First things first: Is your firm ready to be found online?

For firms that have yet to build an adequate online presence, search-engine optimization is a secondary concern.

"Firms need to make sure they don't jump to the 400-level class of optimization before taking the 100-level class," advised Stephen Brunson, managing director at accounting and CPA firm-focused public relations agency Catalyst CPA Marketing Solutions in Indianapolis. "I've had to back up firms and say, 'Based on what you're telling me about your image and the services you promote, I don't know if you want people to find your Web site in the state it's in.'"

Because search-engine optimization is about organically increasing the visibility of Web pages in search-engine results, firms' URLs should lead to a professional, well-mapped and informational Web site before management worries about increasing traffic via page ranks on Google.



Firms that have passed that introductory class can now focus on "improving and increasing image," according to Brunson. "That's less tangible; hard to put a number on that, but it's someone doing a geographic search in your area. There's value from the brand standpoint, when you're first or second for the most common geographical searches. It gives credibility to your firm."

These geographically based searches, typically involving more general terms like "auditor" paired with a more specific location like "California" or "Los Angeles," benefit regional firms. And while larger firms will need to more heavily promote service areas over geography, smaller firms can also benefit from the specificity required of them.

"Bigger firms investing in their brand want to be seen as leaders in service areas; there's significant value for that, an ROI on that type of thing," Brunson explained.

The higher a firm lands on a search results page, the larger its perceived authority, and the more clicks to its Web site. Whether a firm is large, small or midsized, keywords are the secret to firms climbing the ranks.

"SEO and keyword strategy is a combination of art and science," said Alan Vitberg, owner of VitbergLLC, a marketing agency for B2B and professional services firms. "There is no one set formula for it. It takes a combination of different skills and testing and research to develop a list of 20 to 30 keywords or phrases to start to integrate and build into the Web site and Web site strategy."

In devising this list of appropriate keywords, firms should remember to focus on relevance, said Darryl Peddle, SEO guru at online invoicing Software-as-a-Service provider FreshBooks, and former head of SEO for both Yahoo! and Star Media Group.

"When someone does a search and finds a page on your site, that page should provide a specific answer to their query," he explained. "The key is being able understand exactly who your ideal customer is and optimizing each page of your site according to what that customer needs."

Peddle recommended Google's free AdWords tool (see 'SEO sleuth, at right') and paid services like Wordtracker, which help users find the keywords that people are actually searching.

In addition to those tools, Vitberg also uses inbound marketing software HubSpot during this all-important keyword brainstorming.

"We're working with a pretty big firm right now and for the first round of thinking, we came up with over 900 keywords," Vitberg said. "Now we need to get down and narrow it down to 20 or 25. It takes a while - it's a process. We look at the metrics, and can get a picture of how many people are actually searching on that term, how difficult it is to rank on the first page for that term. We always start winnowing stuff down."

This stage of elimination should not be underestimated. "Firms need to understand the traffic they will get from each term, specific terms," said Brunson. "There's a different set of terms to optimize on if firms are looking to do 1040 work. Higher-level firms with niche expertise don't want phones ringing off the hook looking for [tax preparation] services or that type of price. Firms don't necessarily know the terms they should optimize on. What type of visitors are you going to bring in? If it's not the type you want, it's not necessarily a quality lead."

Once a firm agrees on the best list of keywords to drive up their standing on search result pages, they need to make sure that the words that come up on those Google, Bing or other search-engine pages are attractive enough for that final push to make prospective clients click.

Firms should start by optimizing the meta title and description for every page on the Web site, according to Peddle, because the title is the clickable headline in the Google SEO listing and the description is the supporting ad copy. "Make them relevant," he advised. "Make them compelling."

Peddle also stressed that the firm's URL - the "http" Web site address - should also be relevant, as well as "simple and straightforward."



Once this concise copy has compelled Web surfers to click through to the firm's site, they will find a keyword-rich environment - but hopefully not explicitly.

This onsite optimization - the placement of those listed keywords that drive up standings in search results - should not be exceedingly obvious.

