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Revving Up

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a popular term these days, bandied about by online gurus and Web masters from here to Halifax. What it really means is simple--making sure that your Web site is liked by the major search engines, including Yahoo and MSN.. And when we talk about search engines, what we are really talking about is Google, the biggest, baddest dog on the block.

Parameters of search engine performance, or what they like and don’t like, are constantly changing. Google prides itself on keeping the proprietary algorithms they use top secret, and are constantly refining them to be more efficient. So anyone who tells you that they know what works best for the search engines, or that they can guarantee you a particular page placement, is blowing smoke.

Defining Terms

First, let’s get the basics out of the way. A search engine is an online directory that contains information on almost every Web site (imagine how many Web sites there are out there). This information is cataloged and stored on massive servers, just waiting for an online searcher (you) to come along and ask about it.

Key words are the terms used by both the search engines and the online searcher to determine which Web site to pull up from their vast library of sites, and display for you. So, type in “Bass fishing in Maine” and you will be presented with all of the Web sites that have relevance to bass fishing in Maine. Key words can also be called “search terms” for the purposes of our discussion.

Page rank, or page placement, is where your site shows up on the search engines, when your key words are typed in.

And this is the real purpose of search engine optimization--to make your site relevant to the search engines. There are several easy and cost-effective ways to do this.

Using Key Words

Establishing key words is pretty straightforward. You will probably want to target obvious ones, like “summer camp.” You can also use “summer camp,” “summer camps in the Poconos,” “sports camps,” “swim camps,” “summer sports camps in the Berkshires,” etc. The more specific the better.

Once you have a list of key words, now comes the fun part--getting them into the Web site. There are a couple of different ways to do this.

* Content optimization--This refers to the actual copy in the site describing your camp. Search engines like copy that is key word rich, and the more you can work the chosen key words into your copy, in both the text and the headings, the better your site will look to the search engines.

But don’t overdo it. Make it sound natural. Trying to cram in too many key words on a page will make it almost unreadable. A good rule of thumb is to target only one or two key words per page, instead of trying to work all of them into every page.

Also, search engines like to see a site that updates its content regularly, with new pages and copy when possible. This tells them that your site is dynamic and constantly striving to offer visitors new information. (More about this below.)

* Meta Tags--These are hidden words built into the code of the page that tell the search engines what the page is about. Once the only clue search engines had to indicate page relevance, these terms are no longer as big a part of optimization as they used to be, but it is still a good idea to keep them up to date. Ask your Web master what your meta tags are, and see if there are any you can add to this list.

* Page titles--These are the words that appear at the top of the page window when your page loads into a browser. They are also a great place to put key words. But make sure they appear as natural phrases. For instance, the text should read, “Camp Tango: the Best Summer Camp in the Poconos,” with an added phrase for each page of the site, such as “swimming,” “boating,” “baseball,” etc. Ask your Web master to make any improvements to page titles as you see fit.

Off-Site Methods: The Importance Of Links

Links back to your Web site tell the search engines that your site contains enough worthwhile information for other people to present a link to you. It means that your content is relevant and important, and the more links you have, the better your site will appear.

But it is also possible, and practical, for you to control the links back to your site.

* Blogs--We have mentioned the blog as a valuable piece of marketing in the past, but SEO is one of the biggest reasons blogs work so well. Many search engines, including Google, love regular blog posts. If you have a blog component on your camp Web site (something fairly easy to set up), you can add new content on a daily basis, with little effort. And the search engines love fresh content, as mentioned before. You can set up separate blogs from the camp director, from the counselors, even from the campers themselves, all of which will feed the search engines what they want--clean, fresh, relevant content, on a regular basis.

If you go with an off-site blog, like Google’s Blogger program, you can include links to your camp’s main Web site. And links are very important to your SEO.

* Article marketing--Another way to build up links to your camp’s site is with article marketing. What is article marketing? Well, as we all know, content is king on the Web. There are sites online, such as EzineArticles.com, that specialize as a clearing house for articles on all kinds of subjects, that people can then upload to their site or newsletter or blog feed, and distribute to others. When you write an article for one of these distribution sites (they accept articles on dozens of different topics), you include a signature line at the end with your name, the name of your camp and camp Web site, providing a link to your site. The more articles you write, the more links. And when one of your articles is picked up by a blog or newsletter, your link is included with that as well. It is also a great way to establish you and your camp as the experts in the world of summer camps.

* Social Web sites--You can have your very own presence on MySpace.com, and let everyone know about your camp through these popular Web phenomena. MySpace is essentially a site for younger people, so I suggest asking one of your regular counselors to keep a MySpace page about your camp. And update it regularly. This is a great way to reach a younger audience, and you can build in links to your camp’s Web site from your page.

Squidoo.com is also a networking site, but it is designed for businesses and other entities that want to publicize themselves, and build links to their Web sites. On Squidoo, you can build a “lens,” which is essentially a mini-site for your camp. You can include any information you think is relevant for your camp.

* Online press releases--Every time your camp does something of note--whether you’ve installed a new water feature or are introducing computer science into your camp’s program--send out an electronic press release. These releases can travel the Web quickly, and can be picked up by a variety of different sources, all increasing links to your camp’s site, as well as providing valuable publicity for your camp.

So, there you have it--SEO marketing in a nutshell. SEO does not have to be complicated or confusing. You don’t really need to be a Web guru or a computer expert to make SEO work for you. While there is no way to determine exactly how effective this process will be to your site, if you implement these steps incrementally over a year, you are bound to see some improvements to how your Web site is perceived by the search engines.

Tim Diering is the vice president of marketing at Summer Camp Design, a full-service marketing and design firm dedicated to creating cost-effective marketing and design solutions for summer camps. He can be reached at (800) 957-7175, via e-mail at tim@summercampdesign.com or visit

www.summercampdesign.com.

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