Understanding the Power of Search Engine Marketing

CEOs and marketing directors focus on strategic, not tactical, goals. They are often unaware of their company’s search engine rankings. Those who approve marketing budgets need to know the power of search engine marketing. It’s one of the most cost-effective marketing tools available, yet most companies spend little on search engine optimization (SEO).

Users find Web sites via search engines — a fact that’s been documented time and again. Searching is second only to email as the most popular online activity. How do consumers find products online? According to Jupiter Media Metrix (September 2001):

  • 28 percent type a product name into a search engine.
  • 23 percent go straight to the URL.
  • 9 percent type a brand name into a search engine.
  • 5 percent type a company name into a search engine.
  • 5 percent go to a search engine shopping channel.

A good chunk of business can come from search engines. It pays to know how they work and how they can improve your bottom line.

Search Engines Versus Directories

We all use Yahoo and Google, but does everyone know the difference between a directory and a search engine?

Directories, such as Yahoo, use human editors to evaluate sites for acceptance based on content relevance and uniqueness. Directories are organized by categories, then broken down into subcategories. Once a listing is accepted, the relevancy algorithm determines the ranking. The way technicians use keywords to write titles and descriptions is critical for top rankings. It’s also important to get your site listed in the right category. This process can be complex, as I described recently.

The major directories are Yahoo, Open Directory, LookSmart, and Ask Jeeves. Open Directory feeds results to AOL, Netscape, Lycos, Google, HotBot, and many more. LookSmart feeds results to MSN, Excite, AltaVista, iWon, Netscape, and others.

Search engines, such as Google, use different criteria for listing Web sites in their databases because they “crawl” or “spider” the Web. They index pages with software designed to return relevant results. If your site is search engine friendly it will rank higher, meaning it will show up higher on the list of search results. It matters which engines and directories you submit to first. Though all search engine algorithms differ, there are similarities. The algorithms are frequently changed to prevent unethical practices.

The major search engines are: Google, Inktomi, AllTheWeb (FAST), AltaVista, and Excite. Google feeds secondary results to Yahoo and Netscape. Inktomi results go to AOL, HotBot, LookSmart, and MSN. FAST feeds Lycos. AltaVista gets secondary results from LookSmart, as does Excite.

Why Invest in SEO?

Search engine traffic is very targeted. Potential buyers who find your site via a search engine are actively looking for your products and services. They are literally asking for your marketing message. Case studies show that companies can land big clients through their Web sites alone without having to make house calls. Software company Welocalize reported 90 percent of site traffic is driven by search engines, with traffic patterns ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 user sessions per month.

Database software firm Syncsort generates over 75 percent of its leads from the Web via search engine listings, according to iProspect, a consultant for the company.

Automotive consumer resource site Edmunds.com, another iProspect client, logged 1.2 million visitors from search engines and directories last June, attracting over 7 million visitors from search engines over the past year.

SEO is cost-effective compared to other advertising. A key-phrase banner ad campaign can run from $2,500 to $35,000 per month, depending on the number of key phrases. A professional SEO campaign with an equivalent number of key phrases will cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 per month.

Search engine text links can be a powerful branding tool. A study by NPD Group reported that search engines outperformed banner ads three to one. More than twice as many respondents recognized companies listed in the top three search positions than companies featured in banners ads.

Search engine traffic can produce high conversion rates. Case studies based on client-server file logs show that search engine traffic outperforms banner ads and email marketing campaigns by producing more purchases, form or catalog requests, newsletter subscriptions, and software downloads.

Should You Outsource or Optimize In-House?

Though many firms perform SEO in-house, research shows this may not be the best option:

  • An iProspect study found that 97 percent of Fortune 100 companies have chosen to use some sort of technology that makes it difficult for search engines to find their sites.
  • CyberAtlas reports that most marketers spend less than 1 percent of their budget on SEO, even though optimization can increase site traffic 75 percent or more.

The Outsource Advantage

An expert can get better rankings faster. SEO experts focus on submission and maintenance full time, offering a range of choices in methodologies and pricing that result in the right strategy for your Web site and industry. SEO is a complex process that requires expertise to maintain long-term results.

SEO has a steep learning curve because every search engine has different ranking criteria, and algorithm changes are ongoing. When you outsource, you avoid resubmission errors that can get you blacklisted on the engines.

Search engine positioning changes daily. The cost of recurring research and methodology development to maintain listings can turn the tables on in-house profitability. A reputable SEO firm is better prepared and has the flexibility to deal with changes.

Outsourcing is cost-effective when compared to in-house efforts because SEO firms can take advantage of economies of scale after the initial investment of time and knowledge, methodology, development, and technology. In-house investment by individual Web sites can be substantial and lack cost maximization.

A reputable SEO firm will provide up-to-the-minute options, recommendations, and technical advice for Web site changes to improve rankings. Typically, in-house efforts are behind the curve because most instructional material published on SEO tactics is obsolete shortly after it’s published.

Selecting a Provider

When outsourcing, first define the services to be included in your SEO campaign, such as:

  • Complete keyword-phrase research
  • Manual submission to major search engines and directories
  • Paid inclusion to major search engines and directories
  • Monthly reporting
  • Meta-tag optimization
  • Page title and headings optimization
  • Reciprocal linking/link popularity
  • Body text editing and copywriting (by page)
  • Consulting on creation of new pages or alternative text within your site
  • Consulting on creation of information, gateway, bridge, and off-site pages

Boost Your Bottom Line

SEO is both an art and a science. A reputable SEO provider can increase your site visibility (number of page-one listings) dramatically. Optimization tactics are complex and time consuming; that’s why savvy companies outsource these services. If you’re wondering who to hire (an equally complicated task), check out “Buyers’ Guide to Search Engine Optimization & Positioning Services” for profiles of reputable SEO providers.

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