A leaf on a tree in a vast jungle of trees…

Every day, scores of thousands of new websites are set up – including a massive number of online retail sites. Because it is “relatively easy” to set up a website (as opposed to a bricks n mortar shop), and because more and more consumers are shopping online, both existing and aspirant retailers are now factoring a web presence into their sales strategies.

But how does one “get found” in this ever-increasing universe of tough and ruthless competition?

How do you make your site more visible, more “discoverable” than the sites of your competitors? And how do you get successful and profitable sales?

Your website will forever be a small leaf on a tree, in a rapidly expanding jungle of trees. As each minute of each day passes, the difficulty in getting noticed increases.

“So why bother?” you may ask…

It is no secret that MOST start-up online selling ventures fail… It’s estimated that 80% of webshops close down after 6 months, with many more failing to enter their second year in business.

The principal reason for this failure is a lack of investment, coupled with poor business acumen and a comparative lack of knowledge of how to leverage the internet to gain visibility and secure (profitable) sales.

Adequate Investment

If you are an aspirant online retailer – ie: you don’t have a traditional retail outlet – you need to know that it will still require investment to start up your online shop. Maybe not as much as it would to hire retail space on the high-street, kit out the shop, buy stock and pay rent and council taxes – but you will still need to FUND the establishment of your business.

Just how much money will be needed largely depends on what you intend to sell, and how complex or sophisticated your website needs to be in order to make shopping with you easy, quick and efficient.

Like any business, you will need a strong and well-structured business plan, which looks at all financials (actual and projected) and which bases the strategy going forward on sound business principles. This plan (based on good research and analysis, of course), will give good indications of what it may cost to get set up properly.

We recommend that you add 20% to 25% to the budgeted costs as a “contingency” – the internet is full of “unknowns”, and many of them may take some cash to overcome.

In the initial stages, your website will need all the help it can get in becoming “discoverable” on the web, and the only sure-fire way to get “discovered” is to leverage the power of search engines.

How Search Engines work

In the early days of the internet, there were quite a few “search engines” in operation. They were quite rudimentary in their ability to return meaningful results, and as the quantity of information rapidly grew, the “value” of the results that most search engines were able to deliver, diminished rapidly.

Then Google came along, and was one of the first search engines that looked very seriously into functions that could analyse any given web page (or web “resource”), establish its MEANING and RELEVANCE TO A SEARCH TERM, and then to deliver it in a results list that satisfied the person conducting the search.

Over the years, Google has fine-tuned its ability to deliver accurate results against what was being searched for, and consequently has become the “preferred” way for people to find stuff on the internet.

The word “Google” has now entered main-stream language all over the world, as being a synonym for the verb “to search”. People now say: “I’ll go and google it…”

Today – in the UK – Google is by far the most widely-used search tool, accounting for nearly 97% of all online searches. The remaining 3.75% of searches are conducted on the other 3 “main players”: – Bing, Yahoo and Ask.

If you are a UK website, then you need focus your “discoverability” strategy on Google only… The others are not really worth bothering about – certainly not in the initial stages of your web presence. It is different in the USA and certain other countries, where competitive search engines enjoy a larger market share – but in the UK you need only concern yourself with Google.

Search engines constantly “scour” the internet, trawling in all data (where permitted) and holding it in a vast index. This index is categorised, and the data is given priority-scaled rankings, based largely on the content in any given resource, but also on other, more complex factors.

What search engines are trying to achieve (and Google leads the way) is for their programming and algorithms to emulate human behaviour. Google wants to be able to use its technology to visit websites just as would a person, and to accurately determine the value of the site, the way a human being can do. If Google gets this right (and it’s getting close to it) then the results delivered in its search lists will be more relevant and meaningful to the real people doing the search in the first place.

What Can Google Do For Me (My Business)?

Google can make or break your business. By this, I do not mean it actively seeks to destroy your undertaking, but Google has a large number of “expectations” about what it regards as a GOOD website, and if you fail to satisfy these expectations, Google will not feature your website in its organic search results, or will give the site a low ranking. The worse Google “feels” about your site, the less likely it is to feature it strongly in any search results.

Google’s objective is simply this:-

Google wants to deliver search results that are the MOST RELEVANT, MOST USEFUL and MOST SATISFYING to the person searching for something.

… and that’s really all it is.

And if Google delivers on this “promise”, the more loyal people will be in using Google. Again… eyeballs are the internet’s most valuable asset – and Google is keen to secure as many as possible.

SO… IN A NUTSHELL…

Make sure your website – both technically and intellectually – provides visitors with a meaningful, rewarding and satisfying experience.

