ImageRichard Jenkins is a sweetheart of a guy who just happens to be an expert in search engine optimization (SEO), a field we here at Editorial Emergency find fascinating. As copywriters, we've found his insight about SEO keywords — the most precise copywriting we've ever encountered — illuminating and instructive.  SEO copywriting is much like any copywriting; you must know your audience, who, in this case, are searchers, the folks typing words into that long, skinny box at the top of Google's home page. And you must use language that is relevant to those folks. With keywords, however, the primary challenge is to anticipate just what words those folks are typing into that long, skinny box.

Aside from his role as head honcho at his SEO firm, Web Search Engineer, Richard is the Director of Internet Marketing for Lotus Interworks, a global technology development and management company.
Keywords are search terms. To optimize your site, you must make sure the language on your site matches what people type into the search engines.
He was previously a search engine optimization manager for Bruce Clay, Inc., one of the nation's leading providers of SEO services, and a search engine optimization marketing specialist for WebEdge, a Web design and development company. Richard has held senior marketing positions at Macromedia (now owned by Adobe Systems) and Corel, and is widely recognized as one of the most gifted technical trainers working in the field. He was a pioneer in training people to use Macromedia's Director, Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, Freehand, Contribute, Captivate and Breeze digital tools (to date, he has trained more than 36,000 people in these handy programs). He was also an instructor at the American Film Institute (AFI), where he headed the Digital Media Arts department and taught hundreds of film, television and new-media professionals how to use Macromedia Director and related software.

So, yeah, he's the man. Need to know about SEO? Trust us — you do, and Richard Jenkins is just the guy to drop some science on your dome. Read on, friends.

EE: What is search engine optimization, or SEO?

Richard Jenkins: When I was a kid, I loved magic shows, and one of my favorite tricks was the linking rings. The magician holds up a ring and then another ring and then a third. By banging them against each other, through sleight of hand, he links them together. SEO is very much like that: One ring is the searcher; the second ring is the search engine; and the third ring is the Web site. How do you benefit from this network of links? First, you need to identify with the searcher — what is he looking for? Secondly, you have to understand what a search engine does — what is IT looking for? Finally, you need to understand how to present your Web site so you can reach the searcher through the search engine. The third ring, your Web site, is the only one you can control, so why not do everything you can to make it search-friendly? Search engine optimization is a process that enables you to position your Web site at the top of a search query result. My goal is to get people's sites to show up on page 1.

Why is it so important to show up on page 1? Isn't page 2 still pretty good?

I always try to get my clients onto page 1 because statistics have shown over and over that if you are not on page 1, very few people will ever actually find your site. Studies show that people rarely look at page 2; they usually perform a brand new search. And if they don't find what they're looking for on page 1 of a second search, they'll go to another search engine.

Are there a lot of search engines? I only use Google.

There are thousands of search engines. Some of the major ones are Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL Search, LookSmart, Ask Jeeves ... There is even one called Dogpile that aggregates all the top ones so you can see who has the best search rankings across the board.

So how do you do the optimizing?

The key word is "keywords." Keywords are search terms. To optimize your site, you must make sure the language on your site matches what people type into the search engines.Image You need relevant keywords; relevance is critical in writing your keywords. You want to come up with the most powerful, relevant keywords and pepper your site with them. That means you want keywords relevant to the human beings reading the copy on your site, and you want keywords relevant to the search engine "spiders," or "crawlers," reading the code — the copy "behind the scenes" (aka keyword meta tags) — on your site. The text that appears at the top of a Web page is the perfect place to put your keywords — don't make the rookie mistake of putting "Welcome" in that crucial spot. Trust me; nobody searches for the word "welcome" when they want to find your Web site. Another important place for keywords is the name of a Web page, what the corresponding file is called in the "backstage" architecture of your Web site. If you use common sense and choose you keywords carefully (among other factors), you have a very good chance of ranking quite high in the search engine results.

Can you give me an example of how you've done this with one of your clients?

The first site I ever optimized was for my sister, Kris, who has a wonderful dog-boarding facility called Paradise Ranch Country Club for Cats and Dogs in Sun Valley [California]. It's a cage-free environment in a beautiful location with a really high staff-to-animal ratio and searcher-controlled webcams all over the place so any time of the day or night, you can check in and see what your dog is up to. It's fantastic, but it can't do anything for dogs or their owners if no one knows about it.

ImageMy first step in coming up with keywords to optimize her site was to put myself in the shoes of her potential customers. I said, "Okay, I have a dog, and I have to go out of town and no one is available to pet-sit. I love my dog and I've never had to leave her at a kennel. I've heard there are a new breed of dog-boarding facilities where the dogs are actually pampered. How do I find one of these in my area? I'm going to search the Web and see what I can find out." So you go to Google and you type in "dog boarding." Of course, when you do that, you get dog-boarding businesses all over the country. So you type in "dog boarding Los Angeles," and suddenly, you've narrowed your search enormously and on the first page you see a handful of Los Angeles-based dog-boarding facilities.

