Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is one of the most misunderstood marketing mediums out there. There are so many different approaches, depending on what results you want from your website. Every business today, no matter what sector, has an online presence, and research has suggested that 81% of businesses consider blogging, a recent and effective SEO strategy, to be an important part of their marketing plans. Why? Because on average, a company that blogs will have nearly 450% more indexed pages than a Company which doesn’t, increasing the likelihood of potential customers coming across your site.

Of course, businesses will have websites for different reasons. For some; large Corporates, pharmaceutical or industrial companies and government, for example, all the way down to tradesmen and shopkeepers, a website will be for reputational purposes, or to provide information, but online will not form an integral part of their marketing strategy i.e. they will not expect to generate sales or profits via their website. For others, e-commerce sites, advertiser funded sites such as local and national media, or social media, the goal is to drive as much traffic as possible to the site. There really is no such thing as too many hits.

But still there are marked differences between the kind of user different sites want to attract, and accordingly this will affect their SEO strategy. One Company who I recently dealt with explained to me how they had optimised their website to the point where they were ranking number 1 for a particular search phrase. But they soon discovered that users who arrived at their site via this particular search phrase rarely made purchases, and so, despite the large number of visitors they were attracting, they would have been much better off had they optimised the site to a different keyword.

SEO is not a short term strategy but a long term one that requires careful planning and patience to succeed. Ken Laing has been an SEO expert for many years; having graduated from the University of Creative Arts in Epsom with a degree in Graphic Design and New Media, he quickly established himself as a freelancer who’s passionate about helping small businesses to increase their revenue, firstly by building a new website, then by optimising it, and finally by providing ongoing marketing and SEO consultancy.

“Once you start to lose your ideal end users, you start to lose your business”, he explains. “In my opinion SEO is the best form of marketing because of the high conversion rates you can achieve when you are bringing the right people to your website. I have a 70% conversion rate when people find me via Google, compared to 30% when I used old-fashion marketing methods like handing out business cards at networking events.”

“Everything that you do with your website, in terms of SEO, matters”, Ken explains, “Google is constantly updating their system; it’s like the scoreboards you see at golf tournaments; you want to be climbing that leader board without breaking their rules – that’s the only way to win in the SEO game”

Anyone with a grasp of coding is probably familiar with the term “under the hood”, which essentially means drilling down into the website and studying the code behind it. For first timers, seeing the code can be pretty overwhelming, and even more so when you consider that one false move could significantly affect the ranking of your site. It helps to explain why top developers earn the money they do. There are, however, one or two easy wins.

First of all, you want the right keywords on your page and to use the right HTML tags i.e. to “describe” your contents. If you use tags in your posts, keep them consistent; so much of the non-technical side of SEO marketing is plain common sense, and this is something that Google desperately wants us to understand. There are no shortcuts; high quality content, updated regularly, is the best way to gain traffic without going “under the hood”.

Watching Ken work with the code behind a site I just happened to have open when we met, you can see that SEO experts consider their work to be like creating a piece of art or design. “I try to imagine that I am describing the web page to a blind person”, he reveals, “I go through the site from top to bottom, picture by picture, sentence by sentence, to ensure everything is properly optimised for the client’s chosen keywords”

But is there a danger, with all this tinkering and fine tuning, of over-optimising a site? “It can be a problem, Ken agrees, “and Google have recently become stricter and more sophisticated in the way that they evaluate sites, which was long overdue. In general, however, the better the user experience, the better the site will rank. Your site must be appealing and useful to the end-users.”

There are many ingenious tricks which can be extremely useful when deployed correctly, however. Conditional statements, for example, like those used in Excel, can help a site display different messages to different kinds of users, invaluable if your site is multipurpose or if personalisation is key to your sales approach.

So far we have mainly discussed “onsite” SEO, which involves optimising one’s own website, but there is also “offsite” SEO, and this is all about getting the right links pointing to your site. Gone are the days when any link was considered positive, which had given rise to false websites being created simply to provide outbound links to sites. This strategy, if anything, will now reduce your site’s page ranking. Bad links, from sites with no credible content, would harm your site’s ranking. Inbound links to internal pages are best, “think of each one of the pages on your website as a billboard or flyer”, Ken advises, “use your pages to increase the footprint of your business on Google”.

The older your domain name is, the better Google will trust it, meaning it will rank higher up. This is often known as the “authority”, or “trust” rank. Experience counts, and the longer your site has been online, the more your reputation will be enhanced. Not quite the Hunger Games, but it pays to stay at the top of the rankings, and by being resourceful, you can save on costs.

Most small companies, depending on size, should be looking at budgeting between £400 to £2,000 monthly on SEO. Ken often wins clients through a free consultation before agreeing a monthly workflow and costs. Here are his 5 tips for ways smaller companies can ensure they have got the basics right. It can have a dramatic effect on your business, and it also helps improve the quality score of the whole of the web for everyday users. In business, they call that a win-win situation.

1. Write content for your users – Make sure the content you have on your website is focused on helping your users to find what they are looking for. If you are not sure about what’s good to write about, there are plenty of websites you can find ideas from i.e. forums, social networking sites, etc. Look for questions that come up again and again on these websites.

2. Focus on the right keywords – Just because a keyword phrase has over 10,000 searches each month it doesn’t mean its right for YOUR business. Get to know your target audience well, find out what words they generally use to find your services or products. If you can afford it, it’s worth doing a survey first before starting the keyword research process. You can also Pay-Per-Click to find out which keywords are working for you and which are not. Having that information in hand will save you weeks if not months of SEO work.

3. Have the right mindset for long term benefits – If you want to get the most out of your SEO for a longer time period then you have to be prepared to do it the “slow and steady way”. Create good quality content that will attract natural back links. Sponsor an event or two that are relevant to your business. Build an online tool that’s useful for your community. The idea is to get people to want to link to your website.

4. Make sure your website is free of technical issues – Double check to make sure there are no dead links on any page, the HTML code is clean and error-free and your hosting server is reliable. It’s important that Google can read all the pages on your website. If you don’t have a Google Webmaster Tools account, get one as soon as possible and add your website in there. With it you can see any problems that Google may found on your website, and also penalties if any.

5. Get links from a wide range of websites – Links are vital for ranking well on search engines, especially Google. If your website is fairly new (a few months old), then you’ll want to diversify your links to as many different type of websites as possible. For example, week 1 focus on article directories; week 2 focus on social media; week 3 focus on blogs and so on. Focus on quality rather than quantity. Sometimes all you need is 3-5 really good links to rank on the first page, for the less competitive phrases.