The Way We Work
July 12, 2011 by Brian McDonough

Looking to drill a little deeper into the basics of search-engine optimization, we chatted with Acquisitions Director Adrian Fung, who recently took charge of oDesk’s SEO strategy. His focus, he says, is less on boosting our search ranking than on reaching the right potential oDesk users.

“There’s a lot of ways you can drive more traffic. But not all traffic is actually useful to you.” Fung says. “If you’re a service provider or an ecommerce site, you want people who are ready to buy what you’re selling.”

The question becomes, then, how does a small or medium-sized business target those people? The first step is understanding how your current visitors arrive at your site, and what they do once they get there. Then you can improve your site to draw more high-value traffic. There are two good ways to better understand current traffic, Fung says. The first is to look at your actual site traffic, and the second is to analyze the performance of your paid keyword advertising. Let’s start with site analytics.

Look at Who’s Looking at You

“There are a number of good tracking tools, the most common being Google Analytics,” Fung says. “It lets you see which visitors are converting on the pages you want them to be on. You can slice and dice by specific keywords to see which words drive the best traffic.”

So if you’re a small business selling umbrellas, look at who’s actually been buying your umbrellas. Those who came via search engines — which page did they land on? What keywords brought them there? Does your traffic show that people who readily buy your product use a different search term than those who only pass through?

“You can check specific conversion goals like that — did they sign up, did they buy,” Fung says. “You can also measure how people are engaging in terms of how many pages they view, how long they spend on your site. That’s especially important if you’re more a content provider than a retailer.”

Study Your SEM

Search engine marketing allows a business to have its ads appear beside search results for certain keywords. It’s an alternative, or supplement, to “organic” search results, and it’s more than just a way to get your name at the top of a search page. Fung says it’s also a way to quickly, effectively test which keywords work.

More SEO Resources

A lot of sites claim to give you the inside scoop on SEO, but Fung points to SEOmoz as a smart, robust blog. Start on the blog, or check out categories on analytics, page/site optimization, or keyword research.

“The problem with just looking at organic search is that its not easy to influence,” he says. It’s hard to test alternative keywords through organic search if you’re not currently ranking highly on those keywords. “Paid search helps. If you have a program, the results you get for various keywords will help you understand which are most effective. If you don’t already do SEM, this is the time to start.”

oDesk has had an SEM program for about five years, Fung notes, which provides him a lot of data to apply to organic SEO efforts. “We’ve identified keywords there that generate high traffic and a good amount of conversion,” Fung says. “We’re driving a fair bit of volume through our paid campaign, and we’re working now to refine our organic SEO efforts around what we’ve seen work best in paid SEM.”

Optimizing your site around your most effective paid keywords can not only save on your SEM spending, but get you more traffic, because people tend to put more trust in an organic search result than a paid placement.

Empower Your Pages

Once you know exactly which terms bring the traffic you value most, you have to do another round of site optimization, this one designed not just to make you rank highly for “umbrellas,” but “buy umbrellas,” “designer umbrellas,” or “colorful umbrellas” — whichever terms have proven most effective. You also have to figure out which pages you want those highly motivated visitors to land on.

SEO for Your Blog

A blog is not a direct sales channel. It’s about creating relationships, providing information and establishing your authority on a topic. When optimizing your business site’s blog, don’t use the same ready-to-buy key terms — those aren’t the people you want on your blog, and the blog is not where you want those people to land.

“Our blog is for people, existing oDesk users and potential new users, looking for tips and expertise around what we do,” Fung says.

For oDesk’s blog, Fung says, our most engaged search traffic comes from terms that include “tips” and “how to” and other calls for informational content. We optimize the blog along those lines. But we’d want someone searching for “Hire Java Developer now” to find a page on our main site that quickly explains oDesk’s value proposition and prominently offers the ability to sign up and search for contractors.

“Your visitors have different levels of intent, so you want to draw them to different pages,” Fung says. “The more serious their intent is to purchase, the more you want to draw them to pages most closely associated with that action.”

“Select certain pages to optimize around those keywords, then figure out how we can give them more authority within google,” Fung says. “There are many schools of thought on tactics. In general, make the page as relevant as possible to users with those keywords. Relevance has to do with content, keyword density, how the content relates. Having the keywords show up in the page’s title and headlines help, as does where that page links, internally and to other sites.”

It’s not a trick, though some dubious SEO experts sometimes resort to increasingly ineffective chicanery to “fool” Google’s search algorithm. It’s simply about creating a page that immediately tells someone looking to find and buy a colorful designer umbrella that she has landed on the right page. The title, text and images should all make that instantly clear, and the visitor should be able to quickly navigate to the product she wants and click to make the purchase. But if your site sells umbrellas; rain hats, overcoats and galoshes for men, women and kids; and sun parasols, you probably want to make sure the person searching for “buy designer umbrella” lands on a different page than the searcher for “buy children’s rain boots.”

Satisfy the Surfer

As with general SEO efforts, the attempt to optimize for particular traffic — whether it’s to draw the committed buyer in general, or to promote each of your offerings with maximum effectiveness — is about the customer, not the search engines’ algorithms. There are basic techniques that help the algorithms recognize the elements of a web page, but it’s the human visitor who spends the money, so keep your site focused on pleasing the human, not the algorithm.

“It’s definitely not about lame tricks like random link insertion or keyword-dense gibberish,” Fung adds. “Remained focused on the context of a good user experience. Google has gotten a hell of a lot better about figuring out what’s the right context.”

Thoughts and resources on focusing your SEO and SEM? Hit the comments!

Brian McDonough

Freelance Writer

Brian McDonough has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years, and has managed teams of in-house and freelance writers for newspapers, magazines and web sites.