Google has a large number of tools and services to help website owners achieve this, and these days, professional webmasters create, manage and develop a RELATIONSHIP with Google. They work more as a “partnership”, where the webmaster is in regular “communication” with Google in more of an “interactive” sense. In the past, working with Google was more “linear”, where the flow was usually in one direction – from the webmaster to Google.

Today it’s more detailed and relational, and because of this, much of what was once called “SEO” (Search Engine Optimisation) is redundant and obsolete.

We go into more detail elsewhere on the subject of “SEO”, but would strongly advise to NEVER BE TEMPTED to pay so-called “SEO Experts” who make promises about getting your site to feature strongly on Google.

Today – and particularly for eCommerce sites – the optimisation needs to be done for customers.

We call this “CEO” – Customer Experience Optimisation.

And it is a vastly different process compared to the old-styled SEO with which you may be somewhat familiar.

 

“Natural” (Organic) Search vs Paid-For Search

Let’ face it – you want to be “at the top” of search results pages for your important search phrases, as soon as possible.

If you’re selling “Nikon Cameras“, how nice it would be if – when someone searches for “Nikon Cameras” – the very first link in Google is to your website.

Now someone is occupying that top spot – but it’s unlikely to be you…

So… what is it that make someone else’s site enjoy that top spot, while your page on “Nikon Cameras” is nowhere to be seen – or if it is – it’s way down in position 432 on some distant results page that no-one will ever bother to scroll to.

Getting good ORGANIC (natural) search rankings is a long and often arduous process that can take years to achieve. But (in theory) the fact that someone’s web page is at the top of the list, indicates that it is possible to get there, so what needs to be done to give YOU the best chance of getting there?

Until relatively recently, one would have employed Search Engine Optimisation techniques – SEO.

Since the turn of the century, it has spawned an entirely new industry of “consultants” who have built profitable businesses largely on the gullibility and ignorance of website owners. With (usually dubious) claims that if you part with money, these “consultants” could spin their magic and get your site onto page one of Google’s search results.

Much of their work involved technical tweaking of web-page structures, in an attempt to “hoodwink” sites like Google that the site (or rather, the page(s)) they were “optimising” met the search engine’s requirements for favourable positions in search results, based on any given search word or phrase someone used to locate resources of relevance and usefulness.

The then “linear” nature of resource optimisation opened up many avenues of abuse, and the vast majority of “SEO” involved manipulations of Google’s ranking algorithms – some of which delivered desirable results for site owners, but most of which resulted in the major search engines (led chiefly by Google) refining and re-structuring their ranking criteria to put a stop to this tidal wave of abuse.

In the last six or seven years, the way Google evaluates web resources (for ranking purposes) has changed radically – with some of the most profound changes having happened in just the last 2 to 3 years.

Since 2010 / 2012, the “concept” of Search Engine Optimisation – SEO – has, in our view, become obsolete – yet it is alarming the number of SEO consultancies that still adhere to archaic and dubious strategies that they claim have value in your quest to get your web pages to feature strongly on the search results.

There is only one “rule” you should apply when approached by 99.99% of “SEO Experts”…

… IGNORE THEM.

Today, the search engine industry is applying very different processes and procedures to assess the value of a web resource, in terms of its relationship to what people are searching for.

Instead of relying largely on linear technical structure, and the manually-input indicators of a web resource’s purposes, search engines now use other criteria to make these assessments – and most of them are out of the manipulative control of shady SEO consultants.

The search engine industry now uses QUALITATIVE criteria, whereas in the past, it relied on QUANTITATIVE criteria.

Today, it is the total QUALITY of your website that matters, and Google now has many ways of determining the level of quality in your website – from its technical efficiencies to the meaning of the content within.

Search engines are on a quest to emulate humans and human behaviour in their assessment of web resources, and today, the key focus has to be on what is described as the USER EXPERIENCE (or “UX”) in web-speak.

Basically, if your website provides a useful, meaningful and productive experience for a visitor – based on what they are looking for, you will be more likely to enjoy a better search ranking. Google will favour websites that people enjoy visiting, and from which they derive benefits they are looking for.

Building a great website for a great User Experience

Looking at what we say above, it should be clear that a successful website will be both FUNCTIONALLY EFFICIENT and INTELLECTUALLY COMPETENT.

This implies then, that there are TWO core elements to effecive “CEO” (Customer Experience Optimisation).

The first element is technical efficiency.

Basically, this means that the website must operate as “perfectly” as possible, in the contexts of modern web protocols and operational capacity. The site must be logically structured and must load quickly. The software must comply with contemporary standards, and the platform(s) being used to operate the site must alsso be compatible with the structure and configuration of the web server(s) on which they reside.

