Top 10 Search Engine Optimization Myths

Strategies for ranking well in “natural,” or “organic,” search engine listings are quite different from those used in paid search engine advertising. Search engine optimization (SEO) specifically concerns natural search results.

Plenty of unethical search engine marketers will take your money by making false promises without a moment’s hesitation. Unfortunately, the snake-oil sales pitches may tell you exactly what you want to hear.  Don’t fall for it!

What exactly is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?  It is the art and science of getting a website noticed on search engines such as Google, Yahoo, MSN, LookSmart, etc.  It is often a complicated, timely, and manually intensive process that is somewhat akin to working with a moving target.

Remember the fundamental principles of optimization:
•    Keyword-focused text. Use the words and phrases that your target audience types into search queries.
•    Information architecture and page layout. Give both search engines and searchers easy access to content while providing a sense of place and clear scents of information.
•    Link development. Increase the number and quality of objective, third-party links pointing to a Web page.

Myths

Myth 1: Submitting your site to thousands of engines is the way to get web traffic.
Unfortunately, there aren’t even a thousand engines to submit to.  Whether you decide to do it or pay someone to do it for you, all you will get is you website listed on “Free for All” (FFA) sites that are not really search engines.  All they really do is list links to the last 50 or so URLs that were submitted.  These sites are rarely used since search engines make up 90% of the searches on the web.  And that means that these programs or services will not even get you listed in many of the top engines.

Myth 2: It’s all about Meta tags.
The general reasoning behind people or companies still wanting or attempting to use meta tags is: “Meta tags will make all the difference for our web site” or “We have heard or read of companies that their web sites were placed way on top because of meta tags”. My response–five years ago, it could have been true.

At the beginning of the Internet, meta tags were originally incorporated in a site as an attempt to better assist webmasters. They were also included to help search engines discover what their site was all about. Well, it didn’t take long for people to find a way to abuse the system.

Some actually tried and successfully got around in abusing this technique by writing useless keywords into their meta tags in hopes to trick the search engines to rank them higher. Today, and because of all this abuse, most major search engines, especially Google, are placing less and less importance in the presence or absence of meta tags and their content.

Myth 3: Resubmit your website often to engines
Contrary to popular opinion, submitting a website every week or every month to the major search engines will not help your rankings, in fact it might do just the opposite. Once a website is in a search engine’s database, it usually won’t go away with time.

For all intents and purposes, once a website has been professionally optimized for all its major keywords & key phrases, normally the site should consistently yield excellent, positive results and will drive targeted visitors into your business. You should be careful of any company or individual that claims otherwise.

Many businesses and large companies are flooded daily with useless spam and emails that claim to offer a monthly submittal service for a small fee. The majority of the search engines that these services plan to submit your site are, for the most part, totally unknown to the search engine community.

Myth 4: SEO experts are too costly
Search Engine Positioning and optimization (SEO) is generally much less expensive than certain PPC (Pay-for-Click) programs and less costly than any other marketing campaign you can conduct, both online or offline. It usually costs much less than traditional offline advertising such as radio, TV, direct mail, print ads, booths at trade fairs, etc.

A professional SEO program can bring you a high ROI (Return on Investment) if done correctly. That means a fairly smaller investment could significantly raise your targeted site traffic by anywhere from 45% to 85% or sometimes even higher.

Myth 5: We can optimize ourselves in house looking to outsource it is a waste of money.

SEO isn’t rocket science, but it also isn’t something that can be learned overnight.  This is an SEO myth we get to hear a lot. As with so many things today, from the outset, it sure looks simple. Some think that a bit of “tweaking” with a few meta tags and inserting a keyword or a key phrase in the title tag amounts to great SEO optimization.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

To be really successful, a company that wishes to do “in house” optimization needs to get prepared to constantly adjust or make important changes to their search algorithm, and keep up with the daily changes in the world of search engines for the latest changes. Effective search engine optimization is demanding, complex, and precise. A competent SEO professional wields a wide array of technical as well as verbal skills, and deep experience is absolutely key to doing effective SEO.

To give a sense of the challenges involved, anyone who expects to make a go at doing SEO must be able to answer all of the following questions:
What percentage of popular single words vs. targeted multi-word phrases should you weave into your text, and in what frequency, density, and distribution?
How can Flash be used while preserving SEO?
What usability and navigation principles ensure that the traffic you get will convert optimally?

