The Tao of SEM

It’s pretty rare, but now and then I get enough time to sit back for a few minutes and reflect on my work from a philosophical perspective. It’s a bit cliché, but many tenets of Taoism integrate nicely into search engine marketing. With apologies to Lao Tzu, following are some Taoist thoughts on SEM.

Read all the sentences, but gain wisdom from the spaces between paragraphs.

To Attract the Most Visitors, Do Not Think About Traffic

It’s sometimes hard to stand up in front of a room of Web developers and marketers and tell them, simply, “Design your site for users,” even when most official search engine advice typically boils down to that. First of all, it’s corny. Does the Yankees batting coach just line the boys up and point at the left-field fence?

The bottom line, however, is that it’s usually true. The more you focus on your content specialty, the more likely you are to produce the type of site that your target audience will understand, appreciate, and visit frequently.

Sometimes it makes developers feel better to rephrase it a bit differently: “Build your site for visitors, but in a format that engines can easily digest.” Or “Build your site for visitors, because many very, very smart search engineers are constantly looking for ways to algorithmically reward sites that do.” That typically gives them the geek fix they came for in the first place.

If You Want Visitors To Stay, Show Them How To Leave

If you look at search engines, social bookmarking sites, social profile sites, blogs, or any other site genres that are currently popular, most have a common trait: They point outward to some of the most intriguing content on the Web. Yet people still return to these sites.

Many people still suffer from the idea that creating a captive audience (i.e., building a site with only internal links) is the best way to retain traffic. And maybe it is, at least for one visit. But smart content-builders link outward even more than inward, because in the long term, getting people to recognize your site as a global resource is far more important than trapping visitors in a single session.

If You Rely Solely on the Tool of Analytics, It Will Build Your Prison

I recently gave a presentation and briefly discussed the importance of analytics and tracking your campaigns. A hand shot up, and an exasperated man said, “I have analytics that tell me everything I could possibly want to know. But what do I need to know? When it comes to analytic data, where’s the line between interesting and helpful?”

This is an excellent question, and many people (including myself) can empathize. Most analytics programs are notoriously high on data output, but notoriously low on helping users understand how to act on the data — if they should at all. Take a hard look at each of your reports and gauge each honestly on a scale of efficacy: Do the numbers suggest you should change course, or should you continue your present course regardless of what they say? To paraphrase a line often attributed to Freud, “sometimes a bounce rate is just a bounce rate.”

The More Innovative Your Product, The Less People Will Want It

That’s a dramatic headline, but what it really means is, the more “off the rails” or “outside the box” your offering is, the less keyword demand typically accommodates it.

Consequently, if you built a gizmo that solves a problem that most people don’t know is even a problem yet, you’ll need to be equally creative in looking for keyword veins and devising an overall SEM plan that will prove beneficial, and your expectations should be realistic.

Also, read this column, “Jump-Starting Keyword Demand,” when launching a new product or service.

The “Easy” SEM Niche Is the One That Doesn’t Exist

Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed something interesting about myself in combing through lists of prospective clients. In looking at their respective industries, such as mortgage refinancing or consumer electronics, I nearly always now think to myself, “Yikes. Now that’s a tough vertical.”

So I had to laugh last week as I read Jill Whalen’s latest Advisor, which she kicked off by sharing similar sentiment. I’m not thrilled that competition is so fierce, but am relieved to know I’m not the only one that’s noticing.

Conclusion

While this column’s theme is fairly light-hearted, I’m serious when I suggest that stepping back and looking at business from a different perspective is important. I wish all readers a wonderful holiday season and look forward to starting 2009 with an invigorated outlook.

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