Nothing has captured the imagination of companies doing business on the Internet in the past five years more than search engine technology. Consumers have also embraced this technology because it lets them navigate the vast amounts of data available on the Internet. Companies such as Google, Yahoo and MSN have created wildly popular and extremely valuable online empires simply by providing relevant links to online information.

Independent car rental companies generally grasp the importance of their Web site's pages ranking high in search engines for keywords related to car rental in the cities where they operate. What's not as widely understood is how to accomplish this.

The major search engine companies are Google, Yahoo, and MSN. As of May 2004, Google had 36.8% of all search referrals, Yahoo 26.6%, MSN 14.5% and all others combined for 21.1 %, according to Websidestory. Computer Industry Almanac projects that 1.07 billion people will be online in 2005, and these computer users are expected to produce more than 325 million queries per day.

How Search Engines Work

The term search engine is often used to describe a wide variety of search services. The most common are search crawlers, human-powered directories, and pay-per-click search engines. While Yahoo introduced its own crawler-based engine in 2004, the company's success was built upon its human-powered directory. As in most top directories like DMOZ.org and About.com, Yahoo uses editors to review sites and post them to appropriate directories. Some directories are free, while others like Yahoo have a listing/review fee.

Pay-per-click search engines like Yahoo! Search Marketing Solutions supply links to sites that have had site owners bid on keywords related to their products or services. With search engine optimization for crawler-based engines, you need to understand the main components of a crawler-based system. [PAGEBREAK]

Components of a Crawler-Based Search Engine

A search engine has four main parts:

• the robot or spider program that surfs the Web recording media content

• the index or database that comprises the collected data

• the algorithm that decides how the pages will be ranked

• the search engine software that allows Web visitors to query the index.

All "search companies" use a mixture of these types of results. For example, Google returns the results of its natural listing (acquired by the crawlers) as well as a posting from its PPC network Google AdWords —- ads found on the right side of the search results. Google also offers results from a popular directory called the Open Directory Project, the largest, most comprehensive human-edited directory of the Web located at www.dmoz.org. Yahoo offers both crawler-based results and PPC links from its subsidiary Yahoo! Search Marketing Solutions. Since Feb. 1 MSN Search provides its own crawler-based results, but for years relied on results from Yahoo-owned company Inktomi.

A key is to understand the difference between the search technologies and the search company. These companies, in their efforts to provide the most useful search results, offer a wide variety of qualified information. [PAGEBREAK]

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of maximizing a Web site's page rankings in search engine results pages (SERPs) for relevant keywords. The idea is to have pages within the site rank high in the SERPs. This creates an opportunity for search engine visitors to click through to the companys site and, in the case of car rental, book a car.

A search query proceeds something like this: A searcher goes to google.com and is presented with a search query box. The searcher types in the term "cheap car rental" and is presented with the top 10 results Google has returned for that specific keyword phrase. These listings include the title, description and name of the URL.

If one of the listings is relevant to the searcher's goals, this consumer may choose to click on the link and proceed to the specific site. If the listings aren't relevant, the searcher may proceed to the second or third page of results page listings.

Most searchers never venture past the third page; most clicks are on the first page of listings. If your RAC's pages rank below the top 30, your site will probably attract little or no traffic at all. When starting an SEO campaign, you need to determine which keywords consumers most commonly use in a query for car rental in your area and to estimate how many pages compete for this keyword phrase. Many companies that start an optimization plan don't know for certain which keywords consumers typically use.

Although search engine companies rarely disclose internal search data, you can still make an educated guess about which keywords people use for their searches. One of the best ways to determine this is to hire Word Tracker (www.wordtracker.com), which samples the queries from meta search engines (search sites that allow searches to be drawn from several search engines at once) and then extrapolates the queries and predicts the popularity of selected keywords.

If you want insight into the keywords being queried on the Yahoo! Search Marketing Solutions network of search sites, you can view a history of queries that occurred the previous month at http://inventory.overture.com. [PAGEBREAK]

The bottom line is that if you don't target the correct keywords, you risk missing your audience. For example, if you optimized your pages for "New York city car rentals," you could expect 420 queries over the next 30 days in Google. But if you optimized for "car rentals in New York City," Google would receive only 30 queries. Even if you achieved a top 10 ranking and received 10% of the clicks, the difference between 42 leads and three leads is quite significant. The numbers speak for themselves.

