Revving Up

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

WD Music Products Inc., which sells guitar parts, has seen its direct to consumer sales go from 1% to 26%.

A rental agent for vacation homes in Sanibel Island, FL

Revving Up

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

Online merchants say SEM is the Porsche of aquisition tools.

WD Music Products Inc., which sells guitar parts, has seen its direct to consumer sales go from 1% to 26%.

A rental agent for vacation homes in Sanibel Island, FL—Sanibel Holiday (www.sanibelholiday.com)—has seen qualified leads jump 10%.

A gastric-bypass (stomach-stapling) clinic in Kentucky saw its new customers go from two to four a week to 50 to 70 a week, according to consultant Jill Whalin of HighRankings.com.

How have they done this? Through search engine marketing (SEM). Long viewed as a sideshow to the online marketing circus, SEM has moved center ring. While banners have emerged as a branding medium and e-mail as a retention device, search marketing is proving itself to be the way to go for acquiring new customers.

Although search engine marketing differs from direct and catalog marketing in that it is a “pull” rather than “push” medium, it should be familiar to direct marketers because it is also very much about testing, adjusting and measuring. Is your furniture e-commerce site not coming up high enough in results when users search for “highboys”? Do some tweaking and see if it performs better when the search engine reindexes it. Keywords not bringing in new customers? Test others.

Why is it important to have your site rank high in a search? Because search engine users are three times as likely to click on a top-ranked site as they are to click on those ranked number four and below.

Two disciplines come under the umbrella term search engine marketing. One is “search engine optimization,” which refers to using techniques to get a site ranked high in search results. The other concerns paid methods. Most search engines have programs where you can pay to be included in the search listings. And then there are advertising opportunities in the form of “sponsored links” that appear before, or to the right of, the standard list of search results.

It’s important to understand the distinction between search engines and directories.

True search engines use software robots called spiders to crawl the Web looking for (or, “harvesting”) pages. The search engines index these pages and when a search is performed, call them up. Each search engine uses a different algorithm to determine how relevant a Web page is to a user’s query, assigning different weight to such factors as body text, links and meta tags (more on this technique later). This is why a search of the same word will garner different results on different search engines. Right now, the most popular search engine is Google; others include AltaVista, FAST and Inktomi.

With directories, the entries for sites are compiled by hand. Editors look over submissions from sites, often changing their descriptions. These pages are also indexed and can be searched as to their relevancy to a search term. The reigning directory is still Yahoo!; others include Business.com, LookSmart and DMOZ.

Search engines search text. They don’t like graphics, Flash or Java applets. Put a keyword in a graphic (rather than HTML text) and it will do as much good for your search results as writing it on a napkin and shoving it in your desk drawer. In designing a site, you must strike a balance between the bells and whistles needed for an exciting page and the nitty-gritty text needed for a high ranking at search engines and directories.

You want to use—not abuse—search optimization techniques. If you violate a search engine’s policies, you may find yourself penalized by being ranked in the search results’ dungeon or by being “de-listed” altogether. Search engines frown on techniques such as “cloaking”—hiding page content—to increase rankings. These techniques are called spam.

Spiders aren’t very good with sites using frames or with Web pages generated dynamically from your product database (in other words, building a page of “blue suede shoes” when someone searches for them at your site).

Among the most important elements in deciding how high a site should rank are the page title, page copy, links pointing to your site and meta tags.

Traditionally, the title at the top of a Web page—especially on home pages—has been the company’s name or, worse yet, “Home Page,” a waste of an optimization opportunity. The trend is toward page titles that are descriptive. For example, travel site Orbitz has at the top of its home page: “Orbitz: Airline Tickets, Hotels, Car Rentals, Travel Deals.”

Generally, titles should describe what’s on the page, not the site.

The big question is how do you get a site ranked high? A main determinant is how many others link to it. Search engines such as Google boast that they don’t just measure how many links point to your site, but the popularity and context of those links. Google’s PageRank system looks at the words around the links and also how often those links are clicked. The more popular the sites that link to you, the higher your site will come up in a search result. So there’s link popularity and click-through popularity. You can find out how many sites link to yours at the search engines themselves. For example, at Google and AltaVista, search for “link:yoururl.com.”

The clickable text of the link, or, the “anchor text,” is also important. If that word is what is searched, the page should rank high in the search results. The links that help people navigate your site (the “internal links”) are also important in determining a page’s ranking.

Meta tags are placed in the HTML header of a Web page’s source code. They are not seen on the actual Web page, thus their cloak-and-dagger reputation. There are several different varieties, but the two most important for marketers are “meta description tags” and “meta keyword tags.” The text in meta description tags describe what Web sites are about. They are important because not only do search engines and directories use them when ranking pages, but some of them use the descriptions in search returns.

More interesting and controversial are meta keyword tags, which contain a list of keywords relevant to a Web page’s contents. Some experts feel that these creatures are becoming less important because some search engines (such as Lycos) ignore them. But they are in fact still used by many. Because too many sites abused the tags by including in them irrelevant or repeated keywords, some search engines now compare the body text to the meta keyword tags to make sure they jibe.

In search engine marketing, two opportunities developed by search engines, directories and portals are paid inclusion and paid placement. These are also called “pay for inclusion” and “pay for placement” (see sidebar, “Return on Investment”).

Web sites, especially those with many pages, pay to make sure a search engine includes those pages in its index. The search engines insist that paying for inclusion does not help a site’s rankings. So why pay when search spiders are supposed to search out and index sites? Spiders miss pages and because, with paid inclusion, search engines promise to “respider” the pages at frequent intervals. This may help if you make many changes to your site.

The pricing structures for this service vary. Typically, there is a subscription model, in which you pay a yearly fee for each URL. There is also a trend, especially for big sites with many URLs (usually 500 or more), toward paying on a cost-per-click (CPC) basis—to pay every time a Web surfer clicks on a link. Under pay for placement—also called “pay for position,” “pay for prominence” and “pay for performance”—marketers pay to have links (keyed to the words searched) show up at the top or right-hand side of the search-results page. It is now becoming more common to see them marked “sponsored links.”

Traditionally, these links have been paid on a CPM model but increasingly they are done on a CPC basis. There often is an open bidding process in which marketers vie for keywords and the links are listed in descending order according to who paid the most or at least to a formula taking the price into account (as with Google’s AdWords Select).

In choosing what keywords to bid for, if you pick one too broad you will be attracting window shoppers, not real buyers. If you buy the word “gifts” it is so broad that you will probably drive traffic to your site that isn’t very qualified (and you have to pay for those clicks). “Digital cameras” is a perfectly fine (though competitive) keyphrase, but if you owned “Nikon D1X,” you’d be reaching shoppers who are further along in the process.

And finding the shoppers who are seeking exactly what you’re offering is what search engine marketing is all about.

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