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Search Engine Marketing Comes Of Age

By: robinhoughton Created on: November 6th, 2003
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Marketing Karma's Robin Houghton charts the rise of SEO and search marketing.

The way we were and the way we are now

Five years ago it was considered enough for a company just to have a website. The web was a relatively quiet place, webpages were text-heavy and the search engines were still indexing sites quickly 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 gain respectability and credibility. For all their hard work establishing standards, and despite the search engines' efforts to foil the tricksters, SEO has retained its slightly shabby reputation.

But things have moved on. The web is vast - Google currently has over 3.3 billion webpages indexed - and most search engines now offer a paid 'express inclusion' service. Getting found in a web search is no longer a given, it's a highly competitive business. And anyone in business needs to be taking it seriously if they're not already. Searching is still the number one activity on the web. That's searching - not shopping.

A quick glance at some of the government sites targeted at SMEs might make you think the only commercial use of the web is online transactions, or what commonly passes as 'e-commerce'.  This could be because at the heart of the government's internet policies lie technology, and investment in technology.

In reality, e-commerce is still only a fraction of what people actually get up to online. Your customers and potential customers may not be looking to buy, but they may well be looking for information about your products, services, directors, people, policies, recruitment and training. They may be looking for your competitors. They might be loyal advocates, disaffected customers or the open-minded curious. What they find when they search can be, and should be, largely managed through intelligent search engine marketing. Any of your stakeholders, actual or potential, could be investigating your company at any time via the web.

Beyond driving traffic

Marketers would generally agree that having invested in a decent website it would be foolhardy not to use it as a tool for customer acquisition. Before the advent of sponsored links on search engine results pages, there were basically two online methods of 'driving traffic' to a website. The first was to make sure your site came up in search results (the 'natural' way), and the second was to buy online advertising. Adverts were standard sizes, appeared in standard positions, and were paid for on a cost-per-thousand views basis. Everyone thought they knew where they were. Except when advertisers began to understand the internet a bit better and demanded more accountability.

There is, and always will be, something very 'old media' about the traditional online advertising model. It assumes that people need to be interrupted in what they're doing in order to get their attention. It ignores the most obvious truth about the internet - that people use it to actively look, not to passively watch. Nevertheless it was only a matter of time before advertisers began targeting the searchers - after all, what better moment to place a marketing message in front of an audience, than when it is actively looking for it?

During the dotcom boom the search engine optimisation (SEO) industry burgeoned. Specialist agencies popped up all over, many guaranteeing top search engine rankings, keeping their 'methods' secret and charging large retainers. Some did an effective job, others did not. Part of the problem lay in the industry terminology - the very phrase 'driving traffic' assumed a passive public, and the misplaced obsession with 'hits' did nothing to reassure marketers that they were getting an effective ROI.  As happened in the early days of web design, cowboys spoiled the ground for the genuine experts by leaving a trail of dissatisfied client marketers in their wake. Which was probably why search engine marketing didn't make the mainstream.  That is, until awareness of pay-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 now routinely offer PPC in their services portfolio. According to Piper Jaffray, the worldwide commercial search segment is set to grow from approximately $2 billion by the end of this year to around $5 by 2006. 

SEO is it really worth the effort?

Despite the growth of PPC, traditional search engine optimisation is still a no-brainer. Being found in 'natural' web searches remains a basic goal of any business with a web presence. Unfortunately, paying for professional SEO and express inclusion is the price of entry for all but the smallest of budgets. Directories such as Looksmart  or Yahoo! charge a submission fee - with no guarantee of inclusion. Good SEO should get you listed in Google, which is the one that matters most. And Google still feeds Yahoo! and AOL search (at the time of writing).  Inward links contribute to search engine rankings, so they are worth building up. All in all, SEO pays for itself over the long-term rather than the short-term. It is a measurable investment - but it's not simple.

The single biggest factor affecting search engine placement is content - by which I mean the words on each web page: actual live copy, page titles, file names and image tags. This puts SEO at odds with an advertising-driven marketing environment where 'creative' is usually synonymous with 'design'. Surveys constantly tell us that nobody wants to read reams of copy on a webpage. Some authoring software such as Macromedia Flash 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 become redundant.  But therein lies a problem. Search engine spiders - those robot programmes roaming the web and indexing pages - can still only read words, not images. Consequently many sites now struggle to achieve good 'natural' search engine rankings. Even when they do achieve them, chances are that the first three (or more) search results are sponsored listings - pushing the rest down below the fold where they may not be seen.

If you cant beat em

It is easy to see the attraction of PPC. The advertiser jumps to the top of the search results just by bidding a per-click amount for a search term. Since the bid amount is only deducted from the advertiser's account when someone actually clicks on the link, the placement itself is, in theory, free. Advertisers control the bid terms, bid amounts and overall budgets. They also control (within guidelines) the listing titles and descriptions and the link destinations. In some cases ads can be deployed instantaneously. Every click is accounted for and the process is transparent. For short-term campaigns, testing, to jumpstart a new site, or to complement parallel marketing activity, PPC can be an extremely effective tool. Overture claims that it delivers conversion rates ten times higher 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 search engine marketing, since it has only recently been claimed as a marketing function having languished under the IT umbrella for so long. But it's about so much more than simply being visible on the web, or having the right metatags in a website, or implementing the latest technology.

Search engine marketing impacts both directly and indirectly on sales, customer relationships, brand management, reputation management and market research. Whilst SEO remains as the basis of effective search engine marketing, the role of PPC grows more dominant as marketers look for fast, accountable cost-effective results.

Author Profile:

Robin Houghton ( advises small businesses on how to make the most of their marketing communications budget. Former Marketing Director of online agency DVisions, Robin specialises in online and has a particular interest in ethical issues. In addition to general consultancy work, she provides e-mail marketing services for brand building and customer retention.

Together with search engine marketer Samantha Steane, Robin produces the monthly ezine MarketingKarma (


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