In short, the technology driving a website must be robust and efficient, and (as far as is possible) operate “flawlessly” (although this goal is somewhat elusive in the real world). But when problems and conflicts are highlighted, they need to be attended to. A website requires CONSTANT maintenance and house-keeping, not only to ensure it operates properly, but also that everything is compliant with general technical standards and protocols.

The second element is intellectual competency.

This is the “human input” of the website – the loading of information and images, the construction of the content and all other inputs that are required to make the site “worthwhile” to its visitors. Product data, product pictures, user manuals, the logical “progression” of a process (such as adding to a shopping cart and checking out of a webshop), the validity of content, topicality and relevance, etc… must ALL be carefully thought out. Good grammar and spelling is important, clear explanations are vital. Google now looks for this sort of “professionalism” when it assesses a website, and if the intellectual components are weak, or badly constructed, the site will be “penalised” by search engines.

In many cases, the technical and intellectual elements are closely interwoven. Search Engines now look for key components that are important to the user, as well as in assisting search engines properly identify the purpose and content of a website.

The growing importance of embedding STRUCTURED DATA into a web page requires close collaboration between the technical team and the intellectual team. Not only must a website be able to display meaningful content onscreen to humans, but it must also contain many “behind-the-scenes” features that assist search engines in their quest to understand the meaning as well. (We will discuss the “semantic” nature of the WWW in another article, and look at how it works and why it is important.)

So when you have a technically and intellectually competent website, search engines will enjoy their visits as much as real people do. Your site will gain in popularity, (also through other marketing methods, not just “lucky visits”) and you will start to see the site creep up the rankings in search results.

An extremely important thing to understand is that Search Engines cannot and will not be manipulated. The days of “hood-winking” search engines into believing your site is “tops” – when maybe it is nothing near “tops”, are OVER.

Also, Search Engines do not (and never will) guarantee you that they will index the site and its content. If you “allow” search engines to gain access to the site (yes… you can control where they go in your site), the chances are pretty good that they will come in and look around – but whether they decide to index and “publish” links to your site against public searches is NOT guaranteed.

Featuring in the ORGANIC SEARCH RESULTS of the major search engines is therefore dependent on how “important” your website is, when factored against other sites that say or do much the same things. It’s really up to you to work at making it important – in the very wide context of what is meant by “important”.

Paid-For-Search – what is it?

In a nutshell, paid-for-search is really what it says it is. In order to feature on top search pages for given keywords and phrases, you can now “bid” for those positions against your competitors, who may also be keen to feature strongly for the same (or similar) search phrases.

If you bid higher than a competitor on a range of desirable keywords and phrases, your adverts will appear above their adverts for those search results.

The search engines do not set the prices… these are simply determined by what any given market sector values them at. It may be that a certain keyword or phrase is highly desirable… If you are selling top of the range branded digital cameras, it is important that when someone keys into Google “Where can I buy a NIKON D4S DSLR Camera”, that your webshop appears as high as it can on the search results page. But there are likely to be scores of others selling that camera, so they will all be keen to feature high up on the paid-for results – and so you will “bid” a price you are prepared to pay for click-through’s, if someone then clicks your advert link to go to your site.

As you only pay if someone clicks through to your site, you will be able to accurately measure sales against exposure actions (such as a click-through), and you will be able to control how much you spend, and how you plot your SEM (Search Engine Marketing) strategies to convert visits into sales.

I was once a big critic of PPC SEM (pay-per-click search engine marketing) – but is is an extremely valuable tool for any ecommerce site – and more particularly sites that are new and in the process of trying to get the business flowing through.

However, with the advances made by the search engines in tracking and analysing traffic and sales, PPC is perhaps the best way to get noticed in the early stages of your online business, and it should still form part of your marketing strategy when you begin to enjoy better “organic” positions in the search results.

One of the advantage of a Search Engine SEM (PPC) campaign, is that you are in full control of it. You can tweak and adjust it – even suspend it – in real-time. Few other advertising techniques offer such a high degree of control, and few afford the advertiser such depth of analysis that is, in most respects, virtually instant.

But it is a detailed, and in parts, complex area. Apart from having to know what all the data means – and how to use it – it needs proper monitoring and management. It can consume large sums of money very quickly – especially if you are not advertising properly. Remember… every time an ad is clicked it is costing money, so if insufficient sales occur – even after getting lost of clicks, then you need to act quickly to see why. And there can be many reasons why visits are happening – but sales aren’t…