Myth 6: In-House SEO Is Cheaper
The Truth: SEO professionals can get higher rankings faster because Search Engine Optimization and Marketing is complex, technical and has a steep learning curve. Professional organizations devoted to SEO also have a team available, including copywriters, developers and SEO specialists.  Unless you have a room full of marketing staff dedicated to SEO it is hard to keep up. How much is 10, 15, 20 hours a month worth to you in a dollar amount? SEO professionals make you money by saving you that time and effort, at a cost you can afford.

Myth 7: Only go with a Guaranteed Search Engine Position company
SEO Myth: “Your top ten search engine ranking can be guaranteed”
The Truth: Some SEO firms will advertise a “guarantee” to have you listed in the top ten rankings. No one other than the search engines themselves can guarantee any ranking. Don’t believe it. Trust their results for other clients and make your decision from actual client successes, not empty promises and guarantees.

Credible, experienced, knowledgeable search engine optimizers can demonstrate results from past performance but cannot guarantee future results. In that sense, they’re just like stockbrokers. No broker knows how future markets will perform, and no optimizer knows what future search engine algorithms will be.

Except for pay-for-placement advertising, optimizers cannot guarantee top positions. Only one group has final control over what ranks and what doesn’t: the search engines themselves. All of the major search engines have some sort of disclaimer stating they ultimately decide which Web pages will be included in their indexes.

Unfortunately, a large number of the SEO firms that offer guaranteed search engine positions are spammers. To achieve top positions, thousands, even millions, of doorway pages are submitted to search engines. If one such doorway page gets a top position, even if only for a few days, the SEO firm fulfilled its end of the contract.

People like the comfort of a guarantee. Many believe a guarantee shows the firm’s confidence in their skills and expertise. Remember, a guarantee is only one part of a sales pitch. The same guarantee that convinces you to sign the contract may very well result in spam practices that will get your site penalized or banned altogether.

Myth 8: We can get you Instant Link Popularity
Anyone who promises link popularity right off the bat is spamming search engines. In all likelihood, SEO firms that promise instantaneous results build link farms to artificially inflate link popularity.

Quite often, these firms rely on expired domains on Yahoo and Open Directory. Many of the link farm sites aren’t even in the same industry. Why would a mortgage site link to a site that sells watches?

Results people see during the sales pitch that are generated by link farming are short-lived. Search engine software engineers discover the link farms and promptly remove their sites.

Quality link development takes time.

Myth 9: You Don’t Have to Change Your Web Site
A Web site is always a work in progress because the Internet is constantly evolving. Browsers are frequently updated to support improved HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, scripting, and multimedia files.

If you haven’t written your site using the keyword phrases your target audience types into search queries, your pages won’t rank well. And if you did use keyword phrases on your pages, were those phrases used prominently and frequently enough so the pages appear focused? This must hold true not only from a crawlers’ point of view but from your visitors’ point of view as well.

Be prepared to modify your content in places with the highest impact. That includes HTML title tags and visible (body) text: headings, paragraph tags, hyperlinks, table cells, ordered and unordered lists, and so forth. Modifying content in meta tags alone won’t make your site appear more focused.

If a site doesn’t contain at least one navigation scheme crawlers can follow and a URL structure they can easily index, participation in paid-inclusion programs should be part of your budget.

Myth 10: The goal is to be number one or on page one.
Not true. Your goal is to optimize your return on investment in SEO and SEM (Search Engine Marketing). You’ll miss the big picture if you focus myopically on obtaining page-one ranking for a few words that you think best describe your products or services. The goal of SEO and SEM is to engineer a diversified portfolio of hundreds or even thousands of targeted phrase combination’s of words that, together, achieve maximum ROI. Depending on the frequency of searches relevant to your offerings, a few targeted phrases could earn you enormous ROI. Or, conversely, you may need scores of synonymous phrases or single words to rank on page one in order to achieve maximum ROI.

Viral Marketing-The next strain of marketing

Originally written and published for Ski Area Management in May 2006.  It’s an oldy but goody!

There’s a secret new marketing strategy circulating through the ski industry. It’s basically free, almost always entertaining, and rarely involves a visit to the doctor.

In the old days, marketing was considered a function of your organization, and managing your message was an art. You used “visible” methods, such as printed materials, press releases and ads, TV, and radio spots to build brand awareness and generate sales leads. It worked, but the majority of these tools were expensive and inefficient. As the old adage went, “50 percent of marketing dollars are wasted, we just don’t know which half.”

