What is search engine marketing?
Ah … the wild and magical world of the search engine. Where you and anyone can type in the most enigmatic phrase and get a response. Instantly, the Internet appears to shrink to manageable size; and there is no messy Dewey Decimal System to complicate things. With a handy list of search results, shoppers can browse and research to their hearts’ content, and make what they feel are the correct purchases for them at the best price. They search by brand, by product name, by location, by color, by any qualifier that meets their fancies.
In other words, the search engine is one of the few places on the Internet where a company can connect with a user at the point of interest.
You are now doing business in a world where the search engine is the first stop that customers make. According to Harris Interactive (Rochester, N.Y.), in 2005, 88 percent of online shoppers researched before they made a purchase, and more than 65 percent of those shoppers used search engines to do so. Rightly or wrongly, users view search rankings as a validation of a company’s popularity and importance, and rightly or wrongly, this raises the importance of search engines to any company. It is a huge market that many companies leave untapped, oblivious to the amount of business they lose, unaware that their rankings are something they can influence, or mystified about the manner in which they can do so.
The goal of search engine marketing (SEM) is for your company’s website to rank at the top of any potential customer’s search results page. This is done using a combination of paid advertising, search engine-optimized website design, high-quality marketing copy and involvement in your industry’s online community. And keywords. Lots and lots of keywords.
This list may seem daunting, but fear not. Using some tried and true marketing and technical know-how, a company can influence how search engines rank its site.
How does a search engine work?
A search engine copies webpages, stores information about the content on those webpages, and uses that information to respond to a search. When a person enters topical words into an engine, the search engine presents a list of pages with sites ranked according to relevance.
This is where things get fuzzy, because relevance is a tricky notion. Nor is it easy to explain, especially when your CEO glares at you because your most-hated competitor ranks higher than your company during a Google search on your flagship product’s name.
To understand the mechanisms involved, let’s take a look at the players and what they do.
The Search Engine Companies
There are four main search engines that dominate the Web today: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft’s Windows Live Search and Ask.com. Nearly every other search engine uses results from Google (such as AOL, Netscape and EarthLink) or Ask (MyWay, iWon).
The Web Spider
A search engine sends into the Internet an automated script, called a Web spider. It usually starts at a Web directory. (For example, Google uses the Open Directory Project, a free, volunteer-run directory located at http://dmoz.org.) The spider acts as a crawler that travels through websites via page links. It copies what it can of each webpage and sends that copy back to the search engine mother ship for indexing.
Some spiders can process non-textual data to some extent, but they do not do it very well. Non-text capture and indexing is a direction for future development. For now, any website that depends on media other than text isn’t receiving the benefits of the Web spider—and thus its search strategy is not achieving optimal results.
It is this tiny piece of technology that can dictate a website redesign and marketing campaign. The bottom line is if a company wishes a webpage, and the products or information on it, to be visible on a search engine, the webpage must be accessible and must have content visible to the spider. If you’re focused on promoting new products on the Web, don’t let your website rely primarily on rich media, because search engines won’t pick it up.
As the search engine receives webpages, it parses the information, breaking it down into content and metadata. Each search engine has its own top-secret algorithm to analyze this data according to its own rules of relevancy, using mathematics, psychology, linguistics and informatics (not to mention Dad’s secret chili recipe—hey, it could be anything, as it’s top secret). Then this analysis is indexed and stored.
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The Search Result Set
When a user enters topical words into a search engine—what you think of as keywords—the search engine consults its index and returns a ranked list of the most relevant page URLs, each accompanied by a short description or paragraph of text pulled from the webpage itself. Included on the results page are paid advertisements that also meet this relevancy evaluation.
Most searchers don’t consider how they conduct their searches. As a result, they type into an engine a string of words, which may form a nonsensical keyword phrase, such as “underwater basket weaving left-handed India.” One searcher may be looking for information on a college joke reference to an easy major; another may be seeking examples of artwork created using wet willow branches; and still another user may want a history of an actual sport that supposedly originated in India in the 1920s. These people, who dare to use their own logic instead of the orderly keywords you’d choose for them, are the cause of all your trouble, and are especially challenging for the copywriter who has to shoehorn that search phrase into Web content.
The SEM Specialist
The SEM specialist’s primary job is to help you develop a website that wins high rankings, while simultaneously offering an innovative Internet experience that is irresistible to potential customers. Running paid search and link popularity campaigns are two other areas of the SEM specialist’s responsibility; we’ll get to those in a moment.
What are the elements of SEM?
SEM focuses on three areas: indexability, relevance and authoritativeness.
There are many other design nuggets available that you can use to help feed a spider relevant information about your website. For example, even something as simple as including HTML ALT tags for your graphics is extremely valuable. It won’t solve every problem with non-text material, but all of your graphics should use HTML ALT tags. The tags are crucial for usability reasons, and they are also an excellent way to place long keyword phrases into a page. Nice juicy captions are cool, too. It could be argued that every feature you add to enhance Web usability also assists you in your SEM goals.
It’s important to ensure that you target the most appropriate keywords for your company. To get a clear list of relevant keywords, you need to brainstorm, talk to your customer support people, look at sales data and analyze your competition. Both Yahoo and Google offer keyword selection tools online.
Once you have a list of appropriate keywords, you should assign an important keyword phrase and two or three lesser keywords to each webpage, and create content that markets to those searchers specifically. A keyword-optimized page is called a landing page for the searchers using that keyword. The website design should funnel searchers to the most appropriate page. If a Contact Us page is drawing searchers looking for your flagship product, then—you guessed it—something is wrong with the content on your flagship product page. Does it have technology that blocks search engines, or is it optimized for a different word entirely?
Optimization requires a bit of planning, but with the proper keywords, you can target those searchers who want desperately to buy baskets that were woven underwater, and thus leave the jokers behind.
Search engine algorithms know how to spot keyword spam and are usually not fooled by it. The current consensus among SEM professionals is that using a keyword phrase more than nine or 10 times on a 500-word page is unwise. To be effective, the content of a page needs to use these keywords in the metadata and in the actual copy: in the text, links and navigation. The more valuable keyword-robust content you have, the more relevant information the search engine has to evaluate, which translates into higher rankings. Most importantly, these are the pages on which searchers will be landing, so the webpage must be marketable or you’ve lost a sale.
Just as branding and community involvement benefit a company in the brick-and-mortar world, popularity and industry visibility are rewarded by search engines. If your company is positioned as a trusted and knowledgeable specialist in your field, it will have a broader Internet presence and be evaluated as more relevant and popular, which will boost rankings. Develop your company’s presence through publications, peers, associations, clients, newsgroups, blogs, trade organizations and social networks such as digg.com. (For example, you could offer unique content to attract visitors or for use on their websites.) The key to success is to get as many links to your website as possible.
A good link popularity and reciprocity initiative is an art form. Succeeding in this area requires valuable social skills, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially with the growing emphasis search engines place on authoritativeness.
What is organic or natural search versus paid search?
“Organic” or “natural search” results are the ranked list that appears in the main body of a search engine’s results page.
Once your company has a search engine-optimized website design and keyword-robust content, the SEM specialist submits your website to the search engines and to free directories such as the Open Directory Project. Unfortunately, submitting your site does not guarantee a visit from Web spiders. Chances are, your website will be crawled by a spider that arrived through a link.
Another way to attract visitors is to pay for it. There are two kinds of paid search.
The first is paid inclusion, which is the submission of your site to directories that charge for prime locations or in some cases for any placement at all. If you pay, you’re guaranteed a position in the directory. For example, at this writing Yahoo charges $299 per year, and the company says your site will appear in the directory within seven days.
The second is pay-per-click (PPC), or sponsored listings, which are those found in the right column of a search results page. PPC includes ads that appear on other sites; you may have seen the “Ads by Google” boxes, for example. Companies bid for ownership of a keyword phrase (say our old standby “underwater basketweaving”), and the ads appear ranked by highest bid and other factors, such as click-through rate. When a searcher clicks through an ad, the company pays the cost of the click. Prices for keywords vary widely by industry.
Despite its tiny size, the ad’s content is extremely important, and it must contain high-level marketing copy. In addition, don’t discount the flexibility of these little ads. Lead-generating sites can market white papers or website content to draw visitors, for example.
How long will an SEM project take?
If your company is starting from scratch, you need to start with keyword development. Then combine a website redesign and paid search launch, followed closely by your link popularity campaign. If your site requires an extensive overhaul, and if you have a large number of pages that require keyword-targeted copy, the initial setup will take months.
Once the site is launched, the paid and link popularity initiatives can gain momentum while you wait for a spider to crawl your site, which takes some time. Naturally, the time frame of these initiatives may overlap, depending on your site and your staff’s proficiency. Depending on the site, SEM can become a major task requiring a lot of time and effort.
SEM is not a project that delivers instant gratification. Changes happen gradually. You may even see your rankings dip as the search engines adjust to the changes made. Once the website has attained a norm, the project enters its maintenance phase. Your company’s SEM specialist needs to stay abreast of the latest search engine technology, re-evaluate keywords and create content, help optimize website technology, maintain a pristine link popularity campaign, and understand the fluctuations of the PPC market.
How do I determine ROI? And can SEM improve my company’s business?
First, a company must have a clear understanding of its conversion rate. This is easy for some; for them, a conversion is a purchase. But for other companies, the definition of success differs. It could be a lead generated by the site, with contact made by phone, fax or e-mail. It could be a subscription to a newsletter or a request for more information. Once you have a clear understanding of what constitutes a success and how it translates into an investment return, then you can set up metrics to calculate that information.
What many companies discover is that the SEM and usability ROI evaluations cover much of the same ground. Both require a faithful tracking and analysis of Web analytics. To truly understand what about your SEM campaign is working and what isn’t, look at more than PPC conversions. Your SEM specialist should have access to robust Web analytics, or at the very least, a daily analytics report that details the basics, such as which referring keyword phrase is the most successful, the movement from each keyword landing page, site entries and exits, and the percentage of search engine use versus direct access to your site.
Which keywords spark the most purchases? Is the right webpage optimized for your most successful keyword? How responsive and usable is the site to visitors looking for a niche product or contact information? How well do you leverage this interest and motivate further interest in your company? Do these searches and behavior indicate any new industry trends?
When managed properly, SEM reinforces good design practices and enhances website usability. Rarely are they in conflict. Bolstered by a focused design, succinct and motivational content, greater visibility as an industry authority, and the credibility that comes from being the search result that makes sense, SEM can give your company a fresh, sophisticated voice.
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Lisa Nadile is a writer and usability consultant. She can be reached at email@example.com.