Searching to get to the top of Google

THE hotels website Superbreak had a problem three years ago. The volume of traffic arriving at its web pages was worryingly low. Surfers were confused by cybersquatters trying to pass themselves off as the business and, to make matters worse, it shared the same name as a popular brand of American rucksacks.

Search-engine optimisation (SEO) proved to be the answer.

Part crystal-ball watching, part trial and error, it is the practice of improving lacklustre internet commerce by getting a firm noticed on the results pages of search engines. And it is perhaps the fastest-growing sector in the marketing industry.

Cracking the code of how search engines like Google work is forecast to be a £400m industry in Britain alone this year and it is growing at 60% a year.

Superbreak called in the experts to ensure its name rose to the top of search lists when users tapped in queries for “short break” and “hotel break” into Google or other search engines.

The plan involved redrawing every web page to focus on the word “break”, simplifying its design, and making information more sharply relevant to weekend trippers.

“It was like replumbing an entire city,” said David Ranby, Superbreak’s internet-marketing manager.

The benefits of coming top of search lists are clear. Although click-through rates vary from query to query, results that make the second page or lower of a Google search stand only a 1% chance of being clicked on. Not surprisingly, the top result on the first page gets perhaps half of all clicks.

Revenues at Superbreak’s hotels division have risen to £154m a year and Ranby says the SEO programme is responsible for 35% of the increase in online revenues over the past three years.

It is no easy task to work out how to get a website to the top of the results thrown up by a search engine. Google – which with 85% of the search-engine market in Britain is by far the dominant player – keeps tweaking how its algorithms read web pages and indexes them.

“There are 200 signals that determine a page’s relevance,” said Matthew Trewhella, Google’s developer advocate. “Imagine it as a big wall of dials with a bunch of people turning them slightly every day.”

While Google offers plenty of guidance and advice, it won’t tell companies exactly how its system works.

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Meredith Weisser

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