Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Search Engines

Last week, many readers took issue with our tepid enthusiasm for search engine optimization in our article, ” Optimize THIS.” The volume of reader email we received last week in response warranted a follow-up to further clarify our reasoning.

“Your article seems to advocate deserting search engine submissions.”

They’re too important to desert. However, they are only one option among many for web site marketing, and they’re not worth obsessing over.

As part of an overall marketing strategy, search engines are most useful when you follow a few best practices:

  • Mark up your pages for web crawlers,

  • Submit them to a few key search engines (targeted sites that mesh well with your web audience and broad sites that provide the greatest traffic volume),
  • And make the occasional adjustment as new best-practices arise.

Instead, we have countless sites where search engines are the only marketing strategy. A top ten result for a keyword search then becomes a site’s lone hope for customer acquisition.

With over 800 million competing web pages (and counting), this creates a king of the hill competition for keyword positioning – making Powerball lottery odds look pretty attractive. Achieving and maintaining a top ten ranking thus requires a significant investment of time, effort, and energy; one in excess of those made by all the other overzealous sites competing for the same keywords. (And none of these sites have yet recognized their poor return on investment.)

What if all that effort jockeying for keyword rankings was instead funneled into building your business, improving your site, and exploring other avenues of traffic growth?

“The company you quoted found that over 70 percent of their traffic was driven by search engines, and yet you still say that they are not important?!”

Think about this for a moment:

  • Proportions aren’t as important as absolute numbers. If you are making 90 percent of your investment income from the interest on your checking account, does that necessarily make checking accounts the best place to put your money?

  • Quantity is not quality. Search engine traffic is virtually worthless unless the referred users are qualified enough to drive revenues. Coming up first on Infoseek for “Britney Spears” searches does little if you’re selling leather furniture.

Furthermore, a 1999 NFO Interactive research study revealed that experienced online consumers are more likely to arrive at a destination retail site by typing in its URL or through a bookmark than through the use of search engines – making other forms of web site marketing too important to ignore.

“A high-profile brand like Amazon’s will draw users directly to their URL, but what should the rest of us without Amazon-sized branding budgets do?”

It’s unfortunate that many web sites see the extremes of television advertising and search engines as their only viable marketing options.

At one end, running multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ads to establish branding is both unimaginative and financially irresponsible. Many dot-coms that resort to this carpet-bomb approach demonstrate either an unwillingness or inability to do their requisite market research homework.

Lacking the financial resources to burn on a TV blitz, many sites instead turn to search engines for an affordable alternative. However, some look no further, leaving them to obsess over their search engine rankings as their sole source of new traffic.

Of course, the notion that you need a budget the size of Montana to promote your site is a red herring. The web popularized the notion of viral marketing, which gave us the critical mass of Hotmail, Xoom, Napster, and The Drudge Report – all without a dime of advertising.

Instead of trying to stack the odds on a spin of the search engine roulette wheel, invest more of your efforts into building a great web site. Impress your visitors with useful, targeted content and services so that they will be motivated to drill-down into your site, bookmark it, link to it as a resource on their own web sites, and share it with friends and associates based on the good experiences they’ve had.

Consider starting an email newsletter. If done well, your readers will forward it as word-of-mouth (with your URL all over it), and you will have established an opt-in reminder for your loyal users to keep coming back. This says nothing of email’s compliment to the web as an Internet publishing business in its own right.

Furthermore, public relations (and not advertising nor marketing) has long been heralded as the dot-com kingmaker. Favoring search engines at the neglect PR, whether local or national, ignores one of the industry’s most successful formulas for business promotion.

“So why not use a professional company to promote your site? A professional e-marketer is constantly reviewing how search engines are checking submissions.”

A professional e-marketer is much more than an HTML jockey with a search-engine submission box. This really shorts what e-marketing is really capable of.

Too many search engine optimization services are garage-based opportunists who fled for the search engine spamming world once, with the introduction of improved HTML editing tools, the lucrative web page development market dried up. These positioning services aren’t cheap either – often costing thousands of dollars in start-up fees plus hundreds of dollars every month for continual maintenance. The situation is so bad that the cottage industry is currently facing an ethical crisis.

But the so-called black art of mimicking the HTML and keywords of top-ranking pages for their clients is also nearing an end. For the many search engines that leverage purely syntax-based relevancy algorithms, the salad days are all but over.

Relevancy algorithms based on heuristics derived from user interaction – e.g., popularity algorithms (Direct Hit, Snap’s Global Brain technology) and algorithms that score inbound hyperlinks (Google, IBM’s CLEVER technology, and Inktomi’s link flux) – are making the old methods of ranking pages obsolete. The latest wave of search engine technology rewards perceived user relevance and value over simple keyword gymnastics, rendering deceitful tricks like doorway pages (optimized for specific keywords) irrelevant and ineffective.

But for now, the keyword syntax within your web pages does have an impact. And not all of these services are “get rich quick” schemers just this side of online Viagra, weight loss, and penny stock salesmen.

If you find one you trust, afford, and that works for you – great! We’d like to hear more about them. But more often we’ve heard stories where return on investment with these services has been really poor, along with the occasional story of web sites that were blacklisted by various search engines because of deceptive key-wording practices.

The bottom line is that web sites have a number of promotional options. And while search engine optimization should never be overlooked, the most successful sites leverage a diverse assortment of traffic sources and leads.

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