That’s so last century. Today, marketing has become more personalized. It’s become more of an interactive experience. Instead of being an “art” and a function of your business it’s now an “act” of an organization, one that relies on “invisible” science and technology. We still use technology to generate leads, but also to talk directly with consumers. This is why “viral marketing” is rapidly replacing traditional marketing methods and has become the latest strain of marketing.

Traditional Visible Marketing

“What’s Out”

Invisible Viral Marketing

“What’s In”

Print Collateral Website
Print Ads Banner Ads
Direct Mail Email Marketing
Mail in Sweepstakes Online Contest/games
Professional photography Individual Camera phones
TV ads Video-on-demand
Press release Gossip & rumor mill creation
Emails Instant Message/RSS Feeds
Mailed letter Mobile text message marketing
In-house sales manager Affiliate marketing
Customer comment cards Blogs
Broadcast ski reporting (Snocountry.com) Desktop ski reporting software (Snowmate)

Driven by consumers, viral marketing is rapidly gaining momentum and acceptance in the mainstream business world. A handful of early adopter ski areas are realizing the power the Web has to target the right consumers with the right message and to deliver the message inexpensively. These resorts have come to understand that their guests want three things: segmentation (talk to my group), personalization (in a way that I understand), and conversation (let me have a say). And they are shifting some marketing dollars into online efforts, including viral marketing.

What is viral marketing?

Have you ever visited a website and found an article, a coupon, a special offer, or something else that impressed you so much that you immediately sent an email to a friend about it? If you have, you’ve experienced “viral marketing.”

Viral marketing is a highly effective way to “bug your customers” by marketing your products or services using web-based technology. It is enticing because of the ease of execution, relative low-cost (compared to direct mail), good targeting, and the high and rapid response rate.

The term viral marketing was originally coined by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson in 1997 to describe Hotmail’s email practice of adding advertising for themselves to outgoing mail from their users. The strategy was simple. On the bottom of each and every Hotmail email was the phrase, “Get your free private email at www.hotmail.com.” According to Jurvetson, this simple sentence helped to make Hotmail the largest email provider in India without spending a dime.

Viral marketing campaigns are used to generate awareness or to stimulate specific action. By harnessing the network effect of the Internet, viral marketing can reach large numbers of people rapidly, like a bug or flu virus in humans. Instead of propagating itself by human contact, it does so by computer contact (in a good way). One minute no one’s heard of a product or service like Hotmail; next minute, it’s everywhere.

Viral marketing is effective because it capitalizes on referrals from an unbiased and trusted third party—your consumer. Let just one of your customers catch your “marketing bug,” and they will happily “sneeze it” to everyone they know. Viral marketing campaigns can have a long life expectancy and are usually much more cost effective than other marketing methods, since your “sneezers” take it upon themselves to spread your message for free—more precisely, as the by-product of your customers’ normal online activity.

Building the Bug

A viral marketing campaign should focus on something you do, NOT on who you are. A viral campaign is something that is so cool, so exciting, or so creative that it gets people very excited; they can’t wait to share it with others. Often the ultimate goal of viral marketing campaigns (and the proof of their success) is to generate media coverage worth many times more than your entire advertising budget.

“Bob,” an animated character created by Elk Mountain Ski Resort in Pennsylvania, is a great example of a concept that “went viral” due to its broad appeal and loyal following.  “Bob” is everybody’s Elk insider-buddy who gives them the scoop on what’s happening. He came to life on the web in January 2006. According to general manager Gregg Confer, “Bob is just an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job… especially for an animated character.” Customers can’t get enough of Bob, so he will soon be appearing in the resort’s coloring books, new clothing line, and on employee uniforms.

The “Bob” concept was developed to appeal to consumers in a fresh and entertaining way that differentiated Elk from its competition. For about $3,000 in development and implementation costs, “Bob” helped drive the resort website visits up 92 percent over a three-month time span during the 2005-06 season. To see how cool Bob is, go to www.elkskier.com.

Making the bug cool

Since viral marketing is relatively new, most organizations are confused about what viral campaigns are and how they work. The method is still evolving. However, there are three basic types of viral marketing: word-of-mouth, pass-it-on, and virtual tools.

1. Word of mouth involves integrated web technology that encourages you to  “Tell a Friend,” “Send this coupon to a friend,” or “Recommend this website to a friend.”

