Set Your Search Engine Marketing Preferences (1,596 words)
By Brian Howard
Search and deploy.
Just ten years ago, who had ever heard of a search engine? Now search engines are vital links between ready-to-buy Web surfers and Web sites seeking traffic.
A mitigating factor in the dot-com crash was the fact that the concept of display advertising (randomly placed banner ads) was too unreliable as a means of driving traffic and leads to a Web site. Mere clicks and hits are meaningless without some sort of inherent intent to buy.
Search engines have become the Internet's robotic lead-qualifiers, matching interested buyers with willing sellers.
But getting your site listed on a search engine—and more important, getting listed in a high-visibility position—is not as simple as point and click.
There are numerous strategies for getting listed on search engines, and the best plan is to incorporate all of them into your search engine marketing mix.
But before we get into that, a clarification: There's a common misconception about what, exactly, a search engine is.
Ask around the office about favorite search engines, and you'll get answers such as Google, Yahoo!, MSN or About. Your co-workers would be right in regard to Google—perhaps the only engine people routinely "go" to for results—and wrong about the rest. Yahoo! and its ilk are portals that import their search results from various affiliated engines.
Along with Google, big search engines like Overture, FindWhat and Inktomi, and smaller engines like SearchFeed, Sprinks, Kanoodle and Xuppa are populating the search results of portals and affiliates.
While search engines are associated with spiders—algorithms that crawl the Web and bring back results based on things such as relevancy, link popularity and content—the industry is moving toward pay-per-click and pay-for-performance models that, while inherently pricier, can pay off for those who use them wisely.
Sites that employ spiders are searching for certain qualities when performing a search. For example, when a surfer goes to Google.com and types "bowling balls," Google's algorithm will return pages that best match the search criteria.
The algorithm will analyze things like keyword density (i.e., if the search word(s) makes up a percentage range of the page's text that would indicate a relevant, non-spam entry) and link popularity (how many sites point to your site, and how many sites point to those sites, and so on) to return the most statistically relevant sites.
So it makes sense to design an e-commerce site with spiders in mind. This process is called search engine optimization (SEO). Since there is no cost associated with being "crawled," a site optimized to rank highly on engines like Google and Inktomi can be very cost effective.
"The search engines will reward you for being informative," explains Stephen Gorgey, president of Target Logics, a Glendale, CA-based online marketing firm. "A lot of people will lose sight [of the goal]. They'll say, 'Well, I just want to sell my product.' But in order to be ranked by search engines, you have to provide a service to the surfer."
There are, however, several drawbacks of SEO. First off—and unlike pay-for-performance models which will be discussed later—because of the nature of the algorithms, there can be a lag-time between when your site is optimized and when your traffic jumps.
Also, there is no way to guarantee that SEO will increase traffic. Part of the reason is that engines that employ spiders will periodically change their algorithms to enhance performance or to thwart Web sites that have figured out ways to artificially inflate their rankings.
A recent Wall Street Journal article recounts the story of Joy Holman, whose site, exoticleatherwear.com, plummeted in the Google's rankings overnight—and right before the busy holiday season—due, ostensibly, to a change in the search engine's algorithm. Holman's site had been designed using a technique of placing "hidden" words on the site—terms displayed in the same color as the background—to trick the spider.
"Search engines have found that a lot of people were doing it," explains Gorgey. "[So] they designed algorithms to actually check if there is any material written in same color as the background. If that's the case, you're spam, and you're black-holed."
So SEO has its drawbacks. But if undertaken with respect for the fact that search engines are trusted by consumers precisely because they are relevant, SEO can be a valuable part of your search marketing mix.
Pay For Play
The search industry is moving toward pay models as companies are seeking a more projectable ROI. While the algorithm method is unlikely to go away, engines like Overture, FindWhat, Sprinks, Inktomi and others offer various paid options that remove some of the guesswork from the process. (Even Google offers paid results.)
"The main focus needs to be in keyword management," says Stuart Larkins, vice president, partner services, for Performics, a Chicago-based performance-based online marketing services company.
Companies buy or bid on keywords with various search engines. So if your company sells, say, hockey equipment, you'll want your site to be listed when a surfer types "goalie masks" or "waffle pad" into a search engine.
There are several ways to go about this. There are paid-placement models and paid-inclusion models.
Paid-placement is similar to banner advertising in that when your company buys placement, it's basically paying for its link to be called up each time a specific keyword is typed.
The advantage with paid-placement is "you only pay when we perform, when someone clicks through to your site," explains Karen Yagnesak, director of marketing and communications at FindWhat. You bid a certain amount per click (the higher you bid, the higher you appear in search results) and that's the amount you pay for each clickthrough.
Overture, FindWhat and Sprinks are among the biggest players in this market, providing sponsored results to their extensive distribution networks. Google has added sponsored links to its results as well. There also are many other engines, such as SearchFeed, ePilot and Kanoodle, providing results to the thousands of companies on the Web offering on-site search functions.
So what are the pros and cons involved in choosing between a big site and a smaller site? It comes down to traffic and cost.
"The big search engines have the traffic, the small ones don't," says Larkins. "You see the conversions and your ROI change dramatically from search engine to search engine. It's not a specific science that search works the same everywhere."
The bigger engines tend to cost more per keyword, however, which can mean a good deal to a smaller company that might not be able to outbid larger competitors. So while a smaller engine might not deliver the traffic a large engine does, a smaller engine can provide more targeted and cost-efficient traffic.
"We go out and find vertical-type, or regional search portals, or even larger search portals that have existing traffic in a specific niche," says Bill Loss, president, SearchFeed. "From the advertiser's perspective, we're trying to offer the most targeted lead available."
When using keywords, it's vital to keep track of which words work.
"The number one thing you need to do is have conversion tracking, or have ROI tracking ability down to the keyword level," emphasizes Larkins. "Without the ROI tracking you could be wasting thousands of dollars and not focusing your efforts toward a keyword that you wouldn't think converts but really does."
Companies in very large, competitive spaces would probably do well to ensure they have some paid-position advertising in their mix.
Companies with very specialized products, or with very large product databases, might not need to make that investment, and could opt for another paid model: paid inclusion.
According to Kenneth Norton, director of product marketing and strategy at Inktomi, a major paid-inclusion player, "You can view paid placement as being analogous to the yellow pages and paid inclusion to the white pages. … Unlike paid placement, paid inclusion does not artificially affect the ranking or placement of content."
Paid-inclusion marketing also is a pay-per-performance model, but rather than paying for placement or keywords, you're guaranteeing that your content is included in a search.
"Paid inclusion ensures that your best and most current content is included in the search index and appears in the results set only when the search engine deems it relevant," explains Norton.
Paid-inclusion engines like Inktomi also employ algorithms to ensure relevancy. "Paid inclusion drives relevance and quality content, and provides the search engine with timely access to Web content that is often hard to crawl," explains Norton. "In fact, a majority of the content received from our paid inclusion programs would probably not be included in the index otherwise, as much of that content is stored in databases and on dynamic sites that are difficult for crawlers to reach."
It's a smart strategy for retailers and catalogers with large product lines. It allows these businesses to specify which of their pages they want accessible to the search engine and how deep into their site they want the spider to go.
When it comes down to it, picking just one search engine may not be the most cost-effective route. As with most aspects of targeted marketing, putting all your eggs in one basket is a recipe for a rotten omelette. You need to mix things up.
And the way to do that is to track your ROI.
"It's not a one-size-fits-all scenario," says Larkins. "I always recommend casting a wide net and experimenting. Everybody in online marketing and media buying says 'test, test, test' and you really do need to test."