May 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Search Engine Marketing: The Major Online Promotion Tool

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Just identifying the proper keywords presents a challenge to most companies. There’s the famed case of the seller of a rubbing compound to buff up cars’ paint jobs. The marketer came to search engine marketing company iProspect.com Inc., wondering why the keyword “rubbing compound” wasn’t getting results. A little research showed that prospective customers were searching on the term “swirl marks,” which was the problem they were trying to solve, and not on the product that would solve the problem, says Fredrick Marckini, CEO of iProspect.

Other iProspect customers refused to use the terms “GPS” and “laptop” because that was not how their corporations identified the products they sold. “They’re not going to be found if they don’t understand how their audience is searching, and if they don’t have the words that people are searching for on their web sites,” Marckini says.

Be specific

In addition, retailers should be specific in their keyword selection, experts say. “‘Designer scarf’ or ‘silk scarf’ is better than just ‘scarves,’” Carlson says, “as is ‘cheap sports car insurance’ better than ‘automobile insurance.’” For one thing, he observes, a narrower term may be less expensive than a broad term for which there might be a lot of competition. For another, he adds, “It narrows down your audience to what you sell.”

Further, keyword selection is a dynamic activity. Once a retailer has identified keywords that it thinks will work, it should find out what other keywords they can lead to. “Retailers usually find a tremendous amount of information in keywords that they didn’t know existed,” says Google’s Armstrong. “A marketer could start with 500 keywords, then after a month of testing multiple messages with various keywords grow to 1,000 keywords.” Analyzing search results “gives you the flexibility to change as you go,” Armstrong says. Google provides retailers access to its database of searched terms so they can refine their keyword strategies.

Selecting keywords is only the start, though. After selection, keywords require constant management. For one thing, a retail marketing program must keep a vigilant eye on how it’s landing in the search rankings. With paid inclusions, that means constantly outbidding the competition. “Merchants need to stay abreast of pricing changes,” says Overture’s Schulz. “Some retailers put their most expensive words into categories and check them frequently.” With algorithmic search, or natural language search as it is also called, that means always analyzing page content to stay current. “You can never say, ‘I’m done,’” Baillie says. “Retailers should always be adding information pages to their sites, like product reviews and opinions, because search engines like new stuff.”

After that, retailers have to make sure that the keywords and their spots in the search results remain relevant to their business goals. “A retailer who has lots of inventory of a particular product will pay more to land high in the search results,” Koehrer says. “But once the inventory goes down, he better make sure his bid for placement goes down as well.” Same for particular products that a retailer may want to highlight-either to promote a high-margin product when it is seeking a little extra profitability or a seasonal item.

Similarly, the day of the week may affect the amount a retailer is willing to bid for keywords. “A lot of retailers launch sales on Sundays or Wednesdays, so they might want to increase their bids for certain keywords on those days only or for a few days after,” Wehr says.

Working together

In addition to bidding for keywords, however, retailers should be aware of the need to optimize their pages so that algorithmic search engines can find them. “Our biggest source of new revenue is people who come to us and say ‘I’ve been spending $10,000 a month on keywords and not getting results,’” Marckini says.

In fact, Marckini stresses that pay-per-click and optimizing pages to be found by search engines work together. “Some people believe that pay-per-click advertising by itself is search engine marketing, but nothing is further from the truth,” he says. “With pay per click, the instant your marketing budget expires, so does your visibility. But once you optimize your site, it can work for years. You have to integrate the two.”

In optimizing their web sites, retailers need to be alert to how consumers view their pages on the web. Pages that are delivered to the viewer from a database are less likely to be found by natural language search engines than pages that reside on the web, experts say. “Those pages look like a database and not like a web page,” says Google’s Armstrong.

Even marketers who use certain keywords over and over on their sites in a bid to rank high in search results may find that doesn’t work if they don’t do it at the right place on the web. “If a keyword doesn’t appear in a viewable part of the site, you won’t be found,” Marckini says.

Furthermore, retailers can buy services that will spider the site before they go out to be found by search engines. Go Toast, for instance, will spider a site and put all information into a master list, which it then will publish to the search engines, including page title, product description and URL. “We create the listings and keep the information current,” Carlson says.

Relevancy counts

Marketers say that shoppers perceive little difference between natural-language search results and paid search results. “End users tell us they are interested in the relevancy of the results and not in how the results got before them,” Schulz says.

In fact, consumers are smart about how the web works and are fully aware that some results are paid and others are not, Carlson says. “Consumers have become very savvy,” he says. “They know that if they’re shopping for something, it might be worth looking at the paid listings because someone is paying to get their attention.”

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