By Maureen Wall & Peter van Aartrijk Jr., CIC
Like an inviting, easy-to-spot storefront on Main Street, independent insurance agents and brokers must be visible online. Unlike popular belief, most agencies don’t need a big budget to optimize their sites for search engines. This ACT article explains search engine optimization (SEO) and provides a how-to overview.
Ten Things Agents Should Know about SEO
More and more, independent agents and brokers are encouraged to make better use of the Web to reach prospects and service customers—and that’s good advice. Three quarters of American adults use the Internet, and 81% of those use the Web to research their options before making a purchase—whether or not they plan to buy online.
But first they have to be able to find you. And that means implementing a search-engine optimization (SEO) strategy that will make it easier for them to do so. Unless your URL is incredibly simple and well known—like nike.com or apple.com—even people who know you will use a search engine to find your site, if just to get your phone number.
Think of it in a more traditional sense: You select a location for your office that isn’t hidden away, but rather easy to find. You put a sign on your office, make sure your firm is included in the office-park directory, and provide driving directions to visitors. SEO is the online equivalent of all those things, and it behooves agents and brokers to make themselves accessible to the ever-growing Web-focused community.
Essentially, an SEO strategy should elevate your firm’s placement in organic—unpaid—searches for keywords related to your business. This is done by making your site easier to find and more appealing to the search engine “spiders” or “bots” that comb the Internet for pages relevant to the keywords entered in a search. While the major search engines (including Google, MSN, Yahoo and Ask) are secretive about their methodologies for determining those placements—and those algorithms are said to change frequently—these tips should enable any agent to increase their search engine rankings.
1. The Click Is the Thing.
The most important driver in SEO is the frequency with which your site is clicked within the search results themselves. So, if in a search of car insurance and your zip code your site appears in the results and is clicked often, your ranking in that search engine will elevate. Therefore offline and other online promotions are vitally important, as familiarity of your brand will increase the likelihood of a user clicking on your URL in a list of search results.
2. Links are Key Too.
Another important driver of organic search results is the number and popularity of the other Web sites that drive traffic to your site. So, if www.XYZ.com receives visitors who link from other Web sites that are themselves popular, XYZ’s rank in an organic search will be higher. (The number of links from the XYZ site does not enter into the equation, except if those links represent reciprocal links.)
Your agency probably already enjoys strong relationships with a number of different partners and organizations, so focus on securing prominent links from their respective Web sites, e-communications and member directories. (Checked your Chamber of Commerce listing lately?) Where possible, secure links from publications in which you advertise and charities to which you donate financial or human resources. At the very least, request reciprocal links for all organizations listed on your own site. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) should be providing a report that details exactly where visitors are linking from, which will help you refine that strategy.
3. Relevant Content Matters.
So many agent sites are all about the agency, when they should be all about the customer. Consider what your customers think and worry about, and have your Web copy reflect those issues. Ask your ISP for top search terms, and make sure they are integrated into your Web copy and metatags. (See below for more on metatags).
4. Fresh Content is Vital.
Many Web experts now say that fresh content is the most important element of ongoing SEO. Their contention is that the search engines, after determining which sites have relevant information, then determine which sites have the newest relevant information. Businesses use a number of methods to refresh content on their sites, including posting newsletters, articles, press releases and white papers, or maintaining a blog. For the average independent agency, it makes sense to include a news box or “tip of the week” on the home page.
5. You Can’t Cheat on Metatags.
Another method of enhancing search-engine results is through the use of metatags and keywords. Metatags are the HTML code that provide each page’s title, description and keywords—the words that are used in your site and which the spiders can reference to index it.
Each page of your site should have its own metatags (don’t worry if there is some redundancy), and the keywords in your metatags should not be exactly the same as those in your Web copy, but generally mean the same thing. So, if you use the term Portland auto insurance in your Web site copy, then you might want to use car insurance 04101 in your keyword metatag. That way, whichever term a searcher uses, they should find you.
To see the tags on your or any other Web site, simply right-click on a Web page and click on “View Page Source.” A window will pop up with intimidating looking jargon and symbols. Look closely at the top and you’ll see <head><title> followed by a series of words that make up the assigned title for that particular page. You also should see other “meta” lines beneath it that identify “Description” and “Keywords.” The words that follow each of these are what search robots reportedly look at when indexing your site. This is a handy way of making sure your own site’s metatags are current and effective—and for finding out how your competitors are positioning themselves.
Unfortunately, some unethical marketers have “stuffed” their keyword metatags with words that are irrelevant to their site but are “hot” search words. (For example, if the sample agency above placed Tiger Woods or Lindsay Lohan in its keyword list.) At first, the search engines merely punished those offenders by dropping their search ranking or not indexing them at all. But more recently there has been concern that Google, Yahoo, et al., might not even bother with the keyword metatags any longer and instead look only at the title and description metatags. But enough Web strategists believe that keywords remain highly relevant, and since there is little cost in listing them, we recommend agents use them.
Here are some SEO guidelines to consider when considering metatags and keywords for your site pages:
• Each optimized page should have title, description and keyword metatags.
• Title metatags generally should identify the specific page and contain no more than 65 characters.
• Description metatags should not be much more than 200 characters long and should describe the specific page, not the entire site.
• Keyword metatags should be no more than 250 characters long, have comma-delimited phrases, and relate to (but not repeat) the specific content on that page or within that area.
• It is not necessary to repeat in your keywords metatag words that already appear in your title or description.
6. Pictures and Graphics Matter.
If you have any “real” pictures on your site—your staff head shots or office photo, rather than the stock photos of happy consumers—make sure to label them and give them an “alt tag.” Current bots aren’t capable of recognizing the subject of a photo or graphic itself, and they depend on the alt tag to tell them what they’re looking at.
7. Be Patient.
Unless you are hosting American Idol at your office and talking about it on your site, you probably aren’t going to generate enough buzz to push your site to the top of the search engines overnight. Think more like weeks, maybe a few months. A new Web site may even take a temporary hit in search results before it rises higher as a result of SEO. Once the bots catch up to your site, however, you should be able to monitor success monthly.
8. It’s Not ‘Once and Done.’
Remember that SEO is a shifting-sand effort. Your staff should regularly review your metatags and keywords in terms of the reports you receive from your ISP. It also helps to make changes to your products, services, marketplace and Web site content if there is new information.
9. SEO May Not be Enough.
While Web users trust organic search results more than paid results, the paid listings enjoy a higher conversion rate. And with competition from such media giants as Geico, Progressive and State Farm, you might want to consider search-engine marketing (SEM), such as a pay-per-click campaign on Google or Yahoo. Both these search engines offer tools that will give you an estimate of how much your click will cost before you start your campaign. In order to stay manageable, you can set monthly, weekly or daily budgets.
10. It’s Worth Handling Professionally.
Eyes glazing over already? Then don’t try to do this yourself. Hire a professional firm that will work with you on an integrated Web-positioning strategy that includes design, content, SEO and SEM. All SEO companies should show you a list of results for keywords they have achieved high rankings for. And if they “guarantee” you results, run—SEO is part art, part science and a bit of a dice roll. All you can do is try, measure and try again.
Maureen Wall (mwall@Aartrijk.com) is vice president of Aartrijk, a branding firm specializing in the independent agent and broker channel. Peter van Aartrijk (peter@Aartrijk.com) chairs the Agency Web Site, Search & Customer Functionality Working Group of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT), part of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. ACT’s Web site is www.independentagent.com/act. This article reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.