Do not be fooled by my accolades! I wingwalked at 700 feet, co-piloted the Goodyear Blimp, swam with sharks, AND managed to obtain paperwork declaring me legally sane - all while racking up national acclaim in publishing, editing, writing and photography.

Because Search Engine Optimization is sorely misunderstood, even now, years into the Age of All Things Google, I thought I’d take a break from whining about my weight loss (or lack thereof), and provide some actual useful information.

If you run a business, you obviously want yours to rank well in customer (or potential customer) searches. Fortunately, there are literally hundreds of companies promising to take care of that for you. Heck, some of them are even reputable firms that provide pretty good results. (Quick aside – if it sounds too good to be true, it IS. You get what you pay for. Insert favorite warning euphemism here.)

Now, ranking well takes a lot more than it used to.

Back in the day, when a business search engine was a thick book made out of yellow paper and weighed about eight pounds, there were only so many “search terms.” Directory companies offered a fixed list of categories, and if your business was listed under this category, it was then alphabetized.

That’s why towing companies might call themselves “AAAAAA Best Towing” - that’s how they earned “top ranking” in that yellow-papered “search engine” of days gone by.

Today, it’s a bit more complicated. Today, when people search online, they quite literally create their own “categories” just by typing. You never know if someone searching for a roadside assistance is going to type “wrecker,” “towing” or, just for good measure, “towing assistance in central Missouri.” It’s a figurative crapshoot.

Search engines base organic search engine results (as opposed to “paid search engine results”) on how search terms are used on your website. (There is more to it than that, or Google wouldn’t employ buildings full of millennials to update their algorithm every few months. But for illustrative purposes, I am focusing on what YOU can control.) This means that a company that provides emergency car service has to do a lot more than just put a bunch of “A”s in its name.

So, before going any further in your quest to optimize your website for search results (a process called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO), you need to start by understanding what your customer is actually looking for. I promise you, your customers aren’t typing the words you think they’re typing when they try to find you!

You might have heard of my business partner’s first major marketing client back in the day – a small electronics firm called Casio. After spending, well, several large boatfuls of cash, the nice people at Casio were perplexed that their amazing digital storefront simply wasn’t attracting customers. Turns out, while my partner and her team were focusing search efforts on things like “watches,” internally, Casio was focusing on “personal chronographs.” Where the team was accurately assuming searchers wanted “calculators,” Casio was trying hard to sell “personal adding devices” or some-such thing. The company was so locked into its internal nomenclature and naming convention that it lost sight of the actual goal of search marketing, which is to help your customers find you.

OK, so how do you do that? What’s the secret sauce that allows Google to read a searcher’s mind and connect him to you based on one or two words typed into a box?

First, common search terms include parts of the businesses name. Folks who search for your business name are already aware of you, and want to either learn more about you, or want to reach out. A garden shop called Perry’s Perfect Plants & Posies might find traffic coming to their shop under “Perry,” “Perrie,” “Perfect Posie” or “Plants and Posies.” Industry terms are also common. For our garden shop, those search terms might be:

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Often, searchers will not stick to a single search word, but will do a combination of words, like “Fertilizer for Roses” or “Concrete Planter.” You can imagine if Perry carried concrete planters, he would want his shop to show up in search engines.

Now, don’t go changing the name of your company! Instead, take a long, hard look at the content on your website. Because the real magic of search marketing doesn’t happen at Google, it happens right there on your home page.

Google’s math takes those two or three search terms provided by the searcher, and cross-indexes those terms (along with geography, when available) with the words that show up on websites. So if our friend Perry has what we call “keyword density” on his website, meaning words like “rose” and “garden” and “Weed” show up A LOT, then Google will make sure Perry’s site pops up high in search results. Now, you can’t just put lists of words on your site. Google wised up to that trick in 2011. Today, you’ll get better results when your keywords show up in proper context. (You know, complete sentences that relate to one another in a logical narrative.)

You can, if you like, buy ads that show up when certain search terms or strings of terms are used. This is a good idea, generally speaking, but even that STILL requires well-written content full of useful keywords and phrases. Even though you are paying the bill for these ads, Google’s allegiance is to the searcher. Google’s goal is to connect a searcher with what the searcher is looking for. And since that’s YOU, you need to do your part in helping that process along.

One more thing: what kind of customer do you hope will find you?

If Perry is running a high-end garden shop, he may not want a lot of traffic from bargain hunters.  So words like “cheap” or “discount” should not be in his website content, or in his search terms.

Search engine optimization is not particularly difficult, if you have a basic understanding of how and why it works, and that starts with something every business owner already should excel at: knowing your customer.