E-commerce Best Practices Series (Part II): Making sure customers can find you online

Search-friendly content is a continuous commitment

Second of a five-part E-commerce Best Practices Series:


By Richard Harris


In the first part of this series on e-commerce best practices for dealers in May 2010 OPE, we looked at ways to make your Web site as compelling as possible for visitors.


However, the world’s most powerful content won’t do much for your sales unless people are actually finding and coming to your site. Driving traffic to your Web site is an evolving art and science, but there are some fundamentals that every OPE dealer must understand and implement in order to succeed online.


In this article, we’ll answer some common questions about the keys to making sure customers can find you online.

 What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the ongoing process of increasing the quantity and quality of visitors to your Web site.


To do so, you must satisfy the “spiders.” These are the tools that search engines such as Google use to scan your Website content and decide how it matches up with the millions of search terms being entered on the search engine.


Based on a hugely complex algorithm, the search engine then ranks all the sites it sees based on their relevance to any given search term.


It’s easy to see how this ranking is crucial to a dealership because of the amount of shopping, or at least buying research, happening online today. For example, we’ve worked with dealers who’ve put in a lot of time, effort and money into improving their page rank. One particular dealer managed to go from page 50 to page 1 in Google for one of its most important search terms. In the process, the dealer went from sales of $50 to $30,000 per month online.


When you do SEO right, you can achieve some similarly amazing results.


What are the fundamentals of SEO?

On a very basic level, SEO is about making your site match the words your customers and prospects are using in their searches.


But there’s plenty more to it than that. In fact, search engines weigh some 230 elements of your site, each of which has a point value. Some of these elements, such as page load speed, may fall outside your control, so focus on the ones you can control instead.


A few examples of important elements you can control that contribute to higher search rankings:


Content


Content is king, as they say. And that’s never been truer than in the age of Internet sales and marketing.


It’s critical that you maintain a site with unique, compelling content that’s relevant to the search terms your target audience is using.


Links


It’s also important to direct people and spiders to content throughout your site. Links connected to keywords that send visitors to other areas within a site are perhaps the most important tool in this effort.


In addition to internal links, inbound links from other sites can be especially effective at increasing page rank. For the best results, these links should come from reputable sources such as educational institutions and should be focused, as always, on keyword terms.


Meta tags


This term refers to background information on your site that provides a kind of content overview to spiders.


Meta tags started out as simply a list of keywords associated with a site. But search engines have since lowered the priority of these keyword lists because spam operations had been loading up their lists with popular keywords.


Other meta tags, such as the description of what’s on a page, remain vital. Accurately conveying the unique content of a page in as few words as possible in your description is a good way to positively impact search rankings. 


Blogs and social media


Regular updates through blogs and social media platforms offer an ideal way to keep your content fresh and unique.


Participating in these realms also presents many opportunities to gain those important links to your site, especially because e-mail marketing — another effective method of increasing inbound links — is now more challenging due to today’s filters.


However, remember that blogs and social media are two-way conversations. This openness is what makes them good for searching and for connecting with customers, as well. But allow the conversation to be too open, and you risk losing all control of your message.


Finding the right balance between promoting your product and engaging in genuine, credible conversation can be a challenge, but it’s often worth the effort in terms of driving traffic. 


What are the most common mistakes dealers make on the Web?

The No. 1 problem, of course, is not paying attention to search engine issues at all.


Assuming you have that part covered — and assuming you keep your content fresh and compelling and in line with prevailing search terms — the most typical pitfall is probably failing to make sure that all the great content on your site is searchable as text.


For example, search engines cannot analyze the content of images or video on your site. So all these elements should have meta tags attached to them that include the relevant keywords, including product names wherever applicable.


The same goes for Flash-based animations and graphics. Flash can make a site more exciting, but it cannot be read by any search engine, and it can significantly slow down page loads. Think through carefully whether any Flash elements on your site are truly necessary to making the sale.

 How important is paid Search Engine Marketing?

Pay-per-click online advertising is an indispensable tool in the ongoing effort to drive traffic to your Web site. Search Engine Marketing (SEM), in combination with SEO, is 500-percent better than doing one or the other by itself.


The reason for this is that your positioning in paid search results isn’t based strictly on the money you’re paying. It’s also based on how well your site performs in terms of SEO. So, it’s about getting your whole program to be smart and search friendly.


Fortunately for many dealers, in the SEM world everyone from the little guy to the chain store is on basically the same playing field. It comes down to how efficiently your ad stands out to the consumer.


By following best practices and working with a strong SEM partner, a small dealer’s Web site can appear higher in rankings than that of a larger dealer. And because online customers don’t know whether a dealer is a mom-and-pop outfit or a 400,000-square-foot retail operation, size is irrelevant when selling parts online.


If your dealership isn’t yet equipped to sell online, you can still drive interest and traffic to your site by promoting services or special offers. To help track your results, you can create unique landing pages for each ad. 


How can I go about creating an effective SEM program?

When you’re just starting out with SEM, a good approach is to focus first on one part or product, allowing for fine tuning of your messages and keywords on a small scale.


When online sales for that part have increased significantly, you can then redirect some of the profits back into an expanding SEM program. This “crawl, walk, run” philosophy helps maximize the cost effectiveness of your investment and steadily escalate the results you achieve. 


In addition, concentrating on niche brands is usually more effective than more costly, larger brands. Competition for search terms such as Troy-Bilt is much more intense than for a specialty brand such as Scag. Because of its niche focus, people searching for the latter term also are more likely to be interested in making a purchase, which will help increase your conversion rate.


Four other key steps to take to advance your paid search success:

Set a firm budget. SEM and pay-per-click programs can become costly if not managed properly. A firm budget helps establish appropriate scope and priorities. A realistic budget for top-end products might be $1,000-$2,000 per month (less for lesser known brands).
Consider your Return on Investment (ROI) timeframe. It may take 60-90 days for your program to begin paying for itself via increased sales volume. The first month you may not sell enough to pay for the advertising, but SEM will build repeat clientele. By the third month, you should begin making a profit. Generally speaking, you should then be making $2 for every $1 spent, and you can continue building on that success by reinvesting it in your program.
Work with an expert. It’s very difficult for someone who is not familiar with the complexities of SEM to create an effective program. Whenever you fiddle with your approach, you’re starting from scratch.
Change with the seasons. For example, toward the fall, integrate search terms focused on cold-weather equipment such as snowblowers. However, the same search terms wouldn’t necessarily make sense for customers in the South, so make sure you adapt your terms and offers based on both seasonality and region.

It takes time and knowledge to overcome these challenges, so you should find a vendor you trust to help you make the most of your budget and tie it in with your whole e-commerce program. 


Is there a way to guarantee success online?

No, the truth is there’s no silver bullet.


Rules for the search engines change every week, so the rules that worked last week don’t necessarily work today. Work with a provider that stays on top of this evolving field.


An experienced Web services firm can help put you ahead of the SEO curve. By working with them to get the basics right, keep your content fresh and continue to market your site relentlessly, you will succeed at bringing all the customers you need to your site online and to your store on the street.


 Richard Harris is product manager for dealer website products with ARI, which provides technology-enabled services to dealers, distributors and manufacturers. From electronic parts catalogs to dealer e-commerce solutions to search-engine and direct marketing and more, ARI helps increase sales and productivity for companies in several industries, including outdoor power equipment, powersports, motorcycles, marine, recreation vehicles, appliances, agricultural equipment, floor maintenance, and construction. ARI currently serves more than 20,000 dealers, 100 manufacturers and 150 distributors in more than 100 countries worldwide. For more information on ARI, visit www.YourEveryAdvantage.com.

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