May 18, 2007, 12:00 AM

As paid search goes bananas, natural search gains importance

“Paid search is getting crazy,” says Geoff Robertson, vice president of e-commerce at J.C. Whitney. Hence the need to optimize sites for natural search, experts say.

Kurt Peters

Executive Editor


Since the dawn of Internet retailing, the black box of search engine algorithms has baffled more than a few marketers-so much so that it’s created a thriving industry of search engine optimization vendors dedicated to chasing algorithms on behalf of their clients. So when Overture-now Yahoo-and then Google offered the opportunity to bid on keywords a few years back, marketers climbed on board, relieved to be able to buy top spots in search results instead of just having to angle for them.

But things have changed. “Paid search is getting crazy,” says Geoff Robertson, vice president of e-commerce at auto parts and accessories retailer J.C. Whitney & Co., No. 112 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. “To get a dollar sale might cost you 50 cents.”

With stories such as Robertson’s in ample supply, marketers who had let search optimization efforts slip as they focused on paid search now are renewing efforts to squeeze more out of less-expensive natural search. In natural search, sometimes called organic search, search engine spiders crawl the web universe looking for content relevant to a keyword search as determined by each engine’s criteria. Unlike paid search, natural search listings are not influenced by payment to a search engine by web site operators, only by site operators’ efforts to make their web content easy for spiders to navigate.

“A company of our size does not have as large an advertising budget as an Office Depot,” says Eric Nebbia, director of e-commerce at, one of five sites operated by National Business Furniture LLC, No. 245 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. “So for us it has become more important to focus on search engine optimization. It’s cheaper if you can optimize your web site and get traffic that way without having to pay for it. But it’s important to have a strategy that includes both search engine marketing and search engine optimization. We find that many times they go hