SMEs can improve their earnings with search-engine optimisation.
In the News: Searching for the perfect Google string
The founder of Sekari says companies, particularly SMEs, must invest in search-engine optimisation to improve their revenue-earning potential via the internet. Alice Haine reports
It's 7.30am and members of the British Business Group (BBG) are learning how to outrank a competitor online by improving their website's search-engine ranking.
The early morning seminar at The Address hotel in Dubai Mall is surprisingly well attended by small-to-medium business heads and corporate marketers. The reason why is simple: whenever any of us want to find out anything, we simply "Google it" by typing in a couple of keywords.
Those keywords bring up a list of results and it's where a business appears on that list that counts.
Get your website on the first page of that search and you have a very good chance of having your link clicked onto - the top link receives a 42.4 per cent hit rate, the second listing 11.8 per cent and the third 8.4 per cent.
"How to get found on Google is relevant to businesses big or small. You want people to find you before they find your competitors," says Robert Mitchell, the founder of the creative agency The Tribe and also the focus marketing chair for the BBG.
"We're all using a lot more digital marketing these days, whether we're tweeting or on Facebook and everyone's got a pretty reasonable website, but search is increasingly playing a far more important role and people are beginning to recognise that."
How to get to the top of the rankings is a little trickier than it sounds. Although companies can take simple steps such as building links into their website or including search-friendly keywords on their home page, invariably they need to hire the services of a search-engine optimisation (SEO) company.
SEO experts optimise online content by including relevant and searchable keywords and clickable links throughout a company's site - such as "chocolate doughnuts" for a bakery or "boutique hotel Dubai" for a small hotel - to ensure a business comes up first in a web search.
Lee Mancini, the founder of Sekari - an agency that focuses solely on SEO - and the man leading the BBG session, says companies need to think about SEO before they even consider launching a website.
"There's no point building the shopfront if you haven't thought about where that shopfront is going to be and how you are going to get people through the door," says Mr Mancini.
"SEO needs to be considered right from the concept stage. People search for the things that you provide as a business, so it's the easiest and the most cost-effective way to put yourself in front of potential customers and, in turn, increase your revenues."
But for companies, particularly SMEs, investing in SEO can seem an expensive process that appears to yield little tangible results.
The service can cost from Dh5,000 a month plus Dh15,000 for start-up costs to hundreds of thousands of dirhams depending on the level of ranking they want to achieve. Getting a top ranking on google.ae, for instance, would cost far less than trying to achieve a top ranking on google.com. Similarly, rating highly for your Chinese content is harder to achieve than for Arabic content.
And the process does not guarantee instant results. Experts say it takes at least six months before a company can convert the increase in website traffic to an increase in revenue.
"We tell companies up front what it's going to take," says Mr Mancini. "On average, they should not expect any serious tangible results for the first six months and need to budget for this for a year.
"The kind of money we are talking about is far less than a one-page ad in a newspaper yet the audiences are bigger, they are more likely to convert, you are more likely to be able to track them and the return on that investment proportionately increases over time. It's a very small amount to spend at the initial stages because there's so much to gain out of it further down the line."
Mr Mancini launched Sekari in 2009 and now has partners in 15 offices around the world, as well as staff based in Singapore to help meet the increasing demand for his services.
"Two or three years ago, companies in the UAE weren't interested in marketing themselves online because people were just coming through the door. But they are having to work a lot harder because there is more competition and less business, so things have justified and for the better. The big problem we have is the value proposition - trying to get across the value of what we do is our biggest challenge."
But Mr Mancini says there are simple ways to measure how effective SEO can be, such as putting a different telephone number on the website to measure the response rate.
For The Tribe's Mr Mitchell, the SEO seminar was the wake-up call he needed to invest more into his company's web strategy.
"Historically, our business has been very much driven by word of mouth, reputation and referral," says Mr Mitchell, who has 30 employees in his Dubai office and a further 20 based in Bangalore, India, and has already hired the services of an SEO company.
"But these days, people trust Google for all those things. The seminar taught me the importance that needs to be placed on link building to other sites that have the ability to increase your own ranking.
"We're not as visible as we should be. If people search for 'advertising agency', we hope to come up but I don't think we do yet.
"If you type 'The Tribe Dubai', we are number one. But next for us is to be number one for advertising agency, branding agency or digital agency. We should want to own each one of those terms."
Although Mr Mitchell is making a concerted effort to boost his company's online ranking, many firms in the UAE are slow to catch onto the need for SEO or even SMO - social-media optimisation.
Social media also plays an important role in how search engines rank websites, with each tweet on Twitter, update on a Facebook fan page or video posted on YouTube offering more links back to your website. The need for companies to not only have a website, but also a social-media presence has never been higher.
Angela Heys, the founder of Ezi Pezi Online, specialises in managing social-media platforms for small companies and says many of her clients have been slow to realise the importance of being online.
"I have a spa client that didn't even have a website," she says. "We launched their website and social-media campaign with competitions and ads and now they are fully booked as a result of their internet marketing strategies. Over Eid, they introduced henna and didn't think they would get any takings. We ran a Facebook ad for them, put it through their Twitter account and talked about it on YouTube and they had a line of people waiting."
Ms Heys works with individuals and SMEs who want to create a social-media presence - charging Dh1,000 a month for a basic package.
"Social media has to be consistent," says Ms Heys, who is from the UK and set up her company six months ago. "You can't post something on a Monday, leave it and then post again a week later - it just doesn't work. It has to be on a consistent basis and it has to keep going. It takes time and this is what clients don't understand. They want to invest a certain amount and get a return on investment overnight, but it takes a lot of work to get results.
"Five years ago, there was no social media - five years from now, if you have no social media you will have no business and I think that pretty much sums up how important it is."