Who hasn’t contemplated the age-old adage as to whether sound exists if no one hears it? (That is, “If a tree falls in the forest ...”) But have you ever stopped to ponder today’s updated version of the philosophy of existence? That is: If your company is not on the Internet, do you exist?
According to Google, if a service company does not have a website, it has, at best, a 3 percent chance of even “existing” for a potential customer in its area. That is because today’s consumers conduct research on service companies before making the decision to hire, and 97 percent of them start that research online.
Google should know. According to independent web statistic compiler StatOwl.com, as of this writing, the search engine is used for 80.1 percent of all online searches. Bing comes in second with usage rate of 9.6 percent, with Yahoo following closely behind at 7.1 percent. AOL and Ask share the other 3.2 percent.
So PCT conducted its own research, and spoke directly with Google, to discover the secrets of existing, being found and gaining new customers in the vast virtual world of the Internet.
“The most important thing is simply to be online,” said Google’s Associate Principal in Search Quality Evaluation Michael Wyszomierski, using the following example to explain the 97 percent online search statistic: Say there are five local pest control companies in the area in which I am searching for service and two of those don’t have a website. “If I start my search online, then those two businesses are easily out of the running,” he said. (In essence, they don’t exist.)
Now, say that three of the companies have websites, so my next step is to determine if they can meet my particular need, such as ant control and weekend service, he said. “This is where it comes down to content.”
If being on the Internet is essential to existence, having good, well-written content that keys in on what customers are seeking is the lifeblood of being found — and being contacted for service.
Content is King. What is good content? At its most basic, it is that which gives visitors to your site the information they are seeking — quickly. As Bing’s Duane Forrester, senior product manager, Bing Webmaster Tools, said in a blog, “the No. 1 thing you can do to influence your ranking is to produce content that encourages people to share it.”
The top five focal points that Forrester recommends are unique, in-depth content; social engagement; user experience/usability; link building; and search engine optimization (SEO). But if done right, these will flow in an automatic process: If you create excellent and usable content, users will engage with it, then share it with friends and build links to it. Then, he explained, “SEO is the technical work you will still need to perform, but it’s much more successful when the first four elements are up and running.”
Google puts it even more succinctly: “Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.”
The keywords (pun intended) of that directive are useful, information-rich, accurate and clear. And when focusing on clear content, the key is ensuring that it is immediately clear. Statistics show that it takes people only three seconds to decide whether to stay on a site or click back to the search results to select a different site...or company. This doesn’t mean you need a flashy, blingy site, it means your content needs to address the reason the person visited your page. And since you want people to visit your page who are interested in purchasing a pest control service — that is what you need to give them.
What is ...
Crawler/spider — A program that searches the Internet to locate new, publicly accessible resources, such as Web pages. Also called wanderers or bots, crawlers contribute their discoveries to a database that Internet users can search by using a search engine.
HTML — A mark-up language (vs. a programming language) that uses tags to structure text into headings, paragraphs, lists and links. It tells a Web browser how to display text and images.
Meta Tag — An HTML tag that contains information about a Web page that is used by search engines to review or index sites. Within the meta tag, a keyword tag defines the primary keywords of a Web page.
Ranking — The relevance of a Web page to the keywords a user enters when doing an online search. It refers to where a website or Web page is ranked within search engine results.
Search Engine — A Web program that acts as a card catalog for the Internet. Search engines attempt to index and locate desired information by searching content and metatags.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) — The process of selecting targeted keywords that reflect the content of a website, placing them within the meta tag and content, creating a doorway page for each search engine, and testing the search engine results to make sure the site is well placed based on the keywords you selected. It is an art and a science which, because of the technology, is constantly evolving.
Definitions compiled from Netlingo.com.
In the case of a service company, the visitor needs to be able to immediately know who you are, what you do, and why you should be selected. “You want to build your credibility and establish yourself so that someone chooses you over the competition,” Wyszomierski said.
And by serving your potential customers, you are serving yourself to better rankings. And the better your ranking, the more likely you are to appear on the first page of search engine results — which means more clicks to your site. According to a number of Internet studies on click-through rates, almost 90 percent of all searchers click on the search results listed on the first page. That means only 10 percent move on to pages two or further.
That said, one of the worst things you can do is to write content for search engines instead of for people. Before posting any content, ask yourself: “Has this been written to attract my intended human audience? Or did I write it to attract search engines?”
Search engines will penalize a website if its crawlers believe that it is trying to game the system. Thus, while SEO is valuable, it is critical that it be done correctly. In fact, today’s SEO can be a contradiction in and of itself. Defined by Wikipedia as “the process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s ‘natural’ or un-paid (‘organic’) search results,” it is most likely to achieve this visibility if relevancy to the visitor is considered above attempting to meet each of a search engine’s thousands of criteria and ongoing updates.
As explained by Forrester, “SEO can help, yes, but layer on social engagement, usability and targeted content creation and you’ll build a legacy site — one capable of being a leader for years into the future. Understandably, this approach is more complex, but set yourselves on the right path now, and take advantage of each step along the way.”
“We’re just trying to find pages that people want to visit,” Wyszomierski said, and to achieve that, Google continually updates its algorithms. “So if you are trying to change with every update, you’ll always be chasing,” Wyszomierski said.
