May 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

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

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Some vendors offer specialized products that bring previously buried product information to the top so search engines can find it. Inceptor’s Excedia 4.0 product, for instance, retrieves content from a product catalog, articles or in other areas not visible to spiders that may be stored in Microsoft Word or an Adobe PDF and not necessarily visible to spiders. Inceptor says Excedia reads this content and converts it into optimized HTML that can be presented to search engines for indexing.

Specialization

The complexity of search engine marketing dictates specialization when it comes to building a site, Baillie argues. “The web designer title is too big a category today,” he says. “You have graphic designers, who are different from HTML experts who are different from programmers. But at the same time, you have to make sure they all work together. We’ve seen too many cases where the designer puts something together and the search engine optimization expert comes in and says: ‘Guess what. This isn’t going to work.’”

A newer twist on search engine marketing is contextual advertising. It’s still pay per click and requires retailers to know which keywords are the best for their sites, but it gives the link a little more oomph and extends the reach of the search engine. Contextual advertising is most familiar through Google’s AdWords program, which displays special, sponsored links on the right side of search page results, usually in colored boxes with a notation that they are special sponsored listings. The AdWords program is a way for Google to make money directly from marketers for presenting their products.

When a consumer at Google searches on a term, Google displays its natural-language search results. But it also displays its AdWords ads. Now it is extending that presentation to other sites where Google is building relationships so a person viewing baseball scores at a newspaper site, for instance, will also get AdWords boxes displaying links to a team’s MLB.com Shop site, where the customer can buy a cap from his favorite team. Small retailers who want to use the AdWords can use a self-service section at Google to get started.

Large opportunity

Google recently agreed to extend contextual marketing to Amazon.com, where customers looking at certain products will get a pitch for related products. Customers viewing Bruce Springsteen’s latest CD, for instance, might get a link to a site selling tickets to a Springsteen concert or to an art site that features rock posters. Google bases the presentation on the content that the consumer is viewing at the moment, thus the contextual part. From its search engine expertise, Google is expert at analyzing pages, the company says, so it is merely extending that expertise to analyzing sites that consumers are viewing and delivering relevant marketing content.

Overture is working on a similar program which it expects to introduce to market this year. “There is a large opportunity in providing results in a non-search environment,” Schulz says. Because of the different context in which ads will appear, Schulz says Overture expects different, as-yet-undetermined results. Yet the prospect of earning click-through revenue is appealing to owners of content sites, he says. “Content providers have been knocking our door down,” he says. “Content providers have not been terrific at the monetization side of their business.”

Search engine marketing-with its focus on optimization and the need to constantly monitor keyword performance and rankings in search results-can be expensive and daunting. And even though many analysts argue that there is a quick return in search engine marketing investments, they nonetheless require upfront investments before retailers will see results. Thus some companies are offering their services on an outsourced basis.

Go Toast, for instance, has built its Market Maker product on an ASP basis. “The vendors we deal with are constantly changing and adjusting their feeds of data from marketers,” Carlson says. “They’re making changes every two weeks to their software. We deal with these changes all the time.” Go Toast’s services start at $50 a month and retailers can start with a 14-day free trial. “Lots of people tell us they make two, 10 or even 12 times the cost of our service,” Carlson says. Go Toast also offers a Profit Builder product which tracks conversions and ROI.

In spite of all the changes that have occurred recently in search engine marketing, more are on the way, most experts predict. For one thing, industry experts report that MSN and Yahoo are attempting to create paid search models of their own. Right now, they buy paid results from Overture. For another, the ways that retailers and search engines will cut data will continue to increase. “There will be much more retail information available to search on,” Armstrong says. “Both retailers and the search engines will find innovative ways to get information into users’ search results.”

Consoldiation is coming

Others say that consolidation of search engines is inevitable. Piper Jaffray reports that 15 major search engines operate today. But participants points to recent developments such as Overture’s purchase of AltaVista and FAST search engines recently and predict that more such acquisitions are likely. Overture says it will use AltaVista and FAST as testing grounds for new products.

Further, the search engine market is a dynamic one, so retailers need to keep up on what’s happening, Wehr cautions. “There are ebbs and flows in who’s popular and who’s not,” she says. “The major search properties are battling it out.”

At the same time, though, marketers are clamoring for more search real estate, which is one of the reasons that Google extended its AdWords program to other, non-search sites. In that area, some predict that comparison shopping sites will become a new battleground for search optimization as retailers seek ways to present their products more forcefully at sites where consumers are clearly ready to buy.

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