Should I optimise my website for search engines?
This is one of the questions I am asked most often by clients and prospective clients.
I always answer by saying that optimisation is important in attracting visitors to your site - after all, if people can not find the site they are not going to visit. However, more important than optimisation is making your site useful and attractive to visitors.
If you think about it, you could attract 1,000's of visitors to your site by appearing at the top of the search engines, but if the visitor is the wrong type or your website does not satisfy their needs then it's a wasted visitor. In my view I would rather have 10 visitors to my site that converted into a sale than 1,000 that didn't.
The case study below shows a problem with the idea of "getting 1,000's of visitors to my site"
In the middle of 2006 I was contacted by a prospective client (who shall remain nameless - as will his web site and industry) who wanted me to get his site to the "top of the search engines" for a single phrase that summed up his business (say "blue widgets"). This was because he wanted to sell his products on the web to a wider range of people than his off-line marketing was reaching (and he saw internet sales as being "free").
I looked at the "blue widget" phrase that he wanted to rank for and although it was very competitive I felt that it was possible using the traditional methods of tweaking the page, obtaining links etc.
Having looked at the phrase I then looked at the client's web site and started to work through it to check for any possible problems. Within 15 minutes I had come up with a page full of problems such as navigation not working, missing pages, contact forms that didn't work and server errors. Any one of these problems would make a visitor to the site go else where and would not encourage any conversions to sales.
I pointed this out to the client, who replied that he was aware of the problems on the site but that it was not my job to fix these just to get him to the top of the major search engines for "blue widgets". I tried to point out to him that any visitors from this campaign would be very unlikely to convert and it would therefore be a waste of his money, to which he replied - "that's not your problem".
If you look at the case study above and think about it, I wonder whether you would agree with the client or me. Would you willingly spend money on a campaign that would not produce any sales, no matter whether it was an online or offline campaign?
Of course, if your site works and is accessible to your audience and you are not getting the visitors to your site then it's time to look at the reasons why, it may well come down to optimisation of your web site, but bear in mind that any website optimisation must always be done with the human visitor in mind. There are many things that can be done behind the scenes to improve your site's ranking in the search engines but you should never try to "game the engines". Before you do anything you should check the webmaster guidelines (for example Google and Bing have very specific rules about what they consider good web sites).
It is more than possible to get good rankings in search engines for selected phrases without "breaking the rules", for example this site ranks well (in September 2006 for "office types" in Google.com [number 1 of 130 million results *update* as at 13th April 2011 we still rank at number 1 out of 353 million results for this phrase], "website design and hosting" [number 3 of 18.6 million results] in google.co.uk (our target market) and even the page you are reading features on the first page for it's target phrase in Google out of 2.76million results and I have clients who rank well for targeted phrases such as "domestic cleaners nottingham" in Google.co.uk along with other clients with other phrases).
So, to sum up, yes you should optimise your pages for the search engines but never lose sight of the fact that it is the human visitor that buys your product or service and not the search engines. Make your site friendly for humans and you have won a large part of the battle.