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Search marketing euphoria

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17th May 2007
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By Mike Grehan, Search Marketing Association UK

Out of what started as a cottage industry of webmasters tweaking web pages for search engine crawlers in their back bedrooms, a boom town industry sector has emerged.

Yes, search marketing is just about the sexiest thing online. Ask your nearest search guru (there's one on every internet corner these days) and he'll tell you that search is outstripping press and radio for marketing budgets. And television advertising is on its last legs.

Some might have you believe that search is a marketing panacea. But is it anything near what it's cracked up to be?Here's my personal opinion right up front: search is probably the most vital component of your online marketing mix. But it's not the only one and it doesn't work very well in a silo.

Sure, the return on investment (ROI) in search marketing is pretty astounding. The cost per acquisition of a new customer is remarkably lower than broadcast advertising, direct marketing and yellow pages. However, conventional marketing and other forms of online marketing and promotion can add a huge boost to search marketing. So it would be foolish to look at search as the answer to everything.

I'll come back to the point raised above. But first, let's break the discipline into its two major forms and the directions that both are going. In the industry, we refer to the results down the left hand side of the page that you see at major search engines (such as Google) as 'organic' results. It's interchangeable, sometimes you'll hear 'natural' results and even 'algorithmic' results.

"Search is probably the most vital component of your online marketing mix. But it's not the only one and it doesn't work very well in a silo."

Basically, those results are ranked by a very complex computer algorithm. You can't pay to get higher and you have only a small amount of influence over where your web pages will rank in the results.

Across the top of the page at major search engines, you'll see some highlighted results marked as 'sponsored links' and down the right hand side of the page, the same thing but in small box shaped listings. These are referred to as pay-per-click (PPC) adverts. In the simplest sense, they work a little like an auction. I pay say 50p each time someone clicks on my advert when someone types in 'digital cameras' for instance, at Google.

If my competitor ups the bid to 60p per click, he'll then appear above me in the results. Again, the terms are interchangeable. You'll hear cost-per-click (CPC) and also 'performance advertising'.

The mechanics of PPC

Getting your head around the mechanics of PPC is a little easier than trying to understand the complex mathematical algorithms used by search engines to crawl the web downloading millions of web pages each day and then put them into an index. It's even more complex when a searcher types something like 'digital camera' and Google has to rank the best results (matching web pages) at the top of a pile of millions of potential web pages. And searchers only ever look at the top ten results.

If you can manage to get into those top ranking spots down the left hand side, it's very lucrative. Unlike PPC you don't have to pay each time someone clicks on your link. And many more clicks happen on the left hand side of the page than on the right.

As an analogy, you could think about it this way. Organic listings are a bit like PR. A bit like getting a free mention in the press, or on the radio or TV. Whereas PPC is much more like classified advertising. A bit like advertising fishing rods in a specialist fishing magazine.

So, as you can imagine, competition for those millions of clicks from potential new customers is very hot. The price of keywords in PPC advertising can rocket if you get involved in bid wars with your competitors. And top rankings in the organic results become more and more valuable.

Managing your PPC advertising spend is crucial to success. And understanding how search engines work, is crucial for success in the organic listings.

Basically (and this is a highly simplified version), with the organic results you need to make sure that the keywords you want to be found on (such as digital camera) actually appear in the web page that you want to be found. And more so in what's known as the 'title tag' of the page. Search engines then look at how popular your web pages are by then analysing who links to your web pages.

"Managing your PPC advertising spend is crucial to success. And understanding how search engines work, is crucial for success in the organic listings."

Loosely, this is known as link popularity. Obviously, if one web page about digital cameras has more links than another that's a sign of popularity. But its not the quantity of the links you have, it's more about the quality. Getting links from authority sites, such as the BBC are much more important than from a small online publication.

So if we know these things, about how search engines work and how PPC works, with the cost per acquisition being so low, do we really need anything other than search?

Let's return to my point earlier about search not being a marketing panacea. You see, marketing is becoming more and more query driven. When someone sees an advert on TV that interests them, you can guarantee they'll search for it at one of the three major search engines (Google, Yahoo!, MSN). And the more people search, the more you're likely to be found.

And the more you are found, the more likely you are to get quality links from other websites. Of course, creating tactical promotions with keywords and phrases which belong only to your organisation eliminates a lot of the competition on more generic terms.

It goes a lot deeper than the bit of scraping the surface in this article. But hopefully it's perhaps now easier to understand why search works best in a mix. Not in a silo.

Mike Grehan is founder and CEO of Searchvisible Ltd (www.searchvisible.co.uk). He is recognised as one of the foremost SEM experts and is the author of multiple books and white papers on the topic. Mike played a key role as founding member and promoter of the global Search Marketing Association (SMA) movement and is currently VP SMA-UK.

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