The way we were – and the way we are now
Five years ago it was considered enough for a company just tohave a website. The web was a relatively quiet place, webpageswere text-heavy and the search engines were still indexing sitesquickly and for free. Search engine optimisation, or SEO,emerged as a technique first pioneered by the adult industry.Its new, mainstream proponents were desperate to gainrespectability and credibility. For all their hard workestablishing standards, and despite the search engines'efforts to foil the tricksters, SEO has retained its slightlyshabby reputation.
But things have moved on. The web is vast – Google currentlyhas over 3.3 billion webpages indexed – and most search enginesnow offer a paid 'express inclusion' service. Gettingfound in a web search is no longer a given, it's a highlycompetitive business. And anyone in business needs to be takingit seriously if they're not already. Searching is still thenumber one activity on the web. That's searching – notshopping.
A quick glance at some of the government sites targeted atSMEs might make you think the only commercial use of the web isonline transactions, or what commonly passes as'e-commerce'. This could be because at the heartof the government's internet policies lie technology, andinvestment in technology.
In reality, e-commerce is still only a fraction of whatpeople actually get up to online. Your customers and potentialcustomers may not be looking to buy, but they may well belooking for information about your products, services,directors, people, policies, recruitment and training. They maybe looking for your competitors. They might be loyal advocates,disaffected customers or the open-minded curious. What they findwhen they search can be, and should be, largely managed throughintelligent search engine marketing. Any of your stakeholders,actual or potential, could be investigating your company at anytime via the web.
Beyond ‘driving traffic’
Marketers would generally agree that having invested in adecent website it would be foolhardy not to use it as a tool forcustomer acquisition. Before the advent of sponsored links onsearch engine results pages, there were basically two onlinemethods of 'driving traffic' to a website. The first wasto make sure your site came up in search results (the'natural' way), and the second was to buy onlineadvertising. Adverts were standard sizes, appeared in standardpositions, and were paid for on a cost-per-thousand views basis.Everyone thought they knew where they were. Except whenadvertisers began to understand the internet a bit better anddemanded more accountability.
There is, and always will be, something very 'oldmedia' about the traditional online advertising model. Itassumes that people need to be interrupted in what they'redoing in order to get their attention. It ignores the mostobvious truth about the internet – that people use it toactively look, not to passively watch. Nevertheless it was onlya matter of time before advertisers began targeting thesearchers – after all, what better moment to place a marketingmessage in front of an audience, than when it is activelylooking for it?
During the dotcom boom the search engine optimisation (SEO)industry burgeoned. Specialist agencies popped up all over, manyguaranteeing top search engine rankings, keeping their'methods' secret and charging large retainers. Some didan effective job, others did not. Part of the problem lay in theindustry terminology – the very phrase 'driving traffic'assumed a passive public, and the misplaced obsession with'hits' did nothing to reassure marketers that they weregetting an effective ROI. As happened in the early days ofweb design, cowboys spoiled the ground for the genuine expertsby leaving a trail of dissatisfied client marketers in theirwake. Which was probably why search engine marketing didn'tmake the mainstream. That is, until awareness ofpay-per-click (PPC) kicked in.
Repositioned as 'performance advertising' or'commercial search', PPC has moved into favour.Heavyweight media agencies who once refused to touch it nowroutinely offer PPC in their services portfolio. According toPiper Jaffray, the worldwide commercial search segment is set togrow from approximately $2 billion by the end of this year toaround $5 by 2006.
SEO – is it really worth the effort?
Despite the growth of PPC, traditional search engineoptimisation is still a no-brainer. Being found in'natural' web searches remains a basic goal of anybusiness with a web presence. Unfortunately, paying forprofessional SEO and express inclusion is the price of entry forall but the smallest of budgets. Directories such asLooksmart or Yahoo! charge a submission fee – with noguarantee of inclusion. Good SEO should get you listed inGoogle, which is the one that matters most. And Google stillfeeds Yahoo! and AOL search (at the time of writing). Inward links contribute to search engine rankings, so they areworth building up. All in all, SEO pays for itself over thelong-term rather than the short-term. It is a measurableinvestment – but it's not simple.
The single biggest factor affecting search engine placementis content – by which I mean the words on each web page: actuallive copy, page titles, file names and image tags. This puts SEOat odds with an advertising-driven marketing environment where'creative' is usually synonymous with 'design'.Surveys constantly tell us that nobody wants to read reams ofcopy on a webpage. Some authoring software such as MacromediaFlash virtually eliminates the need for any live text at all,and dynamically-generated pages have further demoted the static,search-engine friendly webpage copy.
All in all, the humble word seems to have becomeredundant. But therein lies a problem. Search enginespiders – those robot programmes roaming the web and indexingpages – can still only read words, not images. Consequently manysites now struggle to achieve good 'natural' searchengine rankings. Even when they do achieve them, chances arethat the first three (or more) search results are sponsoredlistings – pushing the rest down below the fold where they maynot be seen.
If you can’t beat ‘em …
It is easy to see the attraction of PPC. The advertiser jumpsto the top of the search results just by bidding a per-clickamount for a search term. Since the bid amount is only deductedfrom the advertiser's account when someone actually clickson the link, the placement itself is, in theory, free.Advertisers control the bid terms, bid amounts and overallbudgets. They also control (within guidelines) the listingtitles and descriptions and the link destinations. In some casesads can be deployed instantaneously. Every click is accountedfor and the process is transparent. For short-term campaigns,testing, to jumpstart a new site, or to complement parallelmarketing activity, PPC can be an extremely effective tool.Overture claims that it delivers conversion rates ten timeshigher than other forms of online advertising.
But there is a downside and there are risks, for example:
- Popular search terms are hotly contended, and bidding wars can quickly inflate the cost-per-click
- Advertisers may be advised to bid on hundreds of terms in order to achieve the best results, and this requires careful management
- As with all advertising, the creative is crucial – and in this case we are talking about words
- Not all the PPC engines offer instant deployment: Overture, for example, requires all ads to be vetted for relevancy and appropriate syntax, which means that the approval process can take as long as a week
- Industry issues still to be resolved include concerns about fraudulent clicks and trademark infringement as rogue advertisers attempt to hijack traffic at the expense of legitimate brands
- The searching public now correctly identifies sponsored listings as advertising, which raises the possibility of them being unconsciously 'screened' out much in the same way as are banners
Marketers may not always realise the importance of searchengine marketing, since it has only recently been claimed as amarketing function having languished under the IT umbrella forso long. But it's about so much more than simply beingvisible on the web, or having the right metatags in a website,or implementing the latest technology.
Search engine marketing impacts both directly and indirectlyon sales, customer relationships, brand management, reputationmanagement and market research. Whilst SEO remains as the basisof effective search engine marketing, the role of PPC grows moredominant as marketers look for fast, accountable cost-effectiveresults.
Robin Houghton (http://www.robinhoughton.com) advises smallbusinesses on how to make the most of their marketingcommunications budget. Former Marketing Director of onlineagency DVisions, Robin specialises in online and has aparticular interest in ethical issues. In addition to generalconsultancy work, she provides e-mail marketing services forbrand building and customer retention.
Together with search engine marketer Samantha Steane, Robinproduces the monthly ezine MarketingKarma (http://www.marketingkarma.co.uk)