Killington has done a great job of word of mouth viral marketing with their weekly email newsletter “The Drift.” Unlike traditional (and boring) newsletters, this one is off-beat, with a personal writing style that caters to Killington insiders. Besides entertaining content, there’s a contest in every issue. Named “Gimme, Gimme,” the questions keep readers coming back for more. One “Gimme, Gimme” question asked, “If you weren’t planning to go skiing or riding on a given weekend, what could a resort do for you to get you motivated (hint, hint, wink, wink, and a nudge)? Free tickets and a foot of snow are not acceptable answers only because I can control neither.” Respondents could win two 2-Day lift tickets valid for the rest of the season.

Nick Polumbus, Killington’s marketing brand manager (and the personality behind “Drift”), was not able to share the area’s in-house subscribers numbers, but admitted that “our email subscriber list has stayed pretty consistent for the past 3-4 years. We’ve worked hard to deliver content, giveaways, and cool new things such as podcasting to keep our subscribers reading and hopefully coming to Killington.” He admitted that The Drift receives an average of 600-900 email responses to every “Gimme, Gimme” contest. Considering the only cost involved is a bit of creativity, that’s viral! To get the drift of The Drift, go to http://www.killington.com.

2. Pass-It-On is the ultimate viral technique. Ever pass on a joke or political cartoon? Sure, you and everyone else. A January 2006 study by Sharpe Partners revealed that 9 out of 10 adult Internet users in America share content with others via email.

Pass-it-on viral marketing relies on social networking, where the receiver feels compelled to “pass on” and share an article, cool tool, funny video, etc through email to a friend, family member, or associate. Echo Mountain, Colorado, has exploited this in a most unique way. To spread word of the all-park area’s impending opening last March, the resort tapped into the social networking power of snowboarders and freestyle skiers through Myspace.com. For those who have somehow escaped news of this infamous and wildly popular social networking website, it offers a plethora of instant communication (i.e., viral marketing) tools, including music & photo sharing, blog creation, anonymous matchmaking (match people of similar interests), community group space, and an internal email system to send messages to other MySpace.com friends. MySpace.com has recently been criticized for allowing members to post indecent pictures and use high levels of profanity, and for some advertising that violates good taste, none of which deters its fans. According to Alexa’s web report in March 2006, MySpace is the world’s fifth-most popular English-language website.

According to Eric Pettit, marketing director for Echo Mountain, “we chose to build a page on Myspace.com after listening to recommendations from our interns, who are closest in age to our target market. It made sense for us to go where there’s already a [freestyle skier and snowboard] community interacting online. The fact that it’s free didn’t hurt, either.” As for the controversy that surrounds Myspace, Eric said, “People are going to talk to their buds online. We can either join in and help lead the conversation or let it go on without us. We just try to watch what WE say.”

Their viral thinking has paid off. Just a few weeks after creating their page on Myspace.com they had already gathered hundreds of “friends,” comments and pictures. The best part? Their network of sneezers continues to grow, all without spending one single penny. You can see it online at www.myspace.com/echomtnpark.

3. Virtual tools are usually product- or service-based. A viral tool is used online and embedded with a marketing message, like Hotmail’s free emails.

In January of 2004, Vail launched “Snowmate,” a downloadable computer program that website visitors and resort guests could leave on their desktop to get up-to-the-minute information on weather, snow conditions, video clips, and travel offers. Snowmate lets users seek information in a fun, unique, and playful way. It includes “Trevvor,” an animated cartoon character, and animations such as piles of snow on the computer screen when it was snowing at Vail. Vail included “tell-a-friend” tools in the program that made it easy for users to email others favorite images or deals.

Although this type of viral tool is more expensive than most, it is still relatively cheap by traditional standards, and it produced significant returns. According to Kam Rope, director of online marketing and sales for Vail Resorts, there were 55,000 downloads in the first five months, and more than $200,000 in measurable revenue from click-throughs (users who used their mouse to click on a link in the program to visit a website or get additional information). The 2006-07 season will see the third generation of the application, with new elements to make the viral tool more compelling for the user and more rewarding for Vail Resorts.

Spreading the Bug

Coming up with a cool concept that people will embrace and share with others is not easy. But if you can get your “sneezers” involved in building the concepts, they will be more likely to spread your bug. That’s just what Snow Trails Winter Resort in Ohio did this past season.

