It is literally amazing how many people start their online business presence by buying a domain name (close to their business name) and building a brochure-ware page. Only later do they turn their mind to optimizing their site for (i) their audience and (ii) the way their audience find them. Fewer still take a long, hard look at what their competitors are doing first.
Take it from me, the best way to succeed in search engine optimization is to build it into your business development strategy from the very outset. For this reason - before we turn to optimization techniques - my guide consides first those fundamental questions of what, who and where:
(a) What are you selling?
The first and most obvious question in this sequence is whether you are selling a product or a service and the degree to which you can fulfill this online.
To illustrate the thinking involved, I will use (throughout the guide) the (mythical) example of Doug Chalmers, a purveyor of restored antique doors, brass door fittings and accessories, based in Windsor in the United Kingdom.
Doug makes his money from selling doors (20% of total profit), selling door handles and knockers (25%), selling door bells or pulls (25%) and fitting services (30%). He has sold the bells, pulls, handles and knockers across the United Kingdom (and once or twice overseas, through word of mouth recommendation) but only does fitting within a 20 mile radius and rarely sells doors to people who are not local.
When forced to consider his proposition more carefully, Doug admits that he has no desire - or capability - to sell fitting services outside of his immediate locale (due to capacity and travel considerations). However, he can see a big market worldwide for his brass fittings and accessories.
I know what you are thinking, but don't laugh. Doug may well be right and (after all) knows his business better than you or I. He gets quite a lot of business from American and French tourists that drop into his shop after a visit to Windsor castle. Many take his business card. Initially, they almost always want to see brass door knockers, but often leave with several small items.
Doug has heard the stories about other local businesses who have been successful online. The Teddington Cheese, for example, sells British and European cheeses across the globe and was a winner of the UK eCommerce Awards in 1999. Who would have thought that cheese was a winner online? Well, Teddington Cheese did and have been reaping the rewards ever since!
There are actually a number of key things about Doug's proposition that we will revisit in subsequent parts of the guide. However, the key point for now is that simply putting up a brochure of all Doug's products and services is unlikely to be the best strategy. He has some specific and focused aims - and by thinking about them now (and refining them) he stands a much better chance of success online.
(b) Who are your audience?
Segmenting your audience is a key part of any marketing or PR strategy and make no mistake, search engine optimization is essentially a marketing and PR activity (albeit somewhat different to some of the more traditional parts of this field).
Doug generally agrees that he is targeting socio-economic class A/B for his services. These people are typically affluent, professional, white-collar workers living in leafy suburbs. He is in luck there, as such people are disproportionately represented in internet usage worldwide!
Having thought about it, he can readily segment his customers into three types; (1) local-full-replacement, (2) diy-refurbishment and (3) fitted-refurbishment. The first group are local people, looking to replace a whole door which has broken or is drafty. They are generally cost-conscious on the overall package (comprised of products and fitting services). The second group are interested in specific product items (which they are happy to fit themselves). They want advice on how to fit it but don't want the labour costs. However, they are the least price sensitive group on the product cost and often buy the very best. The third group buy product but want it professionally fitted and finished. They are prepared to pay for quality but are more price sensitive than the DIYers. Where they are not local (which happens) they want a referral from him to someone who can fit locally in their area.
Doug makes the most revenue today (in order) from groups 1, 3, 2. However, he makes the biggest profit margin per sale (in order) from groups 2, 3, 1 - the exact reverse! His own time (and that of his fitters network) is the biggest constraint in his business. If only he could grow the DIY segment, he could substantially improve his overall business profitability.
Hopefully, the point here is obvious. At the very least, Doug's website should address (perhaps separately) the needs of these three different groups. Ideally, the site will focus it's firepower on that second group (where the opportunity for unconstrained growth is greatest). Finally, the site needs a local and a global face (to reflect the different geographies of his customers).
(c) Where are your competitors?
No proposition development is complete without an honest assessment of what your competitors are up to. If you are in a locally-based mortar-and-clicks business like Doug, your assessment should take into account both your local and your global competition.
A useful tool to use is the so-called SWOT analysis, where you draw four boxes in a 2x2 table for each competitor. In the first box, you note the strengths of the competitor, in the second their weaknesses, in the third their opportunities and in the fourth their threats. Strengths and weakness are things inherent to their business as it operates today (and generally internal). Opportunities and threats are things external to the business and generally forward looking.
Look at each website objectively and minded like your customers. Consider whether the website was easy to find in the search engine. How many different search words did you try? Do you like the look of the website? Does it address each customer group separately, focus on one segment or try to be all things at once? Was it easy to get information and do business?
Leave space in the boxes to return to later in the guide (as we will frequently refer back to what your competitors are doing right or wrong.