When I started writing keywords for the Paradise Ranch site, the first ones I came up with were "dog boarding Los Angeles." This might seem obvious, but you'd be amazed by how many Web sites do not optimize for location, or what I call "geo-targeting." I've optimized Kris' site for the terms, the keywords, most people actually search; now Paradise Ranch is ranked at #1 for its most important keywords on all the major search engines in North America.

What ARE the most important keywords for Paradise Ranch?

"Dog boarding," "dog grooming," "dog training," "dog daycare" and "Los Angeles" are the key keywords. When you go to the Paradise Ranch site, the first thing you see is copy that reads: "Dog Boarding, Dog Day Care, Dog Training and Dog Grooming in Los Angeles — Paradise Ranch, trusted above all the rest." It's that simple, but again, people don't understand how important it is to make sure the most important, most relevant words appear on their sites.

You used the word "spider" to describe how the search engines find various sites. What exactly is a spider?

A spider is a program that explores, or "crawls," the Web looking for pages to "index," or gather information on, for its search engine. It starts at one site, indexes it for the search engine, then follows the links on that site to other sites — it's very important to have other sites pointing to your site so there are multiple pathways for the spiders to follow.
Search engine marketing is the larger market arm of web presence. SEO is the "organic" version of Web site marketing, and it's free.
Then the spider indexes those next sites and goes off to find some others. When a spider visits a site, it gathers up the URL, the keywords, the anchor text — the visible hyperlinked text on the page — all kinds of data and puts it in a database. Then a program matches the information collected by the spider against information about other Web sites and formulates rankings. The search engines use sophisticated algorithms, to perform this procedure. [A search algorithm takes a problem as input and returns a solution to the problem, usually after evaluating a number of possible solutions. Most of the algorithms studied by computer scientists that solve problems are kinds of search algorithms.]

Tell me how that works with a specific site.

Well, imagine the algorithm is a person. It's thinking, "Okay, my spider has brought me information about the Web site of this guy Richard Jenkins who does search engine optimization. He offers this and this and this. Those all seem relevant to potential users of his site. Oh, and he's linked to Macromedia, and he's got some other links pointing to him as well. Okay, let’s give him a rank of, say, 9." It's not great, but it's not bad, and through this conversation the algorithm's had with himself, I’ve got a rank.

How long does it take for a spider to find and index your Web site?

Once you've optimized your site with strategically placed, precisely targeted keywords, you can wait for the spiders to find you, which takes about two weeks on average, or you can submit your site to the various search engines, which is what I always do. Most of them offer a place to submit your site for free. Once you submit your site and the spider indexes it, the search engine's algorithm starts figuring out where you belong in its rankings.

I've also been hearing a lot about search engine marketing, or SEM. What is SEM and how is it related to SEO?

Search engine marketing is the larger market arm of web presence. SEO is actually a subset of SEM. It's the "organic" version of Web site marketing, and it's free. SEM, on the other hand, is not free; it's paid advertising. When you go to a search engine, you usually see ads at the top of the page or on the right-hand side. Companies don't pay for these ads to be seen, but the moment a searcher clicks on the ad, the advertiser is charged by the search engine, in an arrangement called "pay per click" (PPC).

Most of the big players on the Net, the huge multinational corporations, operate in the world of SEM — they are paying for clicks. The beauty of SEM is that it's instantaneous. You can have an ad running across the planet in seconds if you pay to get it on Google AdWords. 99 percent of all the income Google makes is off AdWords, not search. Search is free; it‚Äôs the ads that have made Google a zillionaire corporation.

So how do you get on Google AdWords?

You can set up your own account in minutes, and it only costs five bucks, but the big players go to an agency. There are several very successful companies that specialize in managing paid ad campaigns on the Web (in the SEM sphere this is called "paid placement" or "pay-per-click bid management). These are multimillion-dollar companies. You'll say, "I want to run this ad for two months." If you're a big company, you'll say, "We have a budget of $20,000 a day on Google and $15,000 a day on Yahoo." The agency serves as the liaison to the search engine and manages whatever funds you've budgeted. People click on your ad and you pay Google and Yahoo and MSN and LooksSmart per click. The agency helps you allot your click budget to achieve the highest possible ranking among the ads on the search engine.

These agencies can earn enormous fees, maybe $50,000 a month, to manage your account, which you pay on top of the money that goes to Google and Yahoo for all those clicks. For some companies, it's worth it because you want to guarantee that your ad is among the top three premium ads, the ones displayed across the top of the search engine's search query results pages. Of course, because they are displayed first, those ads are the most expensive.

ImageHow much do you pay per click?

It depends. It's an extremely fierce competitive bidding system. How much are you willing to pay per click to be at the top of the rankings? Let's say you'll pay a dollar per click for your ad to come up at the top. Well, maybe your competitor wants HIS ad to come up in the #1 spot. So he's willing to pay $1.50 per click. Can you afford to outbid him? When you run an SEM ad campaign, you’re saying, "I am willing to compete for the rank of my ad." When I was managing ads for Paradise Ranch, my sister was heading toward 10 bucks a click for the search terms "dog boarding Los Angeles." Finally, one of her competitors decided it was worth it to cross the $10 threshold to beat Paradise Ranch in the rankings. At that point, I said, "Look, you're doing so well in SEO, in your organic/free rankings, that I don't think you need to pay for these ads anymore." Ten bucks a click on both Google and Yahoo for "dog boarding Los Angeles," "dog grooming Los Angeles" and "dog training Los Angeles" was costing her about $4,000 a month.

