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As with so many other technologies in our tech-crazed world, search engine optimization (SEO) technologies are way ahead of our abilities to use them for a rational purpose.

As soon as we conceive of a new business, or hire a marketing whiz to take an old business "to the next level," we are consumed with keywords, search rankings, and social media, as if doing exactly what the rest of the world does has ever made anyone rich.

SEO consists of Web tools and content strategies designed to help your target audience find your site by using Internet search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing.

SEO has the power to dramatically increase Web traffic to your site. But for that very reason, a search-optimized site can actually hurt your business rather than help it grow profitably.

How can SEO hurt your business? Consider a site that is not user-friendly, is repulsive to visitors (or attractive to the wrong kind), isn't competitive, or is lacking a clear value proposition and the support required to respond to inquiries or follow up on leads. So, do you really want to drive traffic to such a site?

In short, SEO works best when it is the last, rather than the first, item on your website checklist.

Yes, there is no end to how much you can spend on market research and usability testing. And yes, many businesses, especially smaller B2B outfits, don't typically run the risk of seriously damaging a brand because of a cookie-cutter website.

Even so, three commonly overlooked steps can vastly improve your site's performance—before you SEO.

1. How can I help you?

Ask yourself what you want your website to do for your business. Just because you "have to have one," doesn't mean that your website cannot serve some useful purpose.

Likewise, just because you have a website, doesn't mean it can be all things to all people. Remember that your website is only productive to the extent you actively use it to reach out. Fresh content, sales and customer support, collecting and acting on feedback—all require effort and expense. Therefore, it is important to set clear and realistic goals for your website and review and revise them regularly.

Typically, a website is used to perform any of the following tasks:

  • Sell
  • Educate
  • Engage

Contrary to popular logic, for many businesses these three tasks are vastly different and sometimes antagonistic toward each other:

  • Selling involves clearly describing, packaging, and pricing products and services to make it easy for the qualified buyer to decide not if, but what he is going to buy.
  • Educating is directed toward prospects at an earlier stage in the buying process. Educational content explains features, benefits, and concepts to those potentially new to the product. It can help earn prospects' trust and respect by providing them with useful information. It can also confuse and turn off a buyer who thought he knew what he wanted to buy; in this case, too much educational content can actually hurt sales.
  • Engaging involves getting site visitors to act (e.g., comment on a blog post, fill out a survey, take a demo, or, sign up for the company's newsletter). Engaging can be another useful tool in early-stage prospecting. It can also be a drain on the company's resources, attracting those without purchasing or influencing authority.

It is helpful, especially for a small business, to choose one of those three activities as their site's primary goal. Then, the site's content and SEO can be tailored to a specific stage of the buying process—and upstream and downstream marketing and sales functions can be clearly defined and prioritized.

If two or more of these tasks are equally important, each can be assigned to a separate portion of the website (a microsite, for example) and treated separately for SEO purposes.

2. How's my driving?

Is your blog driving traffic to your site? Is your "About" page driving it away? Web analytics has the answers, but the volume of data can overwhelm you. However, if you know exactly what your site is supposed to do, choosing and tracking appropriate statistics is straightforward and highly effective.

For example, if your website's main job is to educate, tracking time spent on specific articles can help you understand the demand for various educational topics—and configure your SEO accordingly.

3. Watch who you're calling 'dense'

Keyword density is a simple and popular way to manipulate search rankings. Because of density concerns, many websites offer just that: keyword soups with little salt or pepper to make them palatable. Check the so-called case studies on most B2B sites. I challenge you to find one in ten that isn't a keyword-heavy list of product features.

A better tactic is to make sure that content serves its stated purpose first: clear and concise for the "sell" audience, informative for the "educate" audience, and exciting for the "engage" audience. Then go ahead and use SEO, referrer sites, or other traffic stimulants.

Keep in mind that what you are ultimately trying to "optimize" is the match between your site and prospective buyers searching the Web. In the long run, playing the numbers only drives up competition for each set of eyeballs.

On the other hand, with careful targeting and readable content, you can use SEO techniques to your business' full advantage.

Continue reading "Before You SEO: Three Steps to Help Your Website Earn Its Keep" ... Read the full article

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Olga Taylor is a freelance writer and a former vice-president of marketing and business development for Quartesian LLC. Reach her via