January 4, 2006, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Search Engine Marketing

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Not just is the technology becoming more complex, but it’s also diverse as Google and Yahoo require different technological interfaces, as do the other search engines and the comparison shopping sites. “There’s a drastic difference between Google and Yahoo,” Larkins says. “And that makes a difference in how you compete, how you look at bidding and many other areas.”

Bigger mountains

Larkins adds that requirements are also always changing. “Google and Yahoo change interfaces almost on a daily basis,” he says. “They’re always updating their API (application program interface) to improve it. So you need a nimble tech group to stay up with it.”

And, participants add, service providers who don’t keep up can fall behind very quickly. “People were prepared to climb small mountains; now there are bigger mountains and you need a whole new set of guides,” Marckini says.

That applies, Williams says, to the technology as well as to the people. “There are a lot of paid search programs that were built around older search platforms, but today they’re not sophisticated enough to operate on the Google platform,” Williams says. Noting that 360i owns its own search technology, known as Search Ignite, which it acquired in 2003, Williams adds: “We developed ours to interface easily with Google as well as Overture (Yahoo Search Marketing, today).”

And that, say most participants, makes the need for technologically savvy partners all the more important. “You need a vendor with a lot of sophisticated, mature technology, not just to manage bids but also to create feeds, do keyword discovery and all the things you do for paid search but that also allow you to optimize your campaigns for natural search,” Marckini says.

Participants caution, however, that agencies and retailers should not be so wowed by the technology that they forget the importance of the people behind the technology. “Some people think that just because the business is online, it should be technology-driven,” says Elkin, who notes that iCrossing uses technology that it developed itself. “On the contrary, we believe that the value we add is on the agency side, with our creative work, market research and analytics.”

Optimization is not dead

The market may be very complex, but one thing that most vendors of search services agree on is that retailers need to engage in both paid search and page optimization-an approach that only two or three years ago many retailers did not buy. The first round of search marketing focused on creating pages that would land high in search results. Marketers with web sites achieved that a number of ways, often by incorporating on their pages hidden text that would be found by the search engine crawlers. But the engines quickly developed rules against such practices and, rather than optimize their sites to comply with the new search rules, many retailers simply opted for paid search because it’s quick and shows almost immediate results. It appeared then that optimization would take a back seat to paid.

But the market has shifted again, and Google reports that consumers prefer natural results over paid 3 to 1. “If you’re doing paid only, you’ll miss the majority of clicks,” Marckini says. He cites the case of one client who had been getting 100,000 visitors a month. After iProspect optimized the site, traffic immediately shot up to 500,000 a month. Another retailer went from 17 million visits a month to 36 million after optimization.

Many see natural search as the foundation of any search program. “We definitely see natural search as the cornerstone to give the best long-term results,” Elkin says. In addition, natural search gives the retailer more control over its message and how it appears on the web, he says. “You control your message when you’ve optimized your pages,” he says. “It comes down to do you want to tell your story or do you want a search engine to do it.”

Cross-channel pollination

Optimization creates new opportunities for crawlers to find sites, but it’s not necessarily easy. It usually requires architectural changes, such as how pages link to each other within a site. Often it’s hard to convince IT that the changes are a priority, Marckini says. Further, such changes require that sites change how they display content. “If what looks like text on a page is really a graphic, all an engine will see is ‘file.jpg,’” Marckini says. “Sites have to replace that with text that can be read and spidered.” Further, he adds, basic instructions to users can cause some sites to not get ranked highly. “Rather than just say ‘Click here’ a link should say something like ‘For more information on whatever product, click here,’” he says.

Today, not only are retailers doing both paid and natural, but they’re also using what they learn from one to inform how they conduct the other. “A lot of retailers recognize the importance of doing both,” Marckini says. “If you buy keywords, you learn what content to optimize. When you optimize, you learn about keywords that you didn’t expect to perform. You can port that information between the two types.”

ChannelAdvisor is also taking that approach with its Natural Search Appliance product. “That allows cross-channel pollination,” Wingo says. “With the Natural Search Appliance, you can add natural terms into paid search and come up with list of great terms that you might not have thought of otherwise. This allows you to see what people are searching on at shopping engines.”

In addition, some of the search marketing companies today are engaging in other kinds of advertising which feeds into search marketing. “360i is not just a search engine optimization and paid placement company,” Williams says. “We take a broader view of online marketing. We’re involved in shopping site feeds and banners. Our perspective is that we handle all aspects of performance-based marketing.”

The portfolio approach

Those approaches feed into one another, he says. “It’s like a portfolio,” Williams says. “You have to pay attention to balancing search engine optimization against shopping feeds against paid search activities. And then you have to set aside an attack fund to try new opportunities, like pay per call.”

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