So is that about average?

No. It can go much higher. A plastic surgeon who wants the #1 rank with "facelift Los Angeles" is going to pay $15 per click. A criminal lawyer in L.A. is going to pay $25 a click for the search term "criminal lawyer Los Angeles." You can find out what people are bidding for various terms by checking out a search engine's bid term tool. But the thing is, you can be paying a fortune to make sure your ad ranks #1, but it may not ultimately be a wise investment because of click fraud, which is rampant.

What is click fraud?

Bidding on terms can get absolutely insane, which is great for the search engines, but it can motivate the average online marketing manager to engage in unethical behavior. Click fraud is when an advertiser clicks repeatedly on a competitor's ad to drive up the competitor's advertising costs.
There are a lot of easy but highly unethical things you can do to manipulate the search engines.
Let's say you've got two luxury hotels on the beach in Malibu. They both want their ad to come up in the #1 spot for, say, "hotel Malibu." Let's say Hotel #2 just doesn't have the budget to consistently outbid Hotel #1 and the marketing manager for Hotel #2 is frustrated by it and gets pissed off. Just to be vindictive, he can start clicking on Hotel #1's ad — click, click, click, click: 10 bucks, 10 bucks, 10 bucks, 10 bucks. Before you know it, Hotel #1's online advertising bill has ballooned out of control. People all over the world are paid to click on ads. In India, there are syndicates whose entire business is click fraud.

Speaking of ethical issues, what is "black-hat SEO?"

There are a lot of easy but highly unethical things you can do to manipulate the search engines. A lot of them amount to putting hidden text on your site to essentially trick the spiders. For instance, you can create a Web site with a white background. You've got this big white space at the bottom, so you put "copywriter Los Angeles" in there 100 times. Then you turn the black text to white. Your text disappears. A human being can‚Äôt see it, but the spiders go, "Oh, this must be really relevant — the words 'copywriter Los Angeles' appear 100 times; we better boost the rank of this site."

Then there's the age-old bait-and-switch, where you put a lot of keywords on your site that are completely irrelevant to your business. And there are some very sophisticated methods called "redirects" or "doorway pages" where you optimize a site for keywords like “free iPod." When someone goes to a search engine and types in "free iPod," your "redirection" sends him to a porno site. It's a very popular technique, but the search engines have combated it by making it very easy for ethical, "white-hat" search engine optimizers and the public to report the frauds. If the search engines catch the perpetrators, they are banned from the search engine indexes, meaning they're out of business. It's nearly impossible to get listed again on Google, for instance.

What drew you to SEO?

I love marketing. I love creating buzz — I‚Äôm fascinated by how you take a product or service and create interest in it. And I've always liked to help people. It‚Äôs my nature — I‚Äôm a giver and a natural-born trainer.
The text is what's critical, not the latest way-cool videos and flash. The spiders read text. If your pages aren't at least 85 percent text, you are not going to be found.
As I said, my first foray into SEO was helping my sister with Paradise Ranch. I saw that she offered a really cool service, but she couldn’t be found on the Web. Why not? I had to find out. That became a journey for me. By practicing on friends' sites, I got extremely good at it, and their sites started showing up on page 1, which was quite an accomplishment because a lot of my friends are in fields where there's a lot of competition. It was exciting to me that I could help them navigate those waters. I did SEO for a hypnotherapist, an acupuncturist, a company that places travel nurses, some copywriters ... I thought what they were doing was genuinely helpful to people, and wouldn't it be great if I got their sites to the top of the heap. More people would find them and benefit from what they did, and their businesses would grow from the added exposure. Everyone wins.

Do you have any hints for people who want try SEO on their Web sites?

First of all, be unique; make sure you stand out from the crowd. Think of a creative way to offer people who come to your site something of value. If you’re a technology company, publish a white paper on your site. If your company provides services to actors, post tips on how to get an agent. If your site caters to photographers, explain what you think is the best way to shoot the desert or the ocean. Make sure you offer impeccably relevant, high-quality content that no one else has.

You should do this because you want to offer people who visit your Web site value, but the fact is, the more text you have on your site, the more keywords you can include and the more likely it is that your site will be found by the spiders. What people don't realize is that the text is what's critical, not the latest way-cool videos and flash. The copy is much more important than the graphical elements because the spiders read text, not all that other stuff; the bells and whistles are not searchable. If your pages aren't at least 85 percent text, you are not going to be found. Which isn't to say you should only be thinking of the spiders. After all, it's human beings who are typing search engine queries. First and foremost, you want to make sure the text on your site is relevant to THEM.

RESOURCES

If you just can't get enough of SEO, these links will help slake your thirst: