How to win the search engine war
by Kent Lewis
I remember the first presentation I gave to a client regarding the importance of having a high position in search engines for relevant keyword listings. It was as if I was speaking Swahili, and as a result, I didn’t get the business. Much has changed since 1996, as I’ve become fluent in Swahili and many companies have come to realize the value of visibility in search engines. Instead of spending my time educating prospective clients on the value of search engine marketing (SEM), I’m allaying their anxieties when they’re not #1 for “processed cheese spread.”
For those of you new to the SEM world, I’ve outlined key elements any company needs to address to generate results that go directly to the bottom line. Since I’m a fan of alliteration, I’ve outlined these elements with an “S” theme.
According to Pew Internet & American Life, 59 percent of U.S. households and over 90 percent of businesses have Internet access. According to Jupiter Research, 75 percent of marketing executives that have utilized SEM find it more effective than other forms of marketing. While I haven’t used statistics to sell SEM in years, it’s still difficult to ignore the overall market opportunity. Some companies believe that search engine visibility is inappropriate or even detrimental to their company or line of business. I disagree with few exceptions. Regardless of business model, your site needs to be visible to a multitude of stakeholders: current or potential customers, employees, press, analysts, investors and local community.
While Yahoo! has been the perennial the king of search properties, there has been massive consolidation in the market recently. Many of the smaller search engines that popped up in the late 90’s have disappeared or been purchased or merged with larger properties. The resulting aggregation means that a company can get their URL in front of 90 percent of all searches by focusing on three of the largest properties: Yahoo!, Google and MSN. There are two ways to get into search engine listings: organically via search engine optimization (SEO) or to buying your way in on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis.
While generating visibility in organic search results can be cost effective (it’s free to submit your URL to Google), there are no guarantees that you will appear in top 10 to 30 results for relevant keyword searches, at least not for a few weeks to months. In fact, without proper optimization of copy and source code, it’s very unlikely you’ll ever be found at all. On the other hand, you can buy your way into listings via PPC in a week or less. The only downside is that your site will disappear as soon as you stop spending, and that popular search phrases can be prohibitively expensive.
Dominating search results usually takes significant resources. If you don’t have experienced, knowledgeable talent in-house, you need to consider one of two options: investing in your team’s professional development by signing them up for industry newsletters and events, or hiring a consulting firm that specializes in SEM services. Regardless of your choice, the bottom line is that your primary Web site should do all the heavy lifting. Using technology and trickery (i.e. IP spoofing and redirects) only get you in trouble with search engines. Make sure your Web site copy is keyword-loaded and that your designers minimize the use of Flash, frames and dynamic URLs.
Before you bring in the big guns for SEM activities, you and your marketing team need to circle the wagons and figure out what you’re trying to achieve. Develop SEM objectives based on your overall marketing and business goals. Determine relevant metrics and goals to associate to these objectives. Common metrics include unique visitors, trial downloads, online event registrations, email signups or online sales (e-commerce). Set goals for each of your key metrics and empower the team to succeed.
How do you know you’re choosing relevant metrics and realistic goals? The best way to set up your SEM campaign for success is to create benchmarks based on key criteria. Compare your site’s current visibility against that of primary competitors, based on predetermined metrics. The top performing site should set the bar. Launch your SEM efforts with a series of test campaigns to minimize risk and maximize return on investment (ROI). Within weeks, you should be able to validate your original objectives, metrics and associated goals. Effective SEM campaigns take time, so be patient, monitor regularly and be consistent in your efforts.
Depending on factors like competition, budget or bandwidth limitations, some companies focus exclusively on organic (SEO). On the other hand, other companies spend a majority of their budgets on PPC, as it can be easier to generate large amounts of qualified traffic in a short amount of time. The ideal scenario, however, is to figure out a balanced mix of both. For target keyword phrases for which you’d like to achieve a high ranking, but SEO is not making the grade, turn to PPC. On the converse, for keyword phrases where you already have a high position organically, reallocate the PPC budget accordingly. Either way, the best approach is always to start small and build momentum.
As the old adage goes, “I know half of my advertising budget is working, but I don’t know which half.” Without accurate Web analytics software, you’re relegated to a guessing game. Rather than extrapolating or resorting to animal sacrifice, implement ROI tracking via third party applications like WebTrends, HitBox or ClickTracks. Configured properly, Web analytics will tell you how much money you’re making off of SEM efforts. For example, for every dollar one of my hospitality clients spends on SEO and PPC, they generate five dollars in return. Put a cherry on top by integrating SEM into your overall marketing mix. Coordinating public relations, advertising and direct marketing efforts with search engine marketing has a compounding effect that generates even greater success.
By addressing the eight “S’s” outlined above, your company will see a surefire success, if implemented properly. Knowledge is power, and profit, in the search engine marketing business. You can even take Swahili classes with the extra money you’ll make.
Kent Lewis is President of Anvil Media, Inc., a search engine marketing agency based in Portland, OR.