Website designers want searches to work for free

Website designers want searches to work for free

Updated 6/14/2006 2:25 AM ET

Heather Stephenson, 33, of Brooklyn and her partner in Montana, Jennifer Boulden, are working hard to get their website,, high on Google's list. They could buy their way up, but instead they're going about it the hard-but-free way: by mining for search-engine gold.Jennifer Boulden spends hours a day trying to woo online users to her website.
Heather Stephenson, 33, of Brooklyn and her partner in Montana, Jennifer Boulden, are working hard to get their website,, high on Google’s list. They could buy their way up, but instead they’re going about it the hard-but-free way: by mining for search-engine gold.
The site, which offers sponsored tips on eco-living, is the top listing at Internet search engine Google when her company name is searched. But she knows that isn’t enough to stand out. She wants to be found in other search categories, like Green Living Tips and Healthy Living.


By Eileen Blass, USA TODAY

Sure, she could buy her way to the top, with
sponsored, pay-per-click search ads on Google. But as a young company
with just four employees, she’d rather devote her resources to free

So she works other parts of the
Web. She knows that the footprints she leaves in places such as MySpace
and Craigslist help her main goal: getting her site to rise in Google,
which so dominates Internet search that it had a 59% share of searches
in May, according to market tracker Hitwise. Google attracts nearly 100
million visitors a month. 

The homepage of Ideal Bite, a site that give tips on how to "do the right thing" for the planet.

The homepage of Ideal Bite, a site that give tips on how to "do the right thing" for the planet.







Ideal Bite attracted Laurie David, a producer active in liberal causes. David linked to the site from her own website. Links like that help generate tons of traffic to sites.

 Ideal Bite attracted Laurie David, a producer active in liberal causes. David linked to the site from her own website. Links like that help generate tons of traffic to sites.

Simply creating a website for your company isn’t enough anymore. The blogging revolution — some 75,000 new blogs are created every day, according to blog directory Technorati — and the popularity of Internet search — Americans conducted 6.6 billion searches online in April — gives firms many more avenues for exposure. Savvy Web marketers realize that consumers turn to the Web to shop and to learn about companies, which is forcing them to market beyond just the company website.

"You have to go into every nook and cranny of the Web and do trial-and-error until you find what works," says Boulden, who co-runs the company from Bozeman, Mont., while partner Heather Stephenson is in New York City.

Figures that track spending on Web marketing — and its impact on corporate revenue — are elusive. But in just one year, the number of blog postings about business has increased to 36,000 a day from 13,000 a year ago, says Technorati. "If you are intending to build a profile online, a website alone won’t cut it anymore," says Rand Fishkin, CEO of website consulting firm SEOmoz.

Understanding the Web

To do well on Google, says Greg Boser, who runs the WebGuerilla consulting firm, is to understand the Web as a whole.

Search engines have replaced the Yellow Pages for Web-savvy consumers looking for merchants, restaurants or services. Tales abound of entrepreneurs whose businesses exploded after consumers started finding them in Google, either with a paid ad or in a highly coveted spot atop the free rankings.

"By getting yourself out there on other sites, like blogs, Google will really reward you for those links and help your site rise," Boser says.

To get to the top of Google’s index sounds simple. Google explains it as a form of word of mouth — the more people who talk about your site online the better it does. Google uses a complex formula for deciding which Internet sites rise to the top of its index. In Google-speak, the most important criterion is collecting links — those little clickable, underlined mentions on websites that take you from one Web page to the next.

"It’s the same thing any small business would do to get started," says Matt Cutts, a Google engineer who writes about the ins and outs of getting noticed by Google on his "You would drop fliers all over town. Online it’s the same thing. Trying to get links is letting people know about you and what you’re doing."

There are other ways to get to the top of Google, mostly involving the basics of good communication, such as an effective title page on your company website and a clean design that makes it easy for consumers to discover what you’re selling and how to contact you.

Because rising to the top of the Google index is such a cumbersome task, a cottage industry of consultants to help businesses "optimize" their pages for Google has grown over the last few years. These folks call themselves Search Engine Optimizers (SEO).

They help companies design websites or redesign them to be "Google friendly." They also recommend ways to extend a business’s reach across the Web.

