May 23, 2002, 12:00 AM

Hitting the Target

(Page 2 of 3)

To cut through the clutter and find what they’re after more quickly, sophisticated web users have become more specific in their query language. The number of queries on Excite that used three or more terms rose to 42% of all searches in 2001, up from 36% two years earlier. That makes keyword selection an ever-shifting target. “Sometimes our clients don’t necessarily see the forest for the trees,” says Dennis Pushkin, CEO of MoreVisibility.com. “What they think the customer is looking for is frequently not the case.”

Remember the swirl mark remover? It demonstrates one of the first things e-retailers need to understand in choosing keywords most relevant to consumers. Many online searchers are looking not so much for a brand or product name as the solution to a problem, and they’ll frame their search query accordingly. Less experienced web users or those less familiar with a product or topic often will frame the search as a question rather than type in a brand or product name.

Same product, different paths

Yet others do search for specific brands and products, zeroing in on them directly with search queries such as “Playstation 2.” That highlights the next thing merchants must understand about web shoppers: there can be several audiences for the same product, and they’ll take different paths to the same page. “The veteran backpacker and rock climber is going to search for gear differently than the person who’s just getting interested in rock climbing,” says Marckini. “The retailer has to acknowledge that there are different audiences using different ways to make buying decisions. They need to identify the query language used by each audience, and optimize keywords for both audiences accordingly.”

Even when retailers are armed with that knowledge, keyword optimization remains a moving target. The marketplace evolves, new products are introduced, and the keyword that held center stage can move to the periphery as new terms emerge. While the term “cell phone” might have attracted the vanguard of telecommunications junkies when the technology was new, for example, those early adopters have now most likely moved to “cell phone and PDA” and beyond.

And yet, search optimization providers caution against keywords that are too narrow. If a site begins an optimization program with 100 keywords and six months later only 25 have generated conversions, the first inclination is to focus on them exclusively. But that’s a mistake, says Marckini. “You’re getting down to a smaller and more specific universe, but you might miss a rich vein. Keep it too narrow for too long, and you can miss out on the fact that the market has changed. You need to continually reinvestigate keywords you’re targeting to make sure you’re not missing new categories of terms.”

Suiting to a tea

Re-visiting keywords to optimize search terms that are subsets of more competitive and highly sought-after keywords also can be a cost-effective way to boost traffic and sales. One of MoreVisibility.com’s clients, for example, tea vendor The Republic of Tea, wanted to move beyond “tea” as the most obvious and broadest keyword. “We came up with ‘herbal tea,’ ‘green tea,’ ‘British tea’ and ‘teabag,’” Pushkin says. “The more specific you can get, the better qualified the potential lead and the stronger the conversion rate.”

Choosing successful keywords is about balancing the broadest terms with the highest targetability. Bigger concerns outsource optimization functions, and the client lists of optimization providers include more than a few top retailers and consumer packaged goods manufacturers.

But rather than relying solely on gut instinct, smaller companies and those simply looking for a reality check before drafting a keyword list for an optimization provider can take steps on their own to test whether their perception of how customers search for their products online matches up with the actual behavior of online shoppers.

Optimization providers say companies should first look to their own server logs to find the terms under which customers are reaching them. That exercise also gives clues on how shoppers are not finding their site, which can yield equally valuable intelligence. “If you sell tennis shoes, and you get a lot of traffic through the term ‘Reebok tennis shoes,’ but none through ‘Nike tennis shoes,’ for instance, that may be an area you want to focus on,” Wehr says.

View the source code

Retailers can also look at what competitive web sites are doing. “If they are ranking well under terms that you want to be found under, view their source codes and see what types of words they are using. The source code is basically the metatag,” she adds.
E-retailers can even try their own hand at picking and testing keywords by using the same technology used by a number of the optimization firms. Position Technologies offers Position Pro, a web-based tool that will crawl a site as if it were a real search engine, applying similar algorithms to rank a page. The tool provides a numerical range of values likely to correspond with certain results in a real online search. Marketers can test words, run the algorithms, make changes in real time and see how different words and terms perform. When the tested terms achieve scores within the targeted range of values, PositonPro.com submits them electronically to its partner engine, Inktomi, whose technology powers searches at aol.com, msn.com and other sites.

PositionPro.com and a growing number of other search engine optimization providers now feed keyword data directly into engines via XML feed, a technology that delivers the data in the format and order preferred by search engines. The net effect is that pages are more quickly digested and indexed by the engines. Marketers pay for the expedited submission. “XML provides an opportunity for the retailer to lay its data straight into the engine without having to jump through all the hoops that existed previously,” says Wetzler. “The onus is not so much on the retailers any longer as to how they arrange the data on the page.”

Different animals

As the line between online marketing functions such as tracking affiliate relationships and e-mail campaign results is blurring under the umbrella of customer acquisition, so is the line between providers of optimization services for keyword positioning and paid search.

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