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The process of search engine optimization and placement has undergone a number of fundamental changes over the past year. Once a highly technical, hands-on operation, SEO is now more about analyzing information, strategic planning and long-term consultation. The changing nature of how SEO services are performed has caused many SEO firms to make radical alterations to their office environments and staff skill-sets. The most interesting thing about this period of intense change in the search marketing industry is that the biggest changes are only starting to happen. Read more…

An interesting thread for in-house SEOs appeared at the IHelpYou Forums this morning. “In-house SEO” is a term refering to an SEO who is employed by a non-search related company as a staff member in charge of website promotions. Read more…

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Friday, January 6th, 2006

Searching for Cost Savings

About a month ago, Scott Gardner from Fortune Interactive wrote a smart piece that got published in Webpronews, “What’s So Special About Search Marketing?” In it, he covers several points that demonstrate why search engine marketing, particularly search engine optimization is the most cost effective form of mass advertising. Read more…

Search engine marketing has displaced every traditional media with the exception of television in relevancy and importance in the eyes of ad-buyers. With much lower costs and a much greater reach, online advertising makes up the second largest area in which advertisers spend money and marketers pass messages. There are a growing number of advertising channels available via the Internet and the major search engines are interested in acting as facilitators for as many of them as possible.

These channels or services, unlike traditional predecessors, are open and available to virtually anyone with a product to sell or message to communicate. Openness, ease of use, a sense of fairness and the global reach of the Internet are factors that make search marketing so popular. Ultimately, the versatility of the Internet combined with the much lower costs associated with online communications is what has brought search marketing to today’s prominence. Add the evolution of the medium and expanded accessibility and it is a safe stretch to say that search marketing will eventually surpass traditional television advertising by 2010 as the communications vehicle of choice. Here is a short list of what the search engines currently offer in the way of services to small business advertisers.

Organic Listings

By far, the strongest form of search engine advertising is found in the free organic listings, at least if your site is in the Top10. According to a number of studies, the most well known of which is Gord Hotchkiss’ Google Eye Tracking study , the vast majority of search engine visitors examine and select organic listings over paid listings.

Organic listings are also the least expensive form of online marketing. All that is required is a good website and information on items people are searching for. Delivering a bigger bang for less money, a strong placement at Google, Yahoo and MSN can provide dramatic increases in site traffic.

Ironically, organic search marketing is not seen to be nearly as sexy or interesting as its wealthier cousins from the paid-placement side of the family. The free, organic listings are the loss leader of the search engine world. None of the major search engines makes a penny providing free listings and the search marketing sector servicing organic placements is still seen as an arcane and murky world by many advertisers.

Pay Per Click Advertising and Placement

Pay Per Click or PPC is currently the most popular advertising service offered by the major search engines. Mainstream marketers love it because PPC is fairly easy to understand and not nearly as difficult to explain to others as organic SEO. Because of this, and the base fact that search engines make money hand-over-fist from PPC programs, the rise in interest in search by major advertisers mirrors the evolution of the various PPC systems offered.

Overture started the ball rolling with their original pay per click search engine GoTo.com. The model was copied and modified by Google and Yahoo purchased Overture, rebranding the service Yahoo Search Marketing. Overture was fairly successful in its early years, sticking deals with the search engines of the day to display paid results much in the same way Google and YSM do today but it wasn’t until Google introduced AdWords that mainstream advertisers took notice.

When they did, the sky was suddenly no longer the limit. (Google is actually working to send search services to space.) Mainstream advertising agencies and the absurd amounts of money they control started attending conferences and learning as much as they can about pay per click and other forms of search marketing.

PPC offers a number of definable results that organic SEO simply cannot. You can guarantee with absolute accuracy that the result will be visible on the front page as long as the money and effort is there to make it happen. Good SEOs haven’t made guarantees for a number of years now. PPC has another hidden advantage that makes it widely attractive to larger advertisers.

Contextual Ad Delivery is possibly the coolest thing since the automated bread slicer was invented, at least if you think like a marketer or a search engine financial executive. The delivery system works in two unique ways. The first is based on keywords entered by searchers; the second is based on keywords found on a page or document.

Many search engines display ads generated by a larger search tool. AOL for example currently runs ads generated by Google. The specific ads coming up to the right of the organic search results are placed there because they somehow correspond to the keyword query made by the searcher viewing them. That’s the basic form of contextual ad delivery.

The more complex form is found on non-search related documents. Next time you visit a website that is not a search engine, (perhaps even this one), take a look around the sides of the screen. If you see any ads by Google or YSM, you are looking at contextually delivered product. The ads appear on the screen because the website owner has partnered with Google or YSM. The ads are generated based on keywords found on the document on which they are displayed. Whenever a site visitor clicks on one of those ads, the site owner shares a percentage of the click-through bid. Similarly, users of Gmail have become accustomed to seeing paid advertisements generated based on keywords found in the text of their email messages.

Marketers see contextual delivery as the predecessor of personalized ad-delivery, a service MSN feels it is close to introducing when it takes adCenter out of beta.

Shopping Search

Another form of search service is shopping based search engines. Shopping engines deliver product information directly to consumers, and help them find online merchants to purchase from. They are not meant to be places people look for lost relatives or seek solutions to common health ailments but they would be glad to refer visitors to a good book or microwave oven.

Most shopping search engines receive information directly from the databases of merchants using their systems via an XML feed. Two well-known independent examples are Become.com and Shopping.com . They are not alone however as the major search engines know a good thing when they see it. Earlier today, another well-known shopping engine, PriceGrabber.com was purchased by London based GUS PLC for $485million.

Google, Yahoo and MSN all have their own shopping search engines. Of the three, Yahoo’s is arguably the most interesting application of Web2.0 philosophy, MSN is the most traditional and Google is the most comparative.

Yahoo Shopping has moved forward into the world of Web2.0 providing lists of products and reviews compiled by its massive user base. It actively promotes users to save lists to an area known as my lists, and to make those lists available to other users. Yahoo has tied Yahoo Shopping into Yahoo local search and provides maps to stores found through their shopping engine.

MSN Shopping is fairly traditional and straight forward with product listings by category and price range.
Google’s shopping service Froogle is actually more of a comparative price engine than a pure shopping engine but, in conjunction with Google Local and Google Maps, Froogle can provide directions to the lowest cost items near you.

Local Search

Perhaps the biggest marketing bonanza will be found in local search engines. Many search engine observers suggest local search will replace the Yellow Pages as users start to interface with search via handheld devices and cell phones. Most often used by consumers looking for a product or service near their own home, local search engines tend to draw information from the general search databases.

The types of search services mentioned above are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the full range of features, tools and services offered by the major search engines. For small business advertisers though, these are the services that are easiest to take advantage of and tend to return the best results.

Marketing in general has become more complicated and search marketing is becoming extremely complex. Small businesses that already have a relationship with an SEO or SEM firm might want to arrange a meeting with their search marketing vendor to discuss plans for the coming year. With or without the assistance of SEOs or SEMs all online advertisers have a lot to think about over the holiday season. 2006 looks like it is going to be wild and highly productive year.

Mondays follow weekends and a lot can happen over 48-hours. That makes a Monday morning a bit of a mash-up. As I scan article ideas from first to last, my mind keeps wandering to the middle. There must be a common thread uniting ideas found in the four pieces outlined below. The most obvious connection is that each relates to search marketing but perhaps if read collectively there is something a bit deeper, a signal of where the SEM industry is going. Read more…

It is twenty days shy of Christmas and Bill Stroll, our sales and marketing manager just spent ten minutes on the phone talking about Valentines Day. It’s not really a strange subject to come up in conversation at this time of the year. Valentines Day is the next major commercial marketing event. The nature of search marketing leads us to plan months into the future as seasonal and event specific content needs to be developed, posted, spidered in order to achieve eventual top10 placements.

As recently as three years ago, we would caution clients to expect a three to sixteen week turn-around time between posting optimized content and positive results. For some, that would mean the development of commercial content for Valentines Day might begin in late October and early November in order to have it ready for a post-Christmas shift in target audience. Now, content posted to established (long-term) websites on a Monday could appear in the Top10 before the following Friday, sometimes hours after it was posted.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that content creators and webmasters targeting a mid-February audience should wait until the end of January or early February to begin to develop Valentine’s related content though. As the years have gone on, a lot more information gets added to the web and much of that information is more professional, better written and far better optimized for search placement. For smaller businesses, this can mean long hours of writing, researching and designing in order to have a series of seasonal pages ready for posting in order to compete with larger websites.

Successful marketing is a process of long-term planning and execution of those plans in an ordered campaign. When designing a sales-orientated website, planning for annual special events is a good way to capture interest and increase sales. Search engine users are fairly predictable. Being the general public, they are interested in whatever is interesting at any given time. As search marketers, we know when search traffic will spike for specific holidays and events with a far greater degree of accuracy than the television and print media can offer.

Search marketers also know that seasonally topical information can be posted at any time of the year. Think of the search engines as a reference guide to a massive filing cabinet. There might be files about any number of subjects amongst the vast amount of information stored in that cabinet but its specific items are only accessed when needed. A Top10 placement can be achieved for products or services relating to Valentine’s Day in September and remain in place months after February 14th, provided the page is actively updated and not left static and stagnant.

