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Search Engine Marketing - How to improve your visibility today
Courtesy of The Direct Marketing Association
Contrary to popular belief, search engine optimization – the process used to make Web sites more search-engine friendly, thereby maximizing their exposure to Internet users – is not an exact science. In fact, the process is really more of an art that depends on creative copywriting and relevant keywords and phrases aligned with a company’s strategic business goals, according to Heather Lloyd Martin, president and CEO of SuccessWorks Search Marketing Solutions, Inc. (Bellingham, WA), and Amanda Watlington, director of research for iProspect (Arlington, MA).

Martin and Watlington headlined a pre-conference panel about search engine marketing strategies at The DMA’s net.marketing conference & exhibition in Miami on May 5. The panel was moderated by Detlev Johnson, SuccessWorks’ vice president and COO.
Why search engines matter
One of the greatest advantages of search engines is that they match "motivated" consumers to Web sites that meet their information, product, and service needs, Johnson told conference delegates. Each day, millions of motivated searchers are keying in terms and looking for products and services, Johnson emphasized. "Can they find you? Are they finding you now?" he asked.
How search engines work
Though there are several types of search engine placements, research convincingly demonstrates that "natural" (i.e., unpaid) listings convert better than paid listings, Johnson told delegates. He attributed the difference to consumers’ general attitudes about advertising or advertorial versus objective, informational content.
Natural listings are used on search engines such as Google, Johnson noted. They rely on electronic "spiders" that "crawl" the Web, gathering information for their search directories. The sites then use established algorithms to determine the relevancy of each site to keywords and phrases input by Internet users, he continued.
Five ways to tell if your Web site needs to be more search-engine friendly
The enormous benefits of search engine optimization – including increased conversion rates and revenue – tend to generate a solid return on investment, Martin asserted. As a result, she encouraged delegates to evaluate whether or not their Web content is sufficiently meeting search engine criteria by asking the following questions:
1. Does your site lack a key phrase focus? One of the keys to search engine optimization is showing the search engine that your site is relevant and on topic, Martin explained. This can be accomplished by weaving the keywords and phrases that reflect your business objectives into Web copy. Although it seems obvious, Martin noted that this is one of the most common mistakes companies make in designing their Web sites – often after tens of thousands of dollars have already been invested in the project.
2. Does your site contain short, "stubby" copy? Martin recommended that Web copywriters allot approximately 250 words per Web page to maintain their marketing message(s), enhance search engine optimization efforts, and increase usability. She cited a recent study, which determined that Web shoppers on catalog sites tended to spend more money on sites that they spent less time on. Although it seems counterintuitive, she said, the reality is that shoppers spending more time on a site are likely "pogo sticking" around searching for what they want. Eventually, when they can’t find it, they get frustrated and leave. People want to make quick but well informed decisions, so it’s important that you give them enough copy to do that, Martin emphasized.
3. Are your pages failing to convert and your customers not clicking often enough? In the case of ineffective Web sites, Martin offered another caveat. Too often, Web copywriters edit their sales brochures to include their popular search engine keywords and think they’re done, she said. In reality, they often end up with Web content that’s not entirely relevant, which can hurt natural search engine positioning. Martin suggested that it’s better to rewrite Web content with eye toward what Web browsers will be looking for, to use spider-friendly tracking to assess visitor behavior on the Web site, and then to adjust demonstrated weak spots accordingly.
4. Are your Web pages full of links and no real content? Calling this affliction "linkarama," Martin noted that Web sites commonly try a "Yahoo" approach by posting a dizzying array of links on their Web pages. She cautioned delegates that offering too many choices – particularly on a landing page off of a search engine – will overwhelm the prospect and reduce search engine positioning. "Keep your pages simple and targeted," she advised.
5. Do your Web pages lack text? Ideally, each of your Web pages should have visible HTML text, Martin told delegates. She noted that search engine spiders are unable to read text housed in graphic boxes and all Flash, so their use will dramatically affect search engine positioning.
What you can do
Search engine optimization has changed dramatically over the past few years and even months, Watlington told delegates. In the beginning, people thought that all you needed to do was frequently plug certain key words into your Web content, and that success was measured in Web traffic, she continued.
Watlington noted that it’s now evident that Web traffic isn’t enough to tell if search engine marketing efforts are paying off. Rather, it’s all about the return on your investment and whether the cost-per-conversion makes sense for your marketing budget, she added.
In addition, Watlington told delegates that, due to the constant evolution of paid and unpaid programs through the major search engines, the road to successful search engine optimization is increasingly complex. In developing Web content, Watlington encouraged Web copywriters to keep in mind that search engine behaviors and usage patterns can be as diverse as the Web’s millions of users.
To outsource – or not?
The panelists agreed that search engine marketing can be a full-time job, so it may or may not make sense to do it internally. A variety of options are available for outsourcing including search engine optimization agencies and consultants, Martin said. However, Johnson cautioned delegates to be wary of promises that sound too good to be true.
In closing, he offered a foolproof litmus test for prospective vendors: Check and see if the vendor’s site is listed on Google. And if they’re not, run!
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