Site traffic in the fast lane

Improving page ranks is a black art that holds a giant payoff

If your company doesn’t have a Web site, you can stop reading now. But if you do, and you want more customer traffic, let me tell you about a topic that isn’t yet on CIOs’ agendas, but will be. It’s one of the best kept IT secrets – a fast growing, highly strategic technology discipline that just happens to sound inconsequential: SEO (search engine optimization).

SEO represents hundreds of billions of revenue dollars, and high profit dollars. How do I know this? Google, the search leader, gets about $14 billion per year in revenue, mostly from paid text ads next to its search results. If companies are paying $14 billion for ads, there’s probably north of $50 billion riding on the Google ad economy. But that’s only paid search, and in fact companies get many more customers through the ‘organic’ Google search results themselves.

So while SEM (search engine marketing) – the art of placing the paid ads – may be worth $50 billion, SEO is more like hundreds of billions. As an IT leader, if you can figure out how to drive more of those dollars to your company’s bottom line, you’ll be a hero.

As with all IT, the devil’s in the details. SEO is the black art of understanding the algorithms Google (and Yahoo, MSN, and others) use to present search results, and making friends with those algorithms. I say art because Google doesn’t disclose the algorithms, and changes them constantly. But some basic things are known, so here’s a 30-second primer:

1) Figure out what search terms you want to "own" and develop lots of high quality content around those terms. It’s a big world, and Google has to make some harsh calls about who’s a better resource for "life insurance premiums" or "industrial hydraulic pumps." There’s no way to spoof Google – their code is highly tuned to spammers and will banish you if you try to fake it.

But if you’re truly authoritative in your industry, don’t be afraid to flaunt it. It's not enough to simply have the content online – you must optimize and tag it correctly and spoon feed it to Google in little, identifiable pieces. This gets into the seeming minutiae of header tags, metadata, keyword density, sitemaps, etc. But it’s minutiae worth billions, and most corporations miss it completely.

2) Understand the page rank system. We all know, at some level, that the more sites link to you, the higher you’ll show up in Google. But it’s actually much more involved. Every single page on the Web that Google indexes has its own page rank. Your visibility in search results equals some combination of how authoritative Google thinks you are on a search term, plus the page ranks of your pages that are most authoritative on those search terms.

Like playing tennis, you only improve your page rank by playing with someone who ranks higher than you. Getting them to link to you with a contextual link reinforces your site’s authoritativeness on a certain search term.

Sound complex? Yes, but there’s a big payoff. Most companies hire consultants to handle this, and that’s fine. But as a CIO, paying personal attention and championing SEO from the top can help shift your organization’s mind-set to one where technology is central to the marketing mission, and you can measure and continuously improve on the results. SEO needs an executive champion. Your CMO will thank you – and your CFO too.