A “mammoth task” was how Mary Power (pictured) described ensuring that her company’s website would appear at the top of every search in Google, Yahoo! or elsewhere.
Power, managing director of Wexford-based do-it-yourself holiday firm Self Catering Ireland, went about the monotonous but crucial task of ensuring her company’s website — www.selfcatering-ireland.com — was seen in all the right places.
What Power discovered early on and decided to put right was the tricky business of search engine optimisation (SEO). SEO is the dark art of doing all the right things with your website in order to appear whenever and wherever someone looking for a product or service online can find you.
As a result of focusing on SEO for her site, Power has gone from a situation where web bookings accounted for a single percentage of her business to 36pc today.
SEO is becoming a fundamental objective for any business intent on selling online, says Martin Murray of Dublin-based online marketing agency Interactive Return. However, it is only lately that firms are embarking on SEO strategies, he says.
A SEO strategy involves making sure that your website has all the right keywords to guarantee appearing high up in a search engine; for example, if you run a hotel you will want to appear top of search results if a potential customer types in ‘holidays’ or ‘accommodation’. Otherwise, that snazzy new website could just sit there online with few visitors, the cyber equivalent of the Bates Motel.
“It’s getting to a tipping point where more and more people are aware [of SEO],” says Murray. “There’s a huge paradigm shift in the online marketing industry and it’s all about measurability and accountability.”
Martin says that the first step on a successful SEO strategy for any business is to design its website with search in mind. “Make search engine friendliness part of the design criteria for your new or updated website. Specify the keywords for which the site should have a high ranking in Google, Yahoo! and any other search engines that are used by your target audience.”
Another important task is making sure that the content, specifically the text, on your site is relevant. “If you want your website to be found when someone searches for ‘contemporary Irish widgets’ then you have to have lots of text talking about ‘contemporary Irish widgets’ on your website, ideally on your homepage too. It’s that simple. Also, consider having a weblog. Weblogs are basically simple text-rich websites so they tend to rank very well in the search engines,” says Murray.
One of the most important things to get right with a website strategy is getting the meta data right on your page. This is part of the code on every page and can be used to tell the search engines what your site is about. The most important piece of meta data is the title tag (you can see it in the blue title bar at the top of your browser screen). “This should contain the keywords for which you would most like to have a high ranking,” Murray says.
Murray says that a big mistake companies make is an over-reliance on the use of Flash technology. Websites designed using Flash are practically invisible to search engines. “It may look good but nobody will find it through search engines,” says Murray.
Another key aim is to achieve link popularity, he explains. Link Popularity refers to the number of other websites that link through to your website. “Search engines give a higher ranking to websites that have lots of other sites linking to them. Quality is more important than quantity. You want relevant websites linking to your site. Submit your site to directories associated with your industry, sector or profession. Seek links from the websites of your customers or partners.”
Once a company embarks on an SEO strategy for that labour of love that is their website, Murray cautions that patience is necessary. The search engines will only re-index once every six weeks or so, so it could take a number of months for your website to achieve that higher ranking.”
The science that is online marketing is gaining ground and Murray urges businesses keen to transact online to realise that time spent on SEO can be more valuable than spending on online advertising.
That said, online advertising is gaining ground. “More money is being spent in media purchasing on online marketing in the UK than radio or print. This is an extraordinary realisation for people in media and advertising in Ireland because we’re still a long way off. Traditional marketing directors in the UK are shifting their focus to search engine marketing. The reason they’re doing this is because the lucrative youth market is watching YouTube.com or is in Bebo.com.
“The 18-24-year-old audience aren’t watching TV or listening to the radio as much anymore; they are online.”
Murray believes SEO still has some way to go to be taken seriously by mainstream websites in Ireland. “More than half of the sites have figured out that they need to do it but what effort they have made so far is questionable,” he states.
Resting assured with SEO
Wexford-based accommodation-booking business Self Catering Ireland was founded by managing director Mary Power in 1998 and today employs 12 people. In 2000 Power set up a website to cater for overseas visitors hoping to take a DIY approach to holidaying in Ireland.
“We started out with a marketing page but it was only in the past two years that we had a strategic plan for the online side of our business. Two years ago only 1pc of our overall business came via the internet. Today over 36pc of our business is done online,” Power explains.
Power realised that the inherent weakness in any online marketing strategy would have been the lack of a search engine optimisation (SEO) strategy. “What we were doing wrong from day one was focusing on one search idea. You need to be visible online.”
“What we learned to do was widen the criteria out as much as possible. In layman’s terms what we did was employ any search criteria possible for someone who might be looking to holiday in Ireland, for example: ‘holiday homes Ireland’, ‘Ireland holiday homes’ and so on. Previously we had just ‘self catering’ as a description and always ended up on page three of a Google search.”
Power says that until she embarked on a web strategy the business had a good enough turnover but “the margins are never going to be great unless you turn online and turn it around”.
“We redesigned the site so that the functionality and navigation made it easier for people to book a holiday home through our site. We reduced the steps from six down to three and that made a huge difference.
“We are proposing from next year to spend 60pc of our total marketing budget on SEO. It is making a difference for us. I would say that 18pc of visitors to our website buy something from us and most of them would have come to us through SEO.”
The success of Self Catering Ireland’s online strategy has prompted Power to move in a new direction. “Our business online has gone so well that we are developing a new business to focus on world villas. We can do this because our SEO strategy has worked so well for us.”
By John Kennedy