Long term content is often much easier to get placements for than new content is. Documents that exist for longer periods of time tend to have more incoming links and are viewed as more “trusted” by search engines. As mentioned above, that content should change from time to time as a static page is not seen as favorably as an active one.

In previous years, search engines tended to put more emphasis on the Home, or index page of a website. That would necessitate seasonally topical content being inserted on the first page of the site six to twelve weeks before placements were expected, or the development of seasonal sub-domains. Now that search engines tend to treat all documents within a domain as equals, event or seasonal information can be an ongoing part of a much larger website. This again allows search marketers to view the web as a filing cabinet. It is a good thing to have information easily accessible at any time of the year and it is always a good time to promote seasonally topical information, even if the season or event is six months away.

There is a natural rush towards the date of the seasonal holiday or event that should be accounted for in search marketing planning. During the 2004 US elections, real estate in Maryland and Virginia was reaching a peak that tends to follow US election cycles. In the weeks leading up to the election, a massive rush from Maryland and Virginia based realtors flooded many SEO shops, even those of us a continent away on the west coast. Realtors who first approached SEO or SEM shops naturally tended to fare better than those who waited until mid-rush. (Many SEO and SEM shops offer exclusivity on keyword targets to clients and tend to not represent more than one client per keyword or keyword phrase).

A point Bill made in our discussion stood out. We should be telling our clients to try to envision their websites months or even a year in advance and asking questions about long-term marketing planning. What are our clients doing at various points in the year? Is there information on their websites that would be searched for with greater frequency one month over another? Are there products or services that have a seasonal tie-in?

In previous years, spiders drove the search marketing sales cycle. To get a strong Valentines Day placement, we would be working on optimizing content starting this week. Today, the search marketing sales cycle is much more similar to that of the brick-and-mortar world. For smaller clients and those with new websites, today is the time to starting to plan for next year’s Halloween to Christmas season, along with the dozen or so other consumer events of the calendar year.

The searchable universe has expanded enormously over the past year. From the doubling or tripling of the size of search engine indexes to the evolution of several engines with unique focuses, the amount of data accessible by search engine users has grown faster this year than any other since the dawn of the public, commercial Internet. Read more…

Following on the six site design sins from last week, here is the completion of the list of thirteen SEO Website / Search Issues from Y2K.

7) Sites designed entirely in Flash

Flash is an incredibly cool design medium that enables animations, sound, video and user interaction with websites. As the web and the designers who work on it become more sophisticated, Flash is being used more often. Unfortunately, Flash files are often used without search engine spiders in mind. While Micromedia did distribute a Search Development Kit to help search engines decode information phrased in Flash files, it is still very difficult to perform SEO services on a site designed primarily in Flash.

Sites designed in a coding language search spiders can easily read and understand tend to fare much better in organic listings. The best advice for using Flash files is to embed them in a page designed in a more standard format.

8) Use of MS Word HTML generator

Did you know that a MSWord document can be saved as an HTML document? If you didn’t, I am sorry to report it is possible. The problem is, MSWord documents saved as HTML documents have a bazillion or so lines of extraneous code and tend to perform quite poorly in search engine results. They are hard to work with from an SEO perspective as well. Removing extraneous code from a MSWord document can be difficult, even when using Dreamweaver.

9) Poor site maintenance, updates

Every town has a storefront that never changes and that store never seems to be very prosperous. Websites need to be updated and maintained, they are sort of like a storefront that way. There are actually two issues being addressed under this heading.

Maintenance: Many website owners do not properly maintain their websites. Some sites look years out of date while others continue to carry links to sites that no longer exist. We’ve even come across some sites with product information for items the business no longer carries. While operating a business in the real world can take a lot of time, the Internet is an active place of business. Spiders and live-visitors need to see a well maintained website to take the business seriously.

Updates: We have been preaching the values of regular site updates to clients for years. Adding fresh content to a site is important on so many levels. Google, for example, uses the rate at which new content is added to a site as a guideline when judging the relative importance of that site. Fresh content also increases the on-site inventory of documents that might achieve search engine placements.

Live-users also appreciate new content as it adds value to their experience at your site. As many online business owners understand, Internet users are a lot like regular shoppers. They follow patterns and purchase from places they are comfortable. Giving visitors a reason to revisit your site is always good for business.

10) Ignoring emerging technologies or pre-existing payment programs

This point follows the maintenance and update point for a good reason. For some website owners, the Internet is their primary place of business. Unlike brick and mortar operations, there is no physical location to purchase items, all sales are made online. That means the website is the store. Like their brink and mortar equivalents, online stores need to use a variety of tools to attract customers.

