How to scale Mt. Google

Getting your site on the first page can turn a hobby into a thriving business.

By Paul Sloan, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- A little over a year ago, Giovanna Villanueva was toiling away in virtual obscurity. No matter what she did to her website, where she sells kitchen cabinets for several brick-and-mortar businesses, it ranked so low on Google that the search engine was hardly bringing her any customers.

Yet today KitchenCabinetMart.com is a remarkable turnaround story: Search "kitchen cabinets" - the most popular phrase in the category - and her site pops up near the top of Google's all-important first page, even trumping one of the country's largest cabinetmakers, Merillat. The result: revenue of $10,000 a month and more inquiries than her one-woman business can handle. "I can't keep up with the e-mail," Villanueva says.

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The Angle: Boost your ranking.
  • 1. Get links from big companies, trade groups, and edu. domains.
  • 2. Go after your competitors' links.
  • 3. Buy keyword ads to test search phrases.
Advertisers are keen to learn the Web browsing patterns of mobile phone users. CNN's Jim Boulden reports (April 5)
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A methodical application of SEO techniques did the trick. SEO - shorthand for search engine optimization, the craft of increasing your rank on search engines - is now a $4.1 billion industry. Ad agencies have entire SEO divisions. Companies hire SEO pros. Yet expertise isn't a must; understanding basic SEO strategies can help the smallest site climb Google's "organic," or nonpaid, results.

How? By diligently working two of the key factors that affect Google placement: links and search phrases. A few years ago, you could exchange links with just about any website and then watch your site shoot to the top of Google. Those days are all but over. Inbound links are critical to building what's referred to as "link authority," but Google tirelessly works to sniff out bad ones - from spammers, those irrelevant to your topic, or newly registered sites that don't yet have Google creed. Such links will hurt your ranking and could even get you banned from Google. Says SEO veteran Greg Boser, who runs a firm called WebGuerrilla, "These days Google pretty much looks at a site as guilty until proven innocent."

Different sites need different kinds of links, of course. But certain rules apply: Google tends to give weight to links from major companies, trade groups, government organizations, and especially sites built on .edu domains reserved for educational institutions.

Spammers are currently one step ahead of Google on this front. Search "buy Vicodin," for instance, and you'll find loads of sites connected to .edu addresses. If it works for Vicodin peddlers, it'll work for you (at least temporarily). So find academics and hit them up for links. But remember that for lasting credibility with Google, the links need to be relevant. Villanueva, for instance, e-mailed dozens of college instructors who teach woodworking and courses about the lumber industry and snagged two .edu links.

Next figure out who's linking to your competition and cut deals with them. Yahoo's Site Explorer (siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com) will show you a site's inbound links. Joining Web directories is also worthwhile. Lesser-known ones like BOTW.org and JoeAnt.com can be helpful, but be careful: If your site is about phone services and you don't see Sprint (Charts, Fortune 500) or Verizon (Charts, Fortune 500), you might be right to assume that they won't provide much of a boost on Google (Charts, Fortune 500). Yahoo (Charts, Fortune 500)'s and Business.com's directories can cost a few hundred dollars each, but you'll likely get what you pay for when it comes to your search ranking.

Great links do little if you don't lace your site with good search phrases. Search, after all, is how most potential customers find you. You can use tools such as Wordtracker to find the phrases that people tend to type when looking for a specific product. But this has its shortcomings.

Curiously, popular phrases aren't always the best. One way to find the most effective phrases is to buy ads on Google's paid search side. You bid on keywords - related phrases, such as "discount kitchen cabinets" - to ensure that your ad ranks high. Then, using Google Analytics or another system, track which phrases best convert into sales. The terms that work for paid search typically work in organic search. "Learn that early," Boser advises, "or you're going to waste a lot of time and money."

Editor-at-large Paul Sloan covers the ever-changing Internet landscape on his blog, The Key, at business2.com/sloan. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.