"I'm a firm believer, at our firm, that we want content to be keyword-rich without the person reading the content to realize it's SEO content," said Brunson. "You want it to read naturally. You can overdo it, but there's no reason to overdo it for accounting firms. Some firms make the mistake of being so heavy on keywords that it reads very unnaturally. What's [the reader's] reaction going to be - positive? That you're qualified to serve me?"

Not only would unprofessional-sounding sentences like, "Kansas City-based accounting firm X provides accounting services to Kansas City clients looking for professional accounting services" turn away potential clients, this tactic - known as "keyword stuffing"- could get you in trouble with search engines, and lead to a drop in ranking.

"If you know you want to use a keyword in a title, maybe you're only going to use that exact phrase once in the body," said Vitberg. "It's always a matter of being sensitive to the rules of the road from search engines."

Peddle agreed: "Be natural and professional in your copy writing. Sprinkle in keyword variations and synonyms. Each page on your site should speak to the specific needs of your prospects naturally. It is not about spamming the search engines with excessive repetition of keywords."

One critical fixture on a firm's site that should be natural but is too often forgotten or hidden is contact information.

"Once you push someone to the site, is it effectively built to capture leads?" Brunson asked. "If there's a lot of information, but it doesn't prompt someone to contact us or promote services as much as it's informational. ... It should have the right content, brand and image - it's lead-generation strategies. When they get there, what is presented to push them toward taking action?"



A firm's blog is one natural place for keywords to reside. There, content is more fluid and can attract an audience looking for timely advisement or opinions.

"If we take a phrase that seems to be popular, as the metrics show me, I think I'm going to write a blog post about that," mused Vitberg. "It's an opportunity - or a mistake, if you're not paying attention to metrics and capitalizing on the insights that SEO metrics give you."

Brunson shared an example of a small-firm client in Indiana. Last year, the state attorney general erroneously sent out notices to 5,000 businesses stating they didn't file a zero-balance return for unclaimed property and owed $6,000. When these companies went online and typed in the topical search terms, hundreds found this firm's Web site through the pertinent blog post.

"You want timely, relevant information in your locality, or nationally, to be relevant in a specific niche area," Brunson explained. "It's the way to have a dynamic site, the use of a blog or news updates. And search engines put a lot of value on sites that have timely, relevant and unique content. Updating three to four times a week, the search engine will say, 'This has value.'"



Also adding value into the search-engine algorithm is authority, as demonstrated by the links that a firm's site receives from other sites around the Web. Blogging is helpful here, and is especially advantageous when it's done by an expert.

"The best links come from key influencers in your market," said FreshBooks' Peddle. "The more you can connect with these influencers and get them to link to you, the better your SEO success will be."

Some ideas he recommends: guest blog posts, how-to articles, tax tips, product or service reviews, distributing online tools like calculators, and sponsoring or speaking at industry events.

As significant as the links' locations is the text within them, noted Peddle. Google places high importance on this text - the "anchor text" - meaning, "a link from a page that says, 'Click here' has less power and relevancy than a link that says, 'New York's best accounting firm.'"

According to Brunson, this is something "nobody does in the industry but by far has the most bang for your buck. It's a mistake; you might have offsite links, but in many cases not anchored links. There should be best practices in place to make sure the site is doing this correctly. Small firms can do a link-building campaign and that adds a whole lot of value quickly. Have a third party go out and get anchor links on other domains - but you have to be careful. You don't want your name associated with spam on a blog post."

Firms can discover who is linking to them or their competitors through or



Once firms have put in the work to get found, they should track subsequent mentions and business generated, said Peddle.

He recommends that firms find online conversations about them through Google Alerts and The conversion rate of their SEO and keyword strategy can be found with Google Analytics.

Throughout these efforts, firms should remember that SEO is "just one part of marketing and business development," said Brunson. "Firms need to walk before they run ... and understand the value of SEO. It's not going to close a big project for you, you're not selling T-shirts online, and it's not a sales tool or a vehicle by which to make sales. It augments and supports business development, and gives you leads."




Play SEO sleuth. Here are a few sites for if you want to ......

find keywords people are searching on Google: select/keywordtoolexternal


... see who is linking to you or your competitors:


... see who is talking about you or your competitors:


... see the online keywords and ads competitors have purchased:

Compiled with the help of FreshBooks SEO guru Darryl Peddle

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