The SEO Facts of Life

I teach Freshman Comp in my spare time at a local college. Today, we were talking about how to find sources for a research paper.

One of the students thought she’d write about Bono, the singer from U2.

“How would she find resources?” I asked the class.

Easy. There was widespread agreement that she would go to Google and type “Bono” into the box.

“I know what she’ll get,” said one confident young woman. “The very first thing will be his personal homepage, with his life story and discography and …”

“Maybe not,” I had to say. “It depends how many people have hired someone like me to get them higher on Google.”

I had to tell the kids the SEO facts of life. Someone like Bono is commercial enough that there are going to be people working to make money from his name. “There’ll be fan sites,” I said, “and commercial sites.”

And indeed, Bono’s personal homepage (or his band’s; he doesn’t seem to have one himself) is not #1 for a search at Google on “Bono.” First is Wikipedia. Then a fan site. Then the band’s official website. Then Bono’s BBQ of Jacksonville, Florida, and good for them, I guess, though mostly only if they ship BBQ out to all the people searching for “Bono.”

Everyone can’t be #1. If lots of people want to be #1 for the term you want to rank for, then you might not get to be #1.

I had a client who wanted to be #1 for “ecards,” a popular term which gets batted back and forth among a large handful of companies, several of which are owned by the same people. I got them from #39 to #4 this summer. They’re currently #9 — still on the front page, but invisible to those who won’t scroll. If I had been working for them all this time, they might be #1 now, but there’s no guarantee. The other companies might have hired SEO experts, too. And while the cut and thrust of movement up the charts at Google is fun for us, it isn’t the most important thing for your business.

When that student types in “Bono,” she’s going to see Wikipedia right off. I have of course pointed out to my students that Wikipedia, while useful, is not a strong academic source. She knows that’s not going to get her an A on her annotated bibliography. Does she give up?

Nope. She’ll read several — certainly down to the last one she can see without scrolling. Most people look at page one and then change their search.

That is, they go up and type in “Bono discography” or “Bono U2″ or some other variant that comes to their minds.

What are your customers doing? If they see you as a commodity, then when they don’t find you right away as they search, they’ll go to your competitor.

If I don’t care where I buy batteries, I’ll type in “batteries” and go to the first place I see. If I don’t care what Bono I find, I’ll go with Bono’s BBQ — that doesn’t even make sense, does it? Bono isn’t a commodity. No one is looking for Bono thinking that any old Bono will do — Edward de Bono, Sonny Bono, whoever…

So one of the most important things you can do for your business is to make sure you’re not just a commodity to your customers. Make sure that you’re valuable enough to be worth scrolling for. Make sure that they’ll go to the trouble of changing their search if they don’t find you immediately.

You should also make sure that your regular customers know your URL. Put it on the things you hand out or send out, including your invoices and receipts. Direct them there in your email marketing and ask them to bookmark you. Make sure you have enough useful links to direct people over to your website often.

I didn’t like to disillusion my students about the perfection of the search engines. I don’t want them to think that’s enough research, though, typing their paper topic into Google and clicking on the first thing that presents itself. And I don’t want you to become so fixated on being #1 at Google that it overshadows the many benefits of responsible SEO.

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