Should you care about Search Engine Optimization? Only if you’re trying to grow your business, local experts say

Guido Goldkuhle believed in his custom glass leaded doors and imagined the customers who would appreciate their uniqueness as much as he did. The quality of his doors he was sure of; there was, however, the challenge of connecting buyers to his product.

"Would anyone buy a leaded glass door over the Internet?" wondered Goldkuhle, of Traverse City, whose business Kuhl Doors is an online-only operation. "I'm not a low-end product."

Like any smart business person starting out, Goldkuhle did his research. He soon realized the importance of search engine optimization, or SEO, which he says has made all the difference.

"It's a big part of how I market my business and how I go about selling," he said. "Fifty to 70 percent of my business is coming through SEO. You can see the results."

If you have a web site for your business, or are contemplating building one, you've likely heard about "SEO," a definite buzzword, say local web experts. E-stores and brick-and-mortar businesses alike can benefit from search engine optimization, and a good number of local providers offer this service.

"It's a term that's very en vogue right now," said Chris Girard, search engine optimization specialist for BrightBridge Studios, a Traverse City firm specializing in custom, web-based applications, web sites and marketing.

"In the last four years," said Jon Roth, BrightBridge Studios' technical director, "we've seen a constant rise in the number of people who have contacted us and are aware of SEO and consider it an important part of their project. People are trying to leverage the web more."

Simply put, search engine optimization is about attracting the most appropriate people to your web site more often from search engines through "algorithmic" search results. Typically, the earlier a site is presented in the search results, or the higher it "ranks," the more searchers will visit that site. SEO can also target different kinds of search, including image search, local search, and industry-specific vertical search engines.

"Search Engine Optimization can help your website better perform in search engines and allow you to target everyone as a potential client, instead of one particular demographic," said Cory Ellis, owner and senior developer for RareSeven Design, a web firm focusing on all aspects of design and SEO. "If you can address all the people on the Internet instead of one demographic for the same price, the choice is rather simple."

Industry experts say defining honest, relevant keywords – the specific words you know potential customers would use to search for your business – is critical to successful SEO.

"It's coming down to, you have to be dead solid honest. You can't trick the search engines," Roth said.

It requires really knowing your customers or audience, said Lisa Wehr, CEO of digital marketing agency Oneupweb.

"You've got top look at your web site through their eyes," said Wehr, whose company specializes in search engine optimization and search engine marketing, working with clients throughout the country and globally.

From there, it's a matter of creating relevant content for your site that reflects those keywords potential buyers will use through search engines. Doing so will drive quality visitors to your site, or in other words, truly optimize your online presence.

"If you're going to build a web site, the optimization should be considered just as important as the words and pictures on the page," Wehr said.

Still, for all its benefits, SEO remains somewhat of an overlooked aspect of building a web site, Roth said.

"It's one of those things that is fairly well under the hood as far as impact and visibility," he said. "A lot of people think of design and what (their site) will look like. Also, SEO is an expense."

Goldkuhle, who worked with Oneupweb to optimize his site, acknowledged the upfront expense, which isn't easy to swallow as a business owner. Wehr also said she realizes that potential costs of SEO can be daunting.

Working with Oneupweb on SEO, for example, carries a cost anywhere from $5,000 for consulting to well into the six figures for businesses in "competitive spaces." These would include big-box stores, mortgage companies and financial services, Wehr said.

"It's pretty costly for a small company to absorb and it's one of those types of services you're really not sure what the payoff is going to be. You just hear it's something you should do," she said. But working with those known for their search engine optimization expertise can ultimately boost your bottom line, she said.

"We know that depending upon the space, they are going to see anywhere from 3 to 1,000 times ROI (return on investment)," Wehr said. "That's common."

What's critical, experts said, is working with a reputable SEO provider.

"When looking for an SEO company, don't ask for references or testimonials or even proof from current clients – demand it," Ellis said.. "If they can't provide you with that for any reason, keep looking."

Goldkuhle, who also stressed the importance of researching SEO and potential service providers, is convinced of the power behind SEO.

"It's exciting," he said. "You open up a much bigger market. I'm really working out of my garage on leaded glass doors. (Without SEO) there's no other way I could do that."