as Google — which owns 68 percent of the market share with nearly 13 billion monthly searches — send “spiders” to crawl the web. Those spiders examine pages to answer two burning questions.

  • What’s this page about? Spiders encipher topics by looking at on-page keywords and metadata on the back end of a website, which includes title tags, page descriptions and headings.
  • How much authority does this page have? By looking off-page, spiders analyze who visits, shares and links to a page. These backlinks indicate how much other websites trust the quality of this content.

“In other words, they’re trying to give searchers the best quality experience and the most relevant content for their searches,” Frederiksen says.

To scour the entire web and deliver search results ranked by relevance, Google relies on complicated algorithms. It works hard to guard the secrecy of these algorithms, rolling out more than 600 updates annually to improve the quality of search results and prevent cheating.

“SEO is not a game of tricking or outsmarting Google,” Frederiksen says, noting that the updates aim to deter scams and shortcuts. “The simple answer to good SEO is, No. 1, create content on your website that’s very useful and compelling to the user. No. 2 is making sure that content is very accessible by labeling and promoting the pages correctly.”

Some content is standard across business websites, with content about the firm, its services and the industries it serves.

“These are all fine pieces of copy, no doubt,” Swanson says. “But the type of content you want to develop isn’t necessarily the content that’s inward facing about your organization. You want to talk about the issues and challenges your prospects are facing. You have to think like the shopper.”

By developing issue-based content that educates potential customers, companies can build expertise through SEO.

Keyword focus

Understanding which keywords will drive the most qualified leads is a specialized science. The differences between “Utah tax” and “Utah taxes,” for example, might be greater than you think.

Keyword tools like those from Google and Moz can help analyze keyword variations, but generally, the narrower a keyword phrase, the better.

For example, if an insurance firm is going to focus on tax-related keywords, don’t use phrases such as “car insurance” or “insuring a business.” Those are such broad terms that every firm in the world would be ranking for. Instead, terms such as “insuring a business in Chesterfield County, Virginia,’ is more achievable, because that’s more specific.

While geographic words can narrow down broad searches, Frederiksen warns against going too local and shutting out a world of SEO possibilities. Potential clients and customers tend to search for things that are relevant across their industries.

“While localization of SEO is important, getting the industry-wide terms right is as valuable as the location,” he says.

A number of industries are changing from something that used to be exclusively local to being about which industries you have visibility and credibility with, and that tends to drive a lot more decisions than people realize.

SEO done right

There are no shortcuts to the top of Google; SEO requires time, commitment and content. Some companies have skills in-house to manage SEO, but many find it easier to hire specialists and SEO copywriters.

But those specialists don’t have any magic shortcuts, either. If something sounds too good to be true, it likely is. Frederiksen suggests three steps for vetting reliable SEO partners.

  • Find firms that specialize in your industry. A firm may do SEO wonderfully for a local plumber, but unless you are a plumber, you probably want to find a different firm. “They need to understand your profession,” Frederiksen says.
  • Check their record. Ask for references to see how successful they’ve been with similar clients.
  • Google them. How well do they optimize their own website for search engines?

Getting it right is important, as falling for SEO scams can be detrimental.

“It’s not benign,” Frederiksen says. “If you use ‘black hat’ techniques, like buying links or trying to trick the search engines, your site can actually be penalized, and it will be harder for you to rank.”

On the other hand, doing SEO right can yield huge opportunities.

“In an area where so many people do it poorly, doing some of it correctly really gives you an advantage,” he says. “We’ve seen firms grow very quickly by mastering SEO, so it’s a big opportunity — but only if you seize it and do it correctly.”

8 tips for SEO success

  • Be original. Many companies subscribe to content services and repost shared articles, which Google views as duplicate content. “If many sites post the same content, search engines will only attribute it to one — and that’s generally the site with the highest authority,” says Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D., managing partner at Hinge. Write your own content, if possible.
  • Write to the topic, not the keyword. “Keyword volume and frequency have been overplayed,” says Brian Swanson, principal of Flashpoint Marketing. “If you have good content on a topic, it will naturally occur. But if you’re trying to jam keywords into an article that’s not about that, it’s going to be clumsy.”
  • Stay focused. A common error is packing multiple topics onto a single page. “Google only reads the first paragraph, so if you’re talking about multiple subjects, whatever is in paragraph eight gets ignored,” Swanson says.
  • Post often. Frederiksen recommends new content every week for smaller firms and a post per week per practice for larger firms.
  • Don’t skimp. “Longer posts — around 800 to 1,500 words — tend to rank higher,” Frederiksen says.
  • Organize content for easy skimming, using bullet points, list formats and step-by-step how-tos.
  • Avoid jargon. Professionals tend to write for other professionals in their industry, which can turn off the audience you are actually trying to reach. “Technical speak is the death of search engine marketing,” Frederiksen says “Try to write for an executive who doesn’t understand it, and make hard-to-understand topics sensible and understandable.”
  • Check the architecture. “Search engines judge the value of content based on how many clicks away it is from the homepage,” Swanson says. Organize your website like you would a newspaper, with the juiciest info on the front page and peripheral features further back.