The Snow Trails “Wanted Video Contest” focused on creating a place where terrain park enthusiasts could show off their best video tricks to all their friends. Snow Trails created a micro-site on their website that allowed registered contestants to upload personal video for “fame and prizes”. Here’s the viral part: to win fame and prizes, the contestants had to engage their network of friends to visit snowtrails.com and vote for their videos. By integrating “tell a friend” and “voting system” software into the micro-site, it was fun and easy for contestants to “spread the word” about their video—and the Snow Trails brand as well.

Snow Trails marketing manager Nate Wolleson says, “For less than $1,000 we were able to excite a target market that is normally very hard to reach, and to generate ten times our investment in sponsor money and prizes. The Wanted Video Contest not only generated a 12 percent increase in visitors on snowtrails.com during the campaign but also spiked an 18 percent jump in people that spent two or more minutes on the site. And, as you know, the longer they hang around, the longer they think about Snow Trails.”

How to Keep from Getting Sick

One of the most exciting things about viral marketing is the fact that anyone can do it. No matter if you are a 25,000 skier-visit area or a 250,000 skier-visit resort, the only thing you need (besides an open mind) is to create something that people WANT to share with others.

Remember that. Many marketers will be tempted to quickly throw together a campaign while viral marketing is still relatively new. Unfortunately, most will fail for one simple reason: lameness. To become viral, the email, website, application, or video being shared must be unique, informative and/or entertaining, or create a definite value by solving a problem. If it doesn’t appear to originate from a credible entity (i.e., a relevant organization or individual to the sneezer), it can be seen as blatant advertising and immediately discredited. Finally, if the leave-behind message doesn’t resonate with the target/intended audience, or provide a meaningful call to action, it’s a waste of time and money.

Spreading your own Bug

So don’t be lame! Inoculate yourself against failure—follow the top 10 best practices of the six areas mentioned above.

Ski Resort Viral Marketing Best Practices:

1. Know your audience

Start with something relevant to your sneezers to get their attention and encourage them to act. Understanding and delivering what your sneezers want is the key to “going viral.” This includes going to where they are (Echo Mountain and Myspace.com) and speaking their language (Killington’s The Drift).

2. Remember who you are

The tone and personality of your viral campaign will either build long-term relationships or destroy them. A fun and friendly viral campaign (Elk Mountain’s “Bob”) will reinforce how your customers see your resort. A borrowed campaign that is not aligned with your overall marketing objectives or your personality will almost always backfire.

3. Keep it short and sweet (K.I.S.S.)

Always keep your content brief and relevant. You have 7 seconds to make an impression that captures the reader’s attention. Use bullet points or short paragraphs to make information and sentences easy to absorb.

4. Layout and design

Appearance and style can play a major role in making your viral campaign a success. Build your viral tool around the niche group you are trying to attract. Keep in mind that not everyone has broadband. Readability and quick on-screen reading should be number-one priorities. For those that do have broadband and are web savvy, exploit it (think Snow Trails, Wanted Video Contest).

5. Covertly embed promotional concepts into your viral tools.

Encourage people to visit your website more often by offering the things that appeal to them the most, such as coupons, e-specials, contests, and fresh content (Vail’s SnowMate).

6. Be unique.

Do things that are unique and grab attention. Be subtle, not forceful.

7. Provide a call to action.

Tell people what you want them to do. Make it simple. Make it intuitive. Make it easy. Vail encourages visitors to download the application and start having fun.

8. Offer an incentive.

Greed is the most common motivator. Use it to encourage your sneezers to act on your behalf: “Tell a friend and be included in a drawing for …” Then, leverage, leverage, leverage! “Tell five friends and get a free …” Snow Trails’ video contest compelled contestants to get their friends to visit the snowtrails.com website to vote.

9.  Trust no one…

…because no one trusts you or what you will do. Post your privacy policy. Highlight opt-out options. Most people won’t consider giving out an email unless they know what you plan to do with it and can remove themselves if they so choose. Killington includes contact and subscription information at the bottom of every email.

10. Be prepared for a big response.

Viral tactics are designed to grow exponentially and are uncontrollable. You tell two friends, then they tell two friends, then they tell two friends, and so on. Often, these hordes will jam your web site, registering, downloading a large file, requesting a freebie, or buying something. If the campaign is strong enough, you might see a 10- or 100-fold increase in traffic within a day. Make sure whatever technology you use can handle the spike. There’s nothing worse than offering something you can’t deliver on.