Editor’s note: WRAL Local Tech Wire has added another feature with the launch of the "Innovation Exchange." Noah Garrett, former executive director of communications for the North Carolina Technology Association, is a creative spirit, from writing music to news stories, who recently launched his own communications and consulting firm. The focus of the Innovation Exchange is just that – creating a Web community through which people can exchange ideas and foster creativity.

Participate in the Exchange. Send ideas and feedback to: noah@thinkngc.com

Everyone knows how important it is to be found on the Internet. But not everyone understands what it takes to be found.

This year marks the beginning of the second decade of marketers’ determined efforts to acquire, retain and grow customers through search engine channels. And, while some areas are maturing, innovations in the search marketing arena continue at breakneck speed. But, is it worth it?

First of all, what is SEO? Search Engine Optimization is the effective utilization of search engines to draw traffic to your Website. Whether you consider it a science, an art – or a combination of both, SEO is an ongoing, continuously evolving, high-maintenance process that includes customization of your Website for better search engine ranking.

It is mostly technical in nature, combining programming with business, persuasion, sales, marketing, and a love for competitive puzzle solving in a written form. However, it is not just technical; it is not copywriting, proper links and source code; not just search engine submission, but an intricate blend of more than 100 variables into the matrix of a Website.

It is difficult, indeed, because every search engine is different without a set of proven methodologies or "trade secrets." It is a lot of trial and error, research, monitoring industry trends (especially your immediate competitors) and time. Some of the key trends that will shape search marketing this year will be the rise of universal search, the growth of international search marketing campaigns as well as innovative developments in the paid search and natural search landscapes. (We can’t go into detail on these specific search types; we’ll talk about them in future columns. In the meantime, Google each yourself if you haven’t already. Education doesn’t hurt.)

Many companies still are under-investing in SEO, and there are several reasons for their reluctance. SEO often involves site-side technical changes that clients are unable to implement due to resource constraints. Additionally, SEO is not as predictable or measurable as other forms of online marketing. Thus, the investment in SEO is taken on with some risk, and results are not always certain.

Return on Investment

So, how does SEO return value on investment?

Think of it this way, the top two priorities that every business has for its Website are: One, being found on the Web, and two, turning visitors into customers. Without high rankings, how can anyone find you without directly typing in your URL? And, once they are on your site, does your content engage the end user? So, does SEO affect your business and your bottom line? ABSOLUTELY!

In the early days (mid-90s), SEO was primarily about getting listed in the search engines and the requirements for ranking well were simple and easily abused by spammers as a result. Toward the latter part of the decade, it became more important to be found in human-edited directories and search engines put more emphases on off-page factors to combat spammers and improve relevancy.

It used to be easy to "trick" search engines, but those days are over. Search engines have won the war against keyword spamming through innovative algorithms that can recognize meaning and relevance. Search engines now look for "authority" sites.

As search engines have become more sophisticated, SEO professionals have evolved as well and must master a number of additional skills including data mining, statistics and semantic analysis. Also important to the task of SEO are keyphrase and behavioral research, Website and Web traffic analytics to measure results, and watching the trends and changes in search engine technologies.

Key Trends: Personalization, Social Media

The Innovation Exchange caught up with Scott Young, sales and marketing director at PointMetrix in Raleigh to elaborate more on the SEO space and what his company is doing. He said one of the distinctions of PointMetrix is the depth of analysis and research undertaken behind the decisions and actions for optimizing pages for high visibility in the search engines. Added Young, "Our research and competitive intelligence means less guesswork, significantly less trial and error and quicker results. It is a more scientific approach to SEO."

We also discussed SEO’s future. Young and I both see that the near future will be concerned with responding to the challenges and seizing the opportunities presented by the personalization of search and by the increasing popularity of social media. More sophistication will be used in the area of Web analytics as well as merchants seeking to leverage all the benefits of behavioral targeting. Further in the future, Young said he believes SEO professionals will be putting more effort into mobile marketing as consumers both search and buy items using various mobile devices.

As more services and products via numerous forms of media come about, SEO professionals will have to keep up with these new technologies and channels to discover new ways to optimize visibility and traffic for their clients. But, before you dive into your Website’s Titles, Keywords, Meta Tags, Frames, Flash, JavaScript, or anything else associated with the backend, remember the single most important factor to building traffic on your Website is what everyone else sees.

Every trick in the book is no substitute for robust content; brilliant content is what everyone wants: you, your customers, and the search engines. Feed those spiders HTML!