Almost every internet user begins their web experience in the same way – with the start-up screen of either Google, Yahoo! or MSN. These three firms control a staggering 95 percent of the internet search market, carrying out over 2.5 billion searches each day.
So it's a no brainer that for a website to survive, it must think long and hard about how to appear – and appear prominently – on these three platforms. The difference between placing first on a Google search and placing tenth – both usually displayed on the first page – can spell success or failure for a business. First place is clicked by 56 percent of searchers, compared to less than three percent for the entry six inches lower. Place on the second page and you can usually forget making any money or generating serious hits.
You can have the most advanced, user-friendly site on the web – but if nobody can find it you may as well pack up your stall. You need to make the big three work for you – which is why Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has risen to such prominence.
SEO does what it says on the tin. It guides your site to the top of search rankings. But, not unusually in the unregulated sprawling metropolis of the internet, it doesn't always play fair.
Firms specialising in SEO – and those who use them – have come in for growing criticism. While their results are often wildly successful, unscrupulous firms are boosting their clients rankings by hook or by crook, often leading to wholly irrelevant sites appearing at the top end of searches.
Invisible coding built into a site or banners too small for a mouse to scamper over mean “adult” or personal finance companies can hijack innocuous searches. Even big firms are not above the practice – Google took the drastic step of banning BMW's website in its native Germany after it exploited weaknesses in its search algorithms to boost its rating.
High profile cases like this have encouraged community groups to spring up denouncing firms who use these methods – bad publicity most websites simply cannot afford. Others have gone further, developing alternative search engines that rely on user recommendations.
But SEO need not be a dirty word – the most powerful tool in the business is the one that serves internet users best: targeted original content. Keywords will will be spotted by search engines – so if your company has content that matches searches it will generate clicks. A small-time entertainment website found its hits unexpectedly rocket after a writer misspelled the actress Tilda Swinton's name “Swindon.” In the aftermath of her Oscar win the site attracted more hits from people misspelling the name than any other search term.
The more satisfied clickers you receive, the more your site will be linked to others and the quicker your rating will improve.
The emergence of Web 2.0 – the proliferation of user generated content – has meant many people are capitalising on the power of original content. The problem is, it's not always accurate, relevant or well written. The biggest user generated site of them all, Wikipedia, attracts particular criticism. While much of its content is very good, some is less so. During the last football World Cup, England midfielder David Beckham was listed as a Chinese goalkeeper.
The solution: freelance copywriting. No amount of user generated content can compensate for quality original content – and this is increasingly being provided by freelance copywriters. From the biggest national media outlets (guardian.co.uk reaches six million unique hits a day) to the smallest periodicals, freelance copywriters are making up an ever growing percentage of content. People have never consumed as much media as they do today and a growing army of trained freelance copywriters writers have risen to meet the demand.
This demand has, however, caused difficulties within the industry. Many smaller businesses find tracking down affordable freelance copywriters difficult. Inversely, freelance copywriters quickly discover that a small pool of writers are used over and over by buyers – leaving them out in the cold.