Thought Leaders discuss Search Engine Optimization – Part 1

April 5th, 2005

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Originally published in MarketingProfs

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a rapidly changing and exciting arena. In fact, the competition is heating up as companies awaken to a universe of marketing opportunities — providing their customers can find them, that is!

Where is SEO heading? What are the trends and new opportunities? And what are the real issues facing the industry?

To get some answers, MarketingProfs recently convened a Thought Leaders Summit with some of the best minds in the field of search engine optimization. In the 90-minute-long session, I (as the panel leader) tapped into the collective wisdom of panelists Cam Balzer (Performics), Christine Churchill (KeyRelevance), Mike Grehan (Smart Interactive), Ammon Johns (Propellernet), Brian Klais (Netconcepts), Barry Lloyd (MakeMeTop), Ian McAnerin (McAnerin Networks), Alan Rimm-Kaufman (Rimm-Kaufman Group), Eric Ward (EricWard.com) and Jill Whalen (High Rankings).

This is the first in a two-part series on the key points our experts made about SEO. Think of it as the next best thing to being at an industry conference that would likely cost upwards of $2,000 to attend.

Make a solid business case for SEO

It may be time to introduce your boss to the concept of search engines as your company’s virtual sales force.

But without a solid business case, it is nearly impossible to push an SEO agenda within your organization. First, you need to convince your colleagues and Web site stakeholders (IT, merchandising, marketing people and copywriters) of the importance of the initiative they are going to undertake. And there’s nothing like a few statistics to get them excited!

Estimating market size is a good place to start. In the UK, for instance, the Department of Trade and Industry reported that about 16 billion pounds was spent online in the third quarter of 2004. That’s something like 13% of all business sales conducted as a result of someone finding information on a Web site.

Couple that with statistics revealing that 70% of people find a Web site for the first time through search engines, and one doesn’t have to do a whole lot more to convince people that search engines are important.

Those who review their site statistics can tell you that search engine spiders are the most important browser type out there after Internet Explorer. With 80% of your customers using search engines, it makes sense that you should be catering to that army of robots.

Show that search marketing is a part of day-to-day commerce, couple that with potential product sales — and you have a solid business case for SEO.

But there’s a difference between paid optimization and “natural” (also known as “organic”) optimization. The folks responsible for driving large volumes of sales through paid search may not be aware that upwards of 75% or more of all search clicks come from natural (i.e., unpaid) search listings.

One-third of search engine users do not click on sponsored listings; so if you really want to reach your market, the only place that reaches all of them is the natural results.

How about adding a bit of competitive intelligence to the mix? Many tools that exist will reveal the rankings, indexation, link popularity, PageRank and much more about you and your competitors — providing a very clear benchmark of your success or missed opportunity in search engine marketing.

Here are a few tools to start you off:

URL Checker
Link Checker
PageRank Look Up
PageRank Search
Keyword Tools

Keyword research will give you further insight into the products or product categories that are your big drivers. You will also discover niches in the market that can be filled by both sponsored listings and natural optimization. Armed with this information, you can start to apply metrics to understand the potential prospect universe out there.

Your people also need to be aware of the effort that needs to go into conducting an SEO campaign. Say there are 10 things that need to be done and 30 things that need to be changed on the Web site, how much time is that going to take? Balance that out and understand the investment you are going to make, and what the potential payoff is.

Return on investment (ROI) metrics have an amazing power to make your CFO’s eyes light up. Benchmark statistics from specific market areas will give you an indication of the kind of return you can expect to get.

Also highlight the cost of acquiring a new customer. With direct marketing, this can be in the range of $5 or $6 offline. Online, you are looking at $0.25. If that’s not a business case for SEO, then we don’t know what is.

Manage expectations on outcomes

Everyone wants to be number one on the Internet for their important keywords, no matter how popular and how competitive the keywords might be (“hotels,” “investments,” “sporting goods,” etc.) Not surprisingly, the expectations of an SEO vendor are often quite high.

A lot of SEO shops will come in with all guns blazing, making declarations about what they are going to do before even learning about your business.

First of all, you need to talk!

A good SEO agency asks lots of questions — about your history with other firms that you may have worked with, about what you learned from your experience, about your Web site’s history and about your knowledge of SEO. They will also of course listen carefully to you as you elaborate on your goals, constraints and available resources.

More importantly, they will administer an injection of realism about the potential of an SEO campaign.

Search engine optimization needs to be seen as an investment, not an expense.

Paid search is useful to gauge, by proxy, a business case for SEO. But that’s really where the analogy ends.

SEO is not predictable. You have no control over Google or MSN or Yahoo! and which pages on your site they decide to index or how they are going to rank them.

That fact makes many marketers squeamish, because it sounds like we are hedging for failure. That is the reality of the game, and the evidence is clearly there in the payoff.

SEO is a mindset. Getting to that stage depends on what percentage of the “to do” list you are willing to implement. In some cases, the cure might be worse than the complaint.

There is resistance to making fundamental changes that, beyond getting pages indexed, can actually help drive traffic through natural search listings. Many marketers are not sure how this will impact on their brand. They want to balance the branding experience and user experience with search requirements.

There are several layers of management, a legal department, and a marketing department to negotiate; and, in many cases, their hands are tied as to how many changes they can actually make to the Web site.

Yet, that has no effect on their expectations and what they want from an SEO campaign. It may be a case of sitting down and figuring out exactly what you can and are prepared to do and match that to your expectations.

There are no magic tricks to coming up number one. Many people think we can perform magic, and whamo! — the next thing you know, you are up in the top 10.

First, we don’t control the search engines. All we can do is try to create content that the search engines will find worthy and rank accordingly.

Second, it is important to pop up on the most generic keyword possible. Your content needs to be structured to reflect the products and services that you are offering and targeting to your market.

Many sites, such as catalog sites, can run into duplication issues. This is where a manufacturer gives a specific description of a product that you cannot deviate from. For example, it is illegal for a pharmacy to tamper with information about the drugs they are selling, so you have that exact same information being duplicated across every single pharmacy site on the planet — at least the ones that care.

There are several basic types of keywords.

There are “volume keywords,” things like pharmacy, online pharmacy, buy pharmaceuticals. If you rank well, they will very often bring in a ton of traffic, but sometimes a very low percentage of actual buyers. But that percentage, based on the amount of traffic, can be significant, so you certainly don’t want to avoid that. But it is also important to point out that there are other types of keywords you can also aim at.

For example, you can aim at niche keywords, where there may be just 20 or 30 a month on each, but almost every one converting into a paying customer. If you are selling things like cars, 20 or 30 a month is pretty big.

Then, of course, there is a blended approach, where there is not a lot of competition but a fair amount of traffic. Those are really nice areas to aim at. What kind of keywords do you want to aim at? You may actually get excited about niche keywords that you wouldn’t have thought of originally.

The goal of an SEO campaign is to add value to your Web site, to increase your business. To be successful, you need a long-term view plus a marketing strategy.

The result you will see in terms of incremental traffic and sales from natural search is, in many respects, dependent on a willingness to implement the changes that need to happen. In other words, reiterating the importance of having a business case that you can use to get all of your colleagues and stakeholders on board.

Know a top-performing SEO firm when you see one

A top-performing SEO firm is no different from a top-performing professional in any other field.

There is a fear within the SEO industry that once you let the cat out of the bag and share tactics that need to be implemented, you won’t need us anymore. But not all feel that way. Look for an agency with a partnership model.

Look for transparency. Look for a willingness to put it all on the table and work with you at your pace to implement what can be implemented, and communicate with stakeholder groups involved in the initiative and motivate them.

Consider their business practices. Do they keep you in the loop? Do they properly educate you on what’s expected and do they find out what you want as well as what they intend to deliver to you?

Top-performing SEO firms have been around long enough to really understand what is going on in the marketplace. What sets them apart tends to be the extent of their knowledge, and keyword research. Are they using professional copywriters, or do they just stick keywords anywhere? Do they understand the basics of marketing, conversions and, of course, the technical issues?

Do they have an ability to really understand your business beyond the natural search arena? It is important for an agency to offer a full range of search services — so that you can gain maximum visibility through various marketing channels and work to maximize those channels to garner the best opportunities at the most efficient rates.

Another key indicator is client renewals. There are stories of clients who have had their fingers burned with search engine marketing firms that weren’t up to scratch. If an SEO firm retains clients for five, six or seven years, then that’s a sign of a company doing its job.

Here are the favorite search engines

From an SEO standpoint, there is consensus among our experts. Google (because it re-invented the search interface when everyone else was ferreting around), followed by Yahoo, then MSN, and a yappy little underdog called Teoma.

Despite its size, Teoma.com is a good contender. There is a big technology difference between Teoma and the other “big three”: namely, Teoma does it differently with its localized approach. Teoma certainly explained it best: PageRank and link popularity is a bit like going out into the street and asking everyone who the best scientist is — you are going to get the obvious names… Einstein, Stephen Hawking. They’re popular answers.

Teoma looks within the topic. It finds the authority sites within the topic related to “scientists” and then asks, “Who is the best scientist?” Chances are, it would come up with names you have never heard of, but they would be much better answers. Teoma gives you the specialist’s answer instead of the popular answer.

Another difference is that Teoma is keyword-dependent. So when you type “blue widgets” into that search box, it pulls the community together and conducts a local search that refines and finds the authoritative sites on that particular subject.