"The younger people at companies who are using blogs and going on MySpace are starting to make their firms more savvy about it," says Fishkin.

The first rule of thumb: Get other sites to link back to your company’s website, as links are the heart of the Google system.

Links are such a hot commodity that many sites offer "link exchanges" or even offer links for sale, to help sites rise in Google.

But Google stresses quality over quantity. One link from a highly viewed site — like a mention on or the Slashdot tech site, could be worth more than 50 links from tiny sites and blogs.

It’s rare that a small business can get a mention or link on a big site like that, which is why many are turning to highly visited spots like the MySpace online community, Yahoo’s Flickr photo-sharing site and Google’s Blogger free blogging-creation software.

Trent Blizzard, who runs Glenwood Springs, Colo.-based Blizzard Internet Marketing, runs webcampaigns for 1,500 travel-related businesses. He designs websites for clients and performs search-optimizer duties to keep the sites atop Google. He also regularly posts photos of his clients’ establishments on photo-sharing sites and offers destination tips on travel sites.

For the Durango, Colo., Chamber of Commerce, Blizzard made a list of five things visitors could do there on, an outgrowth of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that’s written by the general public.

"I wanted to show the Chamber that I could make a list that was extremely consumer friendly and not completely self-serving, because there was good information there," Blizzard says.

In turn, those footprints help get additional exposure for Durango. "A link is a link," he says. "But information is what will bring traffic to the website."

Blogs are the best way to attract links, because, "Google loves blogs," says Boser. "I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Sites with a blog, which get comments from users, always rise to the top."

Richard Dudley, a florist from the Pittsburgh area, expanded beyond his Bloomery website with two blogs, to help attract brides looking for wedding floral arrangements. He says the blogs have done wonders for his Google rankings.

"It’s one more site we have that’s marketing to potential customers," he says.

Getting started

Jennifer Laycock, managing editor of the online Search Engine Guide newsletter, published a free e-book about how to start an online business with little cash investment. She spent $10 a month to have her Lactivist breast-feeding site put online, as an experiment, to see how well it would do — and how long it would take to get to the top of Google.

The results: 1,000 links within 30 days and over $1,000 raised from her passionate readers.

"This never could have happened five years ago," she says. "It took the blogging and social networking revolution to make this happen."

Laycock, who works from Columbus, Ohio, with an 18-month-old baby and another on the way, offered breast-feeding information and T-shirts for sale with funny sayings like "My kid’s no weaner" via, which lets businesses open up storefronts for a split of profits. Her e-book, Zero Dollars, a Little Talent and Thirty Days outlines how she did it, day by day.

She began by posting non-commercial notes on parent discussion forums, asking for ideas about products to sell. People responded and started asking about the site she was creating. That resulted in links from all sorts of parenting blogs, she says.

MySpace could be considered a blog, in that every MySpace page is a personal site set up by a MySpace member, which links to other blogs in the MySpace universe. Producer Laurie David, who is married to comedian Larry David and a founder of, links to the Ideal Bite site from her own website. Another link on the MySpace Stop Global Warming page generated "a ton of traffic," says Ideal Bite’s Boulden. "Like 4,000 visits in a few hours, all from one mention." The link still brings in 25 to 30 new subscribers a day, she adds.

Sites like MySpace and Flickr encourage social communication, not business promotion, but entrepreneurs use the sites for their companies anyway.

New York City real estate agent Don Johnston put his MySpace page up in November after returning from serving in Iraq in the Army and starting in real estate. "People send out promotions all the time for their music; I figured, why not take my list of friends and offer my service as well," says Johnston, who works for Kurland Realty.

Justin Tanoue has two businesses on MySpace: his new T-shirt company and Honolulu real estate. Coldwell Banker, his employer, has more than 500 agents working the same beat, so he needs the MySpace page to help stand out.

A search for Justin Tanoue on Google puts his MySpace pages in first and second position, followed by the corporate website for his Coldwell Banker site.

"A lot of people go to MySpace daily," he says. "The exposure is terrific."

Posting on sites like MySpace is good for exposure, but Blizzard says the most important tip to remember is to not neglect the company website. "You should be adding content every day," he says, "because your site is a growing, living, breathing thing."


Leave a Reply