After you create a keyword matrix that reveals what the high-traffic keywords are, you can start creating your pages. The best time to consider search engine readiness is before a site is developed. While building a site, you need to avoid a number of pitfalls to ensure the site is well regarded by search engines. Common mistakes include creating a frame-based site, JavaScript navigation, extraneous file structures (www.your site.com/services/service1/), using text links in the main navigation, Flash animation homepages, and excessive graphics with not enough text.

The next things to consider is what you're going to write about and how it's going to fit into the context of your site. For a lot of independent operators servicing the travel industry, the answer is as simple as creating a travel guide. You can provide information about your city, its services, events, accommodation options as well as restaurants and entertainment services. This shows site visitors that your company is knowledgeable about its community and can offer valuable information.

Content should be relevant to the targeted keywords. If someone searches on "cheap car rentals," then the content must contain references to the keyword. If the content also suggests great day trips that consumers can take from New York in a "cheap car rental," then you have satisfied the initial query. Consumers will be presented with your other information choices, such as your rates and locations, and click further into the site.

Other site topics can address your company's niches -— for example, renting to under-25 drivers. You could write content about how hard it is for young adults to get this kind of service and how your company has adapted its policies to serve this market segment. The page could highlight your company's flexibility and desire to capture this market.

Once you've selected the keywords, the contextual framework for an ongoing build-out is in place. Then it's time to look at the necessary strategies to get these pages to rank. [PAGEBREAK]

On-Page Factors

When crawler-type search engines spider your site, they actually read the content of the pages. They try to establish what the page is really about. Remember, the whole goal of a search engine company is to present links to sites with as relevant information as possible.

What is extremely important is what the spider "reads." The page tells the spider what the content of the site is about. The idea is to use the keyword once in the title and Meta description tag. Use the keyword once in a heading tag, once in the URL of the file name, once in bold and italic, once near the top of the page, and between six to 10 times in the body of the text. The text should be a total length of 600 to 800 words.

A sentence must read properly since readers are both spiders and Internet visitors. The standard approach used to be to create doorway pages optimized for the search engines but almost unintelligible to Web visitors. This practice now goes against the terms of service of every major search engine site.

It's also important to keep the code clean. Some spiders only read a certain amount of kilobytes of information. If your pages have hundreds of lines of Java script or style sheet code at the top of these pages, the spiders can't get to the real content. The way around this is to externally reference these files using one line of code.

To do fairly well in the engines, your site needs to be a minimum of 50 to 100 pages. You can never have too many pages of relevant content on your site. The trick is coming up with fresh and creative ways to anticipate the kind of subjects your thousands of visitors will find relevant. The ideal is to have a content-rich 100-page Web site with every page-on-page feature maximized to its fullest potential, covering a variety of appropriate keywords. [PAGEBREAK]

Link Building

The second part of any SEO strategy is link building. The best way to gain inexpensive and qualified traffic to your site is to develop a large network of links from complementary Web sites. This also establishes link popularity with search engines like Google, which weigh the quality and quantity of your reciprocal links.

You need to search out appropriate reciprocal linking opportunities with sites that complement your site's content. These include travel Web sites, associations and directories related to the car rental industry. The ongoing development of links helps promote your site in two distinct ways:

1. Direct traffic from well qualified sites

2. A link popularity boost from the major search engines since all engines have some form of link popularity factored into their ranking algorithm.

The success of this strategy works in direct proportion to the quality and quantity of relevant content in the areas of support, promotion, and product and services information. The amount of required links varies, but you should strive for a few hundred high-quality links. This process is very labor intensive. Although there are linking schemes, try to steer clear of these since they normally have links back to objectionable sites that can lower your credibility in search engines.

The reason external links from other Web sites are so important is because these links are in essence a vote of confidence or credential of worthiness. They extend the reach of your site by providing pathways into your site from sites with established flows of qualified traffic.

The goal of any Web site is to establish streams of traffic. The easiest and most effective way is to tap into sites that have streams of visitors already flowing through them. The best place to start is with the two major directories: www.yahoo.com and www.dmoz.org. Both are human-powered directories where editors add sites based on specific criteria. DMOZ.org is free but may take six to 12 months to get listed. On the other hand, after you pay Yahoo's $299 review fee, your company will probably be in the directory within two weeks.

Reciprocal Link Exchanges

Although it's beneficial to seek out reciprocal links from other sites, you need to recognize some strict guidelines. When you link to a site, you're telling the search engines that you endorse it. Link farms or free-for-all link sites provide little or no value whatsoever because they contain no real content. They are rarely well regarded by the search engines and normally provide little chance of traffic to your site because of the vastness and variety of their links. It's best not to link to, or get links from, link farms.