Tennessee-based Eric Ward has a favorite search engine to add to the mix: a vertical search engine called ElvisFind.com. As the name implies, it’s devoted entirely to content about Elvis Presley.

Essentially, he likes what the site represents: the concept that anybody out there with a little bit of technical know-how and a lot of subject-matter expertise or passion can compile and offer a search engine devoted to a specific topic. All that needs to be done is hand-select the sites that they choose to index and, if they are running a spider, direct the spider to those sites.

Eric’s favorite engine isn’t literally ElvisFind.com — but what ElvisFind.com represents: namely, any engine narrowly targeting a completely arcane or unusual topics that only a few thousand people around the world care about, with a behind-the-scenes enthusiast creating the search engine for that niche audience.

Is it broke? Can we fix it?

What is wrong with the SEO industry today?

Well, for one thing, it hasn’t any defined rules of operation; it hasn’t really defined what each individual segment of the market actually does; and it hasn’t really defined what you are meant to get for your money.

You still get people starting up as SEO practitioners by downloading products that promise to turn you into an expert overnight. Others enter the fray — against people who have been around for five, six or seven years — with an identical message: “We can get your site ranked on search engines.”

Then there’s the lack of standards, or any list of cross-SEO standards, that everybody can agree on. There are too many grey areas in SEO. Basic standards are in order.

From an SEO vendor perspective, it seems the focus is on self-preservation: i.e., providing services that may not be actually valuable to the client. Providing keyword research every month or making doorway pages or metatags is not high-value service. It may be a way of justifying fees, but that is where the problem starts. Results come when the focus is on doing what’s right for customers and helping them make the changes that need to happen.

We gaze into the crystal ball

The panel figured, looking ahead to the next couple years, that the growing importance of localization and personalization in the search engines will cause a big shakeup to the SEO industry. SEO vendors that have been making easy promises, based on what they have picked up in the last couple of years, are going to struggle to keep up, given what’s coming. Search rankings will no longer be as easy to predict or as easy to manipulate.

Consequently, consolidation (or rationalization) within the industry will occur. SEO vendors that aren’t up to the task will be blown away, further separating the wheat from the chaff.

We are going to see SEO practitioners becoming better rounded in terms of the services they offer clients. You are already seeing companies that started off in optimization taking on board bid management, Web analytics, and ROI tracking and providing a whole range of services that are related to Internet marketing, not just search marketing.

As if optimizing a Web site for three major search engines and separate algorithms weren’t difficult enough, new innovation will result in the search engines’ developing and launching local search, personalized search and desktop search across many online channels at once.

It is no longer as easy as “just optimize your Web site for Google and you will be OK.” There are many factors involved, and search is pervasive. And search is touching all aspects of the online world.

Search engines will get better at understanding what the user is looking for in the context of their query. They will also get better at understanding what a page is actually about, as opposed to which keywords are on the page. Keywords are no longer going to be magic; result will be a fundamental shift in the way the industry works.

We will see the blending of paid and unpaid search. Search engines are public companies with enormous money at stake. The search future is going to look more like product placement in the movies.

Search is going to leave the desktop. Envision an iPod-esque device with GPS that not only plays your MP3s but also serves as your all-information-at-your-fingertips device on your hip, using those search-as-universal-encyclopedia knowledge bases. This is probably two or three years out, but it’s coming.

Imagine trust being purchased, authority and subjects being purchased and bartered between sites, and strong XML categorization tags being pushed across where people would agree on some sort of hierarchy — a super Dewey Decimal system — as to how content could be characterized for the good of the whole Web.

Search engines are going to stop looking for Web sites and start looking for information. People will pull answers from answers.com or Encarta and add maps and stock quotes and try to create an information portal, so that every time you type in a search it will be an information portal aimed at what you are looking for.

An important scientist in this field explained the two-galaxy approach to research. The first galaxy is the search engine optimization galaxy: the content creators. And we are the guys who control that.

The other galaxy is the end user, and the search engines control the end user. The engines have a goldmine of data about their users, and they are starting to put that data to good use. Personalization could well be the death of the keyword. Typing in “blue widgets” and coming up tops will mean absolutely nothing, because it will depend on who is typing it in at what time of the day and in what part of the world.

If we hope to successfully compete for search engine traffic for the long term, we need to reset our sights on both galaxies. Search engine optimization will be about offering relevant solutions to searchers’ problems as defined by a combination of search criteria, keywords notwithstanding.

Part two of this article tackles the following:

  • What needs to be done to get rid of search engine spam
  • The ethics surrounding no-no areas
  • SEO tactics that are OK, but may be misconstrued as unethical
  • Ascertaining whether an SEO vendor is ethical
  • The top most effective SEO tactics
  • Optimizing a site for SEO and human usability
  • The pros and cons of links and other off-page factors