The number of people using the internet to find professional services is steadily increasing. For some, the internet is their first and primary research method. For others, it is a second choice after another strategy, such as seeking a word-of-mouth referral, does not pan out. Search engines are far and away the dominant source of website discovery for internet users. Understanding some of the finer points of how they work will help you cultivate a strong online presence.
Search Engine Usage Trends
Two major trends are affecting the way search engines work. Search engines are becoming internet destinations, as opposed to gateways, and users are searching by voice input.
A search engine becomes a destination when it provides information directly to the user in addition to providing links to websites where the user can find that information. For instance, searching for “San Francisco weather” no longer returns only links to weather-related websites – it displays a summary weather forecast before the relevant links.
Second, modern smartphones usually feature voice input, which encourages people to perform functions like entering a search phrase by dictating instead of typing the words. The word recognition is quite accurate and improving rapidly.
Voice-activated smartphone features like Google Now and Apple's Siri combine these two trends to further blur the line between content and search. They respond to plain-English queries with links, direct information, or both, and they read information aloud to the user.
Direct information, voice input, and its combinations are changing the way people use search engines. They encourage users to phrase searches as if they were talking to a person instead of a computer, using natural language, more words, and complete sentences. This creates a wider variety of search phrases and allows you to exploit “long-tail keywords.”
Long-tail keywords are phrases for which a statistically small number of people are searching. Optimizing for long-tail keywords can yield excellent results without a lot of effort.
Say you are a bankruptcy attorney looking to improve your search engine rankings. Of course, you want to rank highly for core keywords such as “ bankruptcy attorney,” but so does every other bankruptcy attorney in your area. There is a great deal of competition for core keywords, and optimizing for them takes a good deal of time and effort.
On the other hand, consider searches like “How to declare bankruptcy in ” or “Should I declare bankruptcy?” Little-to-no effort is likely being put toward ranking on these specific long-tail keywords. People whose sites rank well on these searches are probably not even aware of it. That means they are ripe for the picking.
Long-tail keywords also convey a lot more about “user intent.” User intent is what users really want to know, irrespective of the search query they form in order to find that information. Not everyone who searches for “bankruptcy attorney” is actually looking to hire one; they might be trying to better understand the law or the pros and cons of bankruptcy. “Should I declare bankruptcy” conveys much more user intent. The information the user wishes to know is spelled out in the query.
The ease of influencing rankings on long-tail keywords and their ability to convey user intent combine to make them a valuable resource. Instead of ranking up just your site's front page, you can develop a page of information specifically tailored to individuals searching for a given long-tail keyword. In the “should I declare bankruptcy” example, you have the opportunity to present the user with a page explaining the pros and cons of bankruptcy and how to decide on a course of action. Long-tail keywords allow you to speak directly to potential clients on exactly the issues that concern them.
“Web analytics” is the collection and analysis of data relating to a website's traffic. Very basic statistics, such as unique visitors, new visitors, and pageviews get you started measuring your website's performance, but much finer detail is available.
Web analytics can tell you how visitors to your website got there. Direct traffic comes from people typing in your site's address or clicking a bookmark. When a page other than your front page receives a significant amount of direct traffic, take note – this page is important to people. Web browser features like URL autocomplete and history logs make it easy to return directly to a given page deep within a site – without going through the front page, and without remembering a URL.
Referral traffic comes from links on other websites. You can check to see whether expected sources of traffic are performing to your expectations and discover unknown sources of traffic, such as a blogger who links to your site. You can also discover and visit the exact page from which the traffic comes to see the link to your site in context.
Search traffic comes from search engines and includes clicks on paid and unpaid links. You can see which keywords generate the most traffic and decide where to focus your optimizing efforts or paid-search budget.
Web analytics can also tell you what visitors do after arriving at your website. You can find out: the average number of pages on your site that visitors view; the average length of time they spend on your site; and your “bounce rate” – the fraction of visitors that view just one page before leaving.
Many web analytics services are available. Google Analytics is the most widely-used service. The basic version of the service is available free of charge.