Search Engine Inelligence. On the other hand, there are changes that are good to know. For example, in the past, most webmasters spent a great deal of time writing out strings of keywords to include in the metadata (behind-the-scenes code) of a site — and some still do. Although this metadata was used by early search engines, today, Wyszomierski said, “Google does not use the meta keywords tag in ranking.” Instead, it searches the page content itself, just as people do.
All the major search engines continue to gain in intelligence to improve their value to Internet users. Not only are they getting smarter in detecting and de-ranking sites for tricks and games, they continually get better at “reading” sites as users do. “We are trying to design Google to look at pages the way users do,” Wyszomierski said.
As such, Wyszomierski said that websites should always be written for visitors and use plain English. “Don’t use jargon,’’ he said. “You have to remember that your customers or prospects are not experts.” Additionally, using common words to explain your service and including information on what searchers are seeking will help to increase your ranking. Wyszomierski provided an example from his own family. His parents were looking to get rid of little black ants that were coming into the house. So, he said, “they typed in ‘little black ants.’”
Know what your customers are seeking, then “naturally incorporate it as if you are talking to a customer,” Wyszomierski said, adding that you don’t have to include every word for your site to rank. “All the major search engines are really good at synonyms,” he said. So typing in “little ants” could bring up a page with “small ants” or, in other industries, “auto” would automatically equal “car,” he explained. “It’s not necessary to cover all possible terms.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a question that regularly arises as to the use of duplicate content, such as repeating information on multiple pages within your site or using syndicated or other multi-use purchased blogs or pest information. Search engines do not technically penalize the use of duplicate content, unless it is seen as “deliberately duplicated across domains in an attempt to manipulate search engine rankings or win more traffic.” But it does have the capability to see that content is duplicated, in which case it will select the version that it sees as most appropriate to the search — which could mean that it selects the page on your competitor’s site, de-ranking your page…or leaving it to disappear from existence.
Make it Uniquely Local. Statistics show that 20 percent of all online searches are local. Thus, increasing a company’s rank for areas in which it provides service is currently receiving significant SEO focus. In the hopes that a visitor who searches “Strongsville Pest Control” or “get rid of ants in Dallas,” will get their company on the first page of results, businesses are setting aside entire pages to list every city, community and ZIP code in which it does service, or are creating individual local pages for each.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
- Do make your website unique, valuable and engaging. Make it stand out from others in your field.
- Don’t deceive users or use tricks to improve search engine rankings. A useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
- Do use descriptive file names for images and videos. For example, a photo named carpenter-ant.jpg is much more likely to come up in a related search than is image1.jpg.
- Don’t use industry jargon.
- Do remember that visitors may enter your site on any of its pages, thus the adage that “Every page is a home page.” Make sure that every page on your site makes a good first impression.
A blog by Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, recommended that companies make a web page for each store location. While it was focused primarily toward brick-and-mortar businesses, a similar strategy could be useful for service companies seeking to attract local business. “If you have a lot of store or franchise locations, consider it a best practice to make a web page for each store that lists the store’s address, phone number, business hours, etc.”
It is an interesting and challenging trend, as companies can see increased ranking when it is done well and correctly, but overdoing it can cause search engines to ding the site for “keyword stuffing.” Keyword stuffing is any overuse of a word or use of words out of context or in random lists that make little to no sense or have little value to readers. Search engines see this as a trick to increase ranking and will, instead, decrease ranking or even deny inclusion altogether because of it.
That said, it can be valuable to include local information so that local searchers are directed to your site. Following are some of the right ways that Google recommends to do this:
- Testimonials. If you have testimonials, request permission to use them on your site, including the customer’s town: “XY Pest Control was courteous and efficient!” — Mary K., Springfield, Ill.
- Case Studies or Blogs. Write about recent or interesting jobs that you’ve done, including the name of the city in which it was conducted.
- Address. Always include your full office address and phone on the site.
- Community Pages. Write about local community events in which your business has participated or sponsored to show your local presence.
- Service Areas. “It’s fine to mention the areas that you primarily serve (‘Operating out of Mountain View, we serve the entire San Francisco Bay Area, from San Jose to Oakland’),” Wyszomierski said, “but going too far would be a keyword-stuffed list of every town or ZIP code in your area.”
- Make it Mobile. With more people finding local information on their mobile devices, having a mobile-friendly website is increasingly important, Google says. One helpful tool is www.howtogomo.com, a resource to help businesses understand the importance of mobile, examples of good mobile sites and a tool that analyzes how mobile-friendly your mobile site is, the company added.
- Verify Updates. “Anytime you update your site, open it on your smartphone and make sure you can see your content,” Wyszomierski said. If you keep your site simple, it will generally automatically translate to all computer, phone and tablet formats without a problem. It is when a site is more advanced that things are more likely to go wrong, he said.
Just like our physical world, the virtual world of the Internet is continually changing, evolving, growing and becoming more accessible on more devices. It is because of that growth and accessibility that people around the world — and in your local area — are using the Web to seek and find information and solutions.
You may have the best pest control company in your area, but if you don’t exist for the ever-increasing majority who seek services on the Internet, or the content on your site does not provide quality information and solutions that persuade visitors to contact you, then you may find yourself fighting for your existence in the physical world as well.
The author is a contributing writer to PCT magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.