XML based sitemaps that feed information to the search engines via RSS is an example of a beneficial emerging technology that is being ignored by the majority of webmasters out there. Blogs, podcasting, social or industrial networking and the purchase of PPC advertising are others. By ignoring emerging technologies, business owners can miss vast groups of potential clients.

Online business is dependent on the electronic transfer of funds. For most that means using a credit card. Some people don’t use credit cards and others use them only for specific purposes. There are several types of online payment systems that are not dependent on credit cards, the most well known being PayPal. Surprisingly, relatively few online businesses accept PayPal as a payment option. How many brick and mortar businesses still use an abacus and a cigar box as the cash till? Aside from a few quaint grocers and herbalists in the older part of my town, I don’t know anyone else who even knows how to use an abacus. That’s the power of technology. There are still a few brick and mortar stores who refuse to honour bank debit cards or credit cards. By refusing to use newer technologies, their businesses either stagnate in a previous century (which in some cases is a welcome respite from the 21st century), or lose customers like myself who rarely use coin or cash.

The last three frightening things for SEOs are not on-site related but have an enormous sway on how our industry evolves and the practices we employ.

11) Over-reliance on Google Results

Google remains the most important search engine in the world. A strong placement on Google can make the difference between success and failure for many online businesses. Over time, Google has come to dominate the search sphere but as businesses affected by the series of Jagger Updates this month are learning, Google listings can be a very volatile place to do business in.

That shouldn’t be an issue for webmasters and online businesses as there are literally dozens of other marketplaces aside from Google. eBay is an example. There are other search engines as well. Yahoo, MSN and ASK all offer excellent search results and can collectively drive similar levels of traffic as Google. At the end of the day however, it must be noted that Google offers a heck of a lot of bang for the marketing buck and search users continue to love using Google.

It is strongly recommended that webmasters concentrate on getting strong organic and PPC placements at the other search engines and work to cultivate that business. Learning about and taking part in the Yahoo Publishing Network is a good alternative for webmasters and bloggers who want to diversify the advertising that appears on their documents. MSN is about to introduce a series of webmaster and business development features in their soon to be released paid advertising program.

12) Google’s use of DMOZ information

Google is again reverting to DMOZ descriptions on some sites in its listings. This means that Google is querying DMOZ for sites to include in its general listings. This can be a potentially damaging thing for a host of reasons.

First of all, it is not very easy to get a site listed in the DMOZ directory. The backlog is huge and editors at DMOZ seem to find reasons to not include sites they feel are designed for marketing purposes only. Some website owners and SEOs have waited for years without word on the status of their submission to DMOZ.

DMOZ editors are better known for following the DMOZ system than they are for accuracy or marketing acumen. If a mistake is made in your description, it is often quite difficult to get it corrected.

13) Misunderstanding the role of the SEO sector

SEOs are not miracle workers. SEO, as a profession is a combination of good website designers and good online marketers. We do not control or even directly manipulate search engine rankings. For the most part, we don’t even reverse engineer algorithms any more. We are simply online marketers who have learned a great deal about how search engines work and how they rank websites. Our technical job is to make client sites as friendly as possible for search engines. Our marketing job is to make the site as friendly as possible for live-visitors, to advise our clients about changes in the search sphere that might affect them for good or for ill, and to take action on items that might not be beneficial for clients.

We cannot make a site jump from number eight to number three, at least not with any guarantee of success. What we can do is make a website or document available to as many search engine spiders and search engine users as possible. We can help select keyword phrases and arrange them properly on the page. We can help with site design and structure, and leave trails for spiders to complete the submission phase. We can’t however tell Yahoo, Google, MSN, ASK or any other search engine to promote our client’s sites higher in the organic listings. If we could, we would charge a heck of a lot more.

Everyone loves Top10 lists. In the SEO industry, where search engine results form the ultimate Top10 lists for clients and practitioners, the sheer number of ways a website, document or other spiderable object can be designed makes it very difficult to produce a general Top10 list for best practices. There are however, a number of basic mistakes made by webmasters, site designers and new online-entrepreneurs that inadvertently create obstacles to search placement success. Read more…

Online advertising is entering a fourth phase of innovation. Each of the previous waves of online marketing innovation has directly influenced or informed the development of successive waves. Starting with banner ads ten years ago, the online economy has revolved around advertising. While subscriber fees, government grants and private investment capital paid for the development of the backbone, advertisers paid for the development and sustentation of commercial websites. The same is true today but, just over a decade into the evolution of the public/commercial Internet, advertising has become much more precise, targeted and universally pervasive. Read more…