In the beginning, there was the Web site. We struggled to get it right.

First, the design (does it look great?), then we agonized over usability (does it work?). Finally, we turned our attention to visibility (can anyone find it?).

Search engine marketing—the art and science of making Web sites visible on the Web—involves a lot of messing about with code. Few of its exponents can agree definitively on what works. Which is probably why marketers have been happy to leave it in the hands of the IT folks. Until now, that is.

The Way We Were… and the Way We Are Now

In common with just about every other Internet innovation, search engine optimization (SEO) first emerged as a technique pioneered by the adult industry. Its new, mainstream proponents were desperate to gain respectability and credibility. For all their hard work in establishing standards, and despite the search engines' efforts to foil the tricksters, SEO has retained its slightly shabby reputation.

But things have moved on. In 2003 the Web is vast, and most search engines now offer a paid “express inclusion” service. Getting discovered through a Web search is no longer a given; it's a highly competitive business. And anyone in business needs to be taking it seriously if they're not already.

Searching is still the number-one activity on the Web. (That's searching—not shopping.) It's worth remembering that e-commerce is still only a fraction of what people actually do online. Any of your stakeholders, actual or potential, could be investigating your company or your competitors at any time on the Web. What they find when they search can be, and should be, largely managed through intelligent search engine marketing.

Beyond ‘Driving Traffic'

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Robin Houghton advises small businesses and nonprofits on how to make the most of their marketing budgets (especially online) at Reach her at