The ideal links to your site are from content-rich pages that contain keywords pertaining to your content. A link with the term "New York car rentals" from a travel site that's rich in valuable content is an example. [PAGEBREAK]

Google Page Rank

No discussion of link strategy is complete without a discussion of Google's proprietary search technology, PageRank. Google's PageRank algorithm interprets a link from page A to page B as an endorsement of page A. By using the Web's built-in democratic structure, PageRank looks at both the volume of endorsements and the quality of the page making the endorsement to establish rank of a particular page.

By looking at both on-page and off-page (link endorsements) factors, Google tries to rate or rank the page for its level of importance to the queried search term. The Google tool bar is a popular browser plug-in that gives surfers an insight into the PageRank of the particular page. The little green bar indicates a number from 0-10. Search engine optimizers have embraced this to judge the value of a particular link. Some even sell links from high PageRank pages.

When you look for quality links from other sites, your first concern should be whether the page has appropriate content and whether your link has any chance of being clicked on. It will be seen as complementary to the information on that site. In linking back to the site, the same criteria must be adhered to.

Although your site cannot be penalized in any way for links coming into your site, if you link into bad neighborhoods like link farms or pages that don't adhere to search engines' terms of service, this can affect the stature of your pages in that search engine.

Busted! SEO Myths Exposed

1. There is an easy way to get to the top of the major search engines.

As the saying goes, "There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs." There are no tricks. If it were so easy, then everyone would be 100% happy with their results. The truth is, SEO is a long-term process that’s time-consuming and tedious. You can expect a major return on investment within 12-16 months.

2. Without spending any time or money, I can still ensure that everyone can find my site.

In SEO, it takes money to make money. The reality is that the cost can be calculated for every visitor that finds your site. The cost-per-click calculation is as follows: For example, if you spend $1,500 per month for 12 months ($18,000) on a professional SEO campaign, and that campaign increases monthly traffic by 10,000, then over the following 36 months you would have paid an extremely reasonable $.05 per click for over 360,000 visitors to your site (18,000.00/360,000=.05) PPC costs average $.25 to $1.25. So the same 360,000 visitors would cost (at an average $.50 click) $180,000 (360,000x.50=180,000).

As time passes, the cost of traffic actually drops with SEO (since traffic will continue long after the campaign ends). With PPC, you must continue to pay to receive the traffic.

3. All you need to do is create the appropriate Meta tags (description and keywords).

This has been a prominent theory for years and was only true back before 2000. Only a handful of engines use the Meta data today. The level of sophistication of the search engine algorithms goes way beyond the use of Meta tags exclusively.

4. You must submit your site to the search engines to become listed.

Crawler-based sites are just that -— crawlers. They find you. Although it’s wise to submit to these crawlers for a brand-new site, it's not a necessary recurring process if your site has enough external links from other Web sites and you update the content regularly.

5. There are thousands of search engines and directories worldwide that you need to be visible in.

This is simply false. Google, Yahoo and MSN make up over 75% of all search engine traffic. There is little reason to concentrate on any other search engines other than the big three. [PAGEBREAK]

6. Search engine positions can be guaranteed.

Search engines own their data and ranking algorithms. No reputable company would guarantee any kind of results; they can simply guarantee they've made their best efforts to improve your current exposure.

They certainly can show you their past successes with other clients. Companies promising top 10 ranking often justify the claim by choosing noncompetitive and irrelevant keyword phrases (for example, "New York City Car Rental Deals") or by paying for PPC keywords for a fixed price.

SEO should be the cornerstone of any online independent car rental business. This entails a long-term investment. It usually takes six to eight months before the traffic begins to flow. Full results are typically realized at month 12 or 16.

SEO is an intense and tedious process, and should be handled by professionals. With the search engine environment changing almost daily, it's important to stay current with your SEO approach. It's also crucial to stay committed to providing the most relevant and wide range of information to potential customers.

Search engine optimization is the most cost effective way to draw traffic to your Web site. There is no free way to do this -— it takes time and money. Whether you have the in-house expertise or you contract a professional SEO company, you can expect to pay between $10,000 and $40,000 per year. The results, however, can be spectacular. The amount of new business realized from this investment should be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Paul Allison is Internet sales and marketing manager at Car Rental Express (www.carrentalexpress.net), a British Columbia-based company that specializes in providing Web services for independent car rental operators. Car Rental Express also operates a consumer car rental site (www.carrentalexpress.com) that books reservations with independent car rental companies.

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