Search is an amazing mechanism for gaining customers. You can do all kinds of advertising — newspapers, billboards, TV ads — but those take a scatter approach. Not everyone who sees the ads are interested in what you’ve got to say, but you hope to engage someone who is. With search, searchers are typing in EXACTLY what they are looking for, so you know exactly what they are interested in. For instance, when someone searches for “Seattle real estate agent” — it’s pretty clear they in a mindset to choose an agent. Read: it’s VERY valuable if you appear on that search.

I’ve spoken at two conferences in the last month about ways to make your site more search-engine friendly, and while one talk was aimed at bloggers and the other was aimed at web 2.0 sites, many of the principles apply to any site.

At Search Engine Strategies last week, I talked about how it’s OK to launch a site that’s not 100% perfect from search engine optimization (SEO) standards, as long as you built the site to be flexible so you could enhance the site later. At BlogHer last month, I talked about the power of search and how using a few key concepts can make all the difference in getting new visitors to your site. I blogged the details of each session on my blog:

Here’s a quick summary of what I covered.

Why is search important?
Search is reverse advertising. Potential visitors to your site are broadcasting exactly what they are looking for. And with 8 billion searches a month, some of those searchers are looking for you.

How can you make sure you’re found by searchers?
The search engines want to provide the most relevant, useful results possible, so simply make sure your site delivers that. It’s as easy as that.

But wait. That’s easier said than done.
It is indeed, which is why the search engine optimization industry exists and can be so helpful. In my blog series “the power of search”, I talk about three main components of SEO:

  • Discoverability: do search engines know your pages exist? Ways to make sure they do include:
    • having an HTML sitemap on your site that lists the major sections of the site
    • ensuring your navigational links are in HTML (rather than in Javascript or Flash)
    • getting links from relevant sites
  • Relevance: what searches do you want your site to be found for and does your site include high-quality content about those topics? Things to look for include:
    • Are you using the same terms as your potential visitors? Keyword research will tip you off to times when you might be talking about “houses for sale” but searchers are looking for “real estate”.
    • Are you providing high-quality, unique content? Check the other sites that rank well for the terms you care about and ensure your site stands apart from them and provides something compelling.
    • Do you have descriptive headings and titles (including what appears in the title tags of the pages)?
  • Crawlability: can search engines access your pages. If they can’t access them, they can’t index them. Things that prevent indexing include:
    • Accidental blocking with a robots.txt file or robots meta tag
    • Server issues such as timeouts
    • Non-textual content (such as content in Flash, images, javascript, or video)

What about web 2.0?
Lots of shiny new capabilities exist that can spiff up a site; just make sure that they’re working for you and not against you.

  • Search engines can’t read Ajax, so if you use it, put the same content in noscript tags. Don’t put everything in Flash. Not only can search engines not access it, but visitors can’t bookmark individual pages or send individual links.
  • If you use web 2.0 buzzwords, make sure you use the old-fashioned words that searchers will be using on the page as well.
  • If you don’t have time to fully optimize the site for search when you initially launch, just make sure your site infrastructure is flexible enough to allow easy modifications later of things like title tags, meta tags, image alt text, and content.

Primarily, you should build your real estate site for your visitors. But, if you keep in mind general SEO principles, you can connect with a potentially much larger audience by way of search.