On the internet, search engines rule. Most of us typically seek new information via Google or Microsoft' Corp.'s Bing - and we rely heavily on the first page of results, rarely clicking through to the second. That's why ranking highly in the search results is important for businesses, and financial advisors' practices are no exception.

Although advisors strive for word-of-mouth business, those who ignore the potential clients who are searching for financial advice online could be missing out. Having a well-designed website is only part of the story. Search engine optimization (SEO) will help you get noticed by search engines and rank you higher in their results.

Today's search engines are different from those of 20 years ago. In the 1990s, you would get your website noticed by submitting its address directly to a search engine. In 1997, there were only 1.2 million websites to track. Today, there are almost two billion. Now, the only way to get noticed by a search engine is to groom your website appropriately and wait for it to be found and judged.

All search engines have their own algorithms for evaluating websites, and those algorithms morph on a regular basis. Google, which accounts for 92% of search engine market share, clearly is the one to watch. Here are some tricks that you can use to get your website on Google's radar:

- TECHNICAL TIPS

First are the purely technical tips that can help Google find your content in the first place:

- Index it. Google "crawls" through the Internet looking for new content. Help the search engine find all of yours by providing a map of your website in a language called XML. Tools such as www.XML-Sitemaps.com can do this for you.

- Link it. Google's crawlers find your content by following links between web pages, so ensure that all pages on your website have links from other pages on the website.

- Make it accessible. Don't hide your content behind web forms because the search engine's robots can't fill those out and won't be able to read them.

>- BE CAREFUL WITH KEYWORDS

You want your content to turn up when users search for relevant terms, but making this happen is a tricky business. Use a tool such as Google's Keyword Planner to research the likely terms that users might search for when looking for your particular flavour of financial advice. Use those keywords and phrases judiciously on your website. This will help Google list your website when people search by using those terms.

Different keywords will attract varying levels of competition from other websites also trying to rank in search engines. Popular, generic keywords such as "financial advice" will garner lots of competition. That term receives up to 10,000 searches a month, typically from people not in your town. Your website would have to work very hard to rank highly for that search term, and the percentage of relevant traffic you get from it would be relatively low.

Go for more precise, niche keywords that might reflect search queries from your specific prospects, such as "estate planning in Fredericton"; "how do I manage my RRSP in B.C."; or "index investment expert in Chilliwack."

These are known as "long tail" keywords. They generate fewer monthly searches, but those searches are from the people you want to meet. You will find ranking highly in search results easier when you use long-tail terms, because these terms have less competition.

In the early days of searching online, keywords were everything. A website would use a keyword liberally throughout its content so that search engines would understand the website's focus. These days, Google's algorithm is smarter. It will penalize your website in search rankings if you stuff your content with keywords at the expense of quality.

That doesn't make keywords irrelevant. You just need to be smarter about it. You can put keywords in strategically important spots, such as in the title field of your web page or blog post, the "alt-text" field of any images you use and perhaps a couple of times in the website's text where doing so makes sense. You also can use similar terms to flesh out your content. Google's software understands this.

Keywords alone won't put your website at the top of the search engine rankings. Follow Google's advice and make your website's content as informative, well written and readable as possible. The search engine's ranking algorithms are getting better at distinguishing content that human readers will like, making quality an increasingly important part of the picture.

You also can improve your ranking with a feature that's little known outside specialist SEO companies: "rich snippets." This strategy involves using extra tags around key pieces of content in the HTML code that makes up your web page. Used properly, this strategy can encourage Google to display extra information about content elements such as video, descriptions of people or a description of your practice. Employing this feature may not boost your search ranking, but rich snippets will draw users' eyes to your listing in the search engine's result.

- LINK AND PROMOTE

Once you have published high-quality and well-structured content that's easy to find, you must promote it. PageRank, the algorithm that Google uses to rank pages, was built on the idea of link popularity. If lots of other websites have hyperlinks to your web pages, then this algorithm will promote your website in its search results.

Google has since refined its approach and now penalizes pages if they receive links from untrustworthy or "spammy" websites or websites that charge for links. Nevertheless, link popularity still plays a role.

Try to get links from high-quality, appropriate websites that are relevant to your financial advisory content. Topic-specific and local websites are good; links from the editorial section of your local newspaper is a good example.

- TRACK YOUR RESULTS

The final and oft-overlooked piece of SEO advice is to monitor the results of your efforts to improve your SEO. Use tools such as Google Analytics to find out where the traffic on your website is coming from. Traffic from search engines should rise over time, and you also should keep track of which specific search queries visitors are using to find you. This information will help you refine your keyword targeting and SEO techniques over time. Analyze underperforming keywords or pages on your website so you can improve them.

There's one thing we know for sure about SEO: using unethical techniques, commonly known as "black hat" SEO, is not a good idea. Attempts to "game" the system with misleading tricks such as keyword stuffing may deliver short-term gains, but your website ultimately will lose traffic in the long term.

Keep the SEO for your advisor website ethical by maintaining your content quality. And when it comes to working with search engines, follow their rules. This will help your website rise to that treasured position at the top of the search engine rankings so you can enjoy the visits from the prospective clients with whom you want to work.

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