You may fool search engines, but not people

Centuries ago, alchemists struggled to brew gold by combining all sorts of items in mysterious ways they refused to explain or share. Today’s closest parallel comes in the peculiar world of search engine optimization (SEO), the science through which modern alchemists combine meta tags and content with the occasional newt’s eye to land websites at the top of Google’s rankings.

I mean no disrespect to the wizards who have identified ways to outsmart their counterparts at the search engine companies. What’s puzzling, though, is that no two seem to employ the same formula, and the mixture changes constantly. Nor do I profess any understanding of exactly what it is they do. Usually, by the time they’re a third of the way into their explanations, my eyes have rolled back into my head.

That said, many of the companies who twist and turn every element of their websites in an effort to capture that coveted top-three Google rank lose sight of something very important. Ultimately, your site will be viewed by people, many of whom are your prospective customers.

“If the copy on the site has been overstuffed with keywords, it probably won’t sound particularly coherent.”

Think I’m belaboring the obvious? What I’ve seen convinces me that far too many companies never stop to think about that simple fact. They overload the content of their site with keywords and odd phrases that they believe will stop the search engines at their online doorsteps – and often, they succeed.

But they don’t think about what happens next. The prospective customer who typed “veeblefetzers” or whatever product or service they offer into the search box has arrived at their website and will develop an impression of their company within seconds – literally, within seconds.

If the copy on the site has been overstuffed with keywords, it probably won’t sound particularly coherent. It may appear to be anything from awkward, to confusing, to (in the worst cases) completely incomprehensible.

So you’ve mastered the near-impossible task of bringing the prospect to your company’s doorstep, and now you’ve greeted her with the online equivalent of an incoherent salesperson. How long do you think she’ll view your site? How many of those labored, keyword-stuffed pages do you think she’ll drill through before she becomes convinced that you can’t communicate with her?

Don’t believe me? Then take a closer look at your analytics. How many of the people who land at your site from a search engine venture even one page deeper? What percentage arrives at your site thanks to Google or Yahoo and then simply disappears? How much time do those visitors spend with you?

Web-surfing software is called a browser with good reason. Those prospective customers come to your site to take a quick look, much as you may wander into a retail store. Before they consider doing business with your company, they want to look around to make sure you’re the right place with the right product or services. You do the same thing off-line. You’ll wander into a retailer’s place of business and look around, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the salespeople. You don’t want their employees to approach you before you’ve confirmed that you want to do business with them.

So how do you convince people to stick around and do business with you? Forget the gimmicks and focus on the reason people visit websites in the first place. They’re ultimately looking for content, not keywords. They want information. They want it well-organized, and they want it presented in ways that convince them that you know what you’re talking about.

People do business with other people, not with keywords. If your website copy sounds like your most effective salesperson at his or her best, you’ll be far more likely to turn that prospect into a customer than if your message simply spews keywords at her.

Besides, gimmicks to fool search engines work only until the programmers catch on and adapt their algorithms to ignore the gimmicks (or worse, penalize the sites that have used them). Long after each new SEO secret stops working, well-developed content will continue to create effective and lasting connections. Most important, it will ensure that your prospect’s all-important first impression is a positive one.

After all, you may be able to fool the search engines some of the time, but don’t expect those tactics to fool your prospects anytime. And that’s what really matters.