May 27, 2010, 3:15 PM

Inside the Black Box

(Page 2 of 2)

Online retailers want to avoid putting too many keywords into URLs, though. SEO experts and Google blog posts suggest this tactic risks coming across as spam-like to search engine spiders. It's not clear how many terms in a URL is too many. But Matt Cutts, principal engineer for Google's search quality team, has said the search engine's algorithms will give less weight to words beyond the fifth one.

3. Show expertise
Ryan Karpilo is co-owner of RKDefense.com, where consumers can buy such self-defense products as pepper spray, Mace, Taser guns and stun guns. To help persuade Google's search engine spiders that his site is an authority on self-defense, he established a blog that offers details about his products, including some of the choices consumers face when deciding on self-defense options.

The idea is to persuade bloggers and informational web sites to link back to your site. "A link back to your site is like a vote for your site in the eyes of Google," says Dan Olson, CEO of DIYSEO, a search optimization firm that worked with Karpilo.

A seller of camping gear, for instance could offer top 10 lists for the most important equipment for desert and mountain treks, or create a sizing chart for tents, says Chris Boggs, director of search optimization at Rosetta, a marketing agency. "If you create a rich Internet application, a lot of people will link to it because it is cool," he says. "It is link bait."

But Google is aware that web site operators have tried to game the system by attracting links without providing real value, and the search engine is ever on the lookout for phony link-building, experts say. They advise that links should be natural—that is, operators of other sites should be legitimately attracted to the content—and not bought or clumsily created in an attempt to fool Google. "People still try to do that, but Google makes constant changes to its algorithm to combat that," Boggs says.

4. Build social networks
One way to boost the profile of a retailer site is by gaining prominence on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed and MySpace, along with blogs, SEO consultants say.

Google late last year began offering what it calls real-time search results that include blog posts and tweets—for instance, a consumer's Twitter comments about a new video game release or experiences using a particular pancake mix. And an online retailer can send a Twitter message or update a Facebook page to announce the release of a new product, with consumers resending the Tweet or reposting the Facebook message.

"The more people are talking about a retailer the more likely that conversation could find its way into real-time results," says Olson of DIYSEO.

Searchers hit the "latest" link on the Google search page to display up-to-the-second results from these social media sites. Once a consumer has clicked that link, Google will continue updating the page with the most recent relevant blog posts or tweets, unless the searcher hits "pause."

A retailer presence in social media—for instance, through a Facebook page or promotion—can make consumers interested enough in a particular product or brand to perform the types of online tasks that can influence search rankings, including commenting about the retailer's products on blogs and other sites.

"It's about getting your consumers to be brand advocates and influencers in review sites and social media," Olson says. "Each of these sources are seen by Google as extremely rich and valuable to other users."

Retailers are setting aside budgets to create a social media presence in hopes of encouraging such consumer activity and showing up higher in natural search results, including through real-time results. For instance, Hord, who sells bridal and prom shoes online, plans to spend between $4,000 to $5,000 annually for a part-timer to manage Facebook pages for each of his three sites, plus a combined Twitter feed and perhaps a YouTube presence.

5. Offer videos
While Hord shifts attention to social media, Root, of PetMedPros, is hoping to put videos on his site, perhaps later this year. His first video might cover such a topic as how to apply first aid to a pet, which could increase the temptation for bloggers and other web publishers to link to his site and give it more relevance and authority with Google's search engine spiders.

"Google is not just looking at words," Cook says.

In fact, search results on Google and other engines increasingly are returning "blended" results that include videos, news stories, maps and images, notes Nate Elliot, an analyst for Forrester Research Inc. who blogs about search techniques.

He offers several tips for enhancing videos in ways that can boost search results: Insert relevant words into video file names, titles, descriptions and tags to catch the attention of Google spiders; embed videos into related pages of text on a web site, which helps spiders understand what the videos are about; and organize video content into libraries so Google can easily find video content.

Elliot says offering a video is 50 times more likely to move a site to the first page of search results than adding a page of text. This is largely because of the relative paucity of video compared to text across the web, which means there is less competition for first-page placement among video content. As in other facets of SEO, strong content is key for making video attractive and likely to attract SEO-enhancing links.

"People won't sit and look at a commercial," says John Alexander, co-founder of Search Engine Academy, which sells workshops and courses related to boosting search results. "But they will look at product demonstrations and instructions, and tips and advice."

In other words, retailers can't win by trying to trick Google. But they can move up in search results by providing the kind of content that Google believes its customers—the nearly 1.8 billion online consumers worldwide—are looking for.

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