May 23, 2002, 12:00 AM

Hitting the Target

Search success means more than just paid keywords; it means careful page design and targeted keyword selection.

Brand-new web site TotalHealthSource.com was all dressed up with no place to go. Shoppers just weren’t finding the nutritional supplement and fitness gear e-retailer after its January launch. And there wasn’t a big budget for advertising, which meant that TotalHealthSource couldn’t afford to pay for keyword positioning.

The company turned to Position Technologies Inc., a provider of search engine positioning services. Position Technologies helped produce a 125% lift in traffic for TotalHealthSource without paying for a single keyword position. And that lift was right out of the box for the 6-month-old web site. “With more keyword research, I think we can triple those results,” says president Dan Roitman.

While paying for top positions on search engines under targeted keywords is getting a lot of buzz among Internet retailers, advocates of optimization-constructing a web page and attaching data so as to help search engines more easily find and rank it in search results-say there’s more than one way to show up high in those results, and picking the right keywords is, well, key. While some retailers engage in bidding wars to secure top spots under highly competitive keywords in paid engines like Overture Services Inc., others are getting lifts from other keywords that, though less obvious, still can deliver traffic and conversions.

Finding those keywords is something of an art-a science, too, with algorithms developed by keyword positioning firms to identify how the various engines rank search results. Whether merchants pay outright for a top position in search engine results under a keyword, or try for high placement under that word by optimizing it on a page, neither strategy will deliver customers to a site if the keyword does not match what’s in customers’ minds when they go online to search. “It’s critical that marketers understand the language people use when they conduct a search on the web,” says Fredrick Marckini, CEO of search engine optimization provider iProspect. “Keywords are the Holy Grail.”

Swirl marks and tennis shoes

Take the term “swirl mark” as it played out online for a client of iProspect. The client, maker of a compound that removes swirl marks from auto body paint, initially pursued the keyword term “rubbing compound” because it described the product. But that term failed to connect with shoppers looking for the product. Analysis showed they weren’t searching for it under its category name; they were instead searching under keywords like “swirl mark removal” and “swirl mark.”

Swirl marks are one thing, but broader terms like “tennis shoe” are another. It would seem to be an obvious term consumers would use to search for that product online, one reason athletic shoe manufacturer New Balance in April was paying Overture 60 cents per click-through for the top spot in Overture’s search results on “tennis shoe.” And New Balance is hardly alone when it comes to forking over significant cash per click. Consider the $1 per click-through Elitepicnicbaskets.com was paying in April for top placement on Overture under “wedding gift.” Or the $3.40 plus that Esurance.com and Southern California Auto Club were paying in May for a top spot under “car insurance.”

Though paid search is a key component, comprehensive online marketing campaigns shouldn’t stop there, say optimization providers. Marckini notes that iProspect clients typically pay $15,000 to $25,000 per month for a variety of optimization services. By contrast, “Paid search can cost $2 to $4 per click on some of the more competitive keywords. We recently put 7 million visitors on a client’s web site-to do that with paid search would have cost about $1.4 million,” he says.

“Pay for position engines like Overture complement an optimization strategy,” says Andrew Wetzler, president of search optimization service provider MoreVisibility.com. “But the goal is to keep customer acquisition costs as low as possible, and when you are only bidding on keywords it can get expensive.”

Search optimization providers cite 100 or more variables that can be used to optimize a web page so as to make it easier for engines to recognize, grab and rank the page higher in search results. These include the layout of the page, the architecture that the site is hosted on and the way it serves pages, the actual content of the page and more. While different engines give priority to different variables when ranking search results, all search optimization providers say that keyword selection is the foundation of any successful optimization strategy for any engine.

Won’t get fooled again

And finding the right keywords for optimization programs-too narrow to command the high click-through prices paid for top positions in paid search, yet relevant enough to reach the intended audience-isn’t as easy at it looks.

“There are so many more things incorporated into search engine algorithms now. They’re much more sophisticated than they used to be,” says Lisa Wehr, president and founder of Oneupweb, a 7-year-old search engine optimization provider. “You have to continue to modify your processes as things change.”

Some changes directly affect the performance of keywords. Search engines are now digging deeper into pages in ranking results rather than simply depending on metatags, coding attached to each web page that tells the search engine what the page is about. In some cases, irrelevant keywords have been coded into metatags simply to draw more traffic to the page. A few years ago, for instance, “Barney” was popular even on sites that weren’t about dinosaurs or toys. Engines now work to eliminate irrelevant listings with algorithms that go beyond metatags to look at features such as keyword density and themes in a page’s copy.

Search engines have an increasingly complex job as the web universe expands. According to data gathered by B.J. Jansen, a U.S. Army War College researcher, and Jansen’s research colleagues, from web search engine Excite, the number of searched terms at Excite grew 21%, from 1.27 million in September 1997 to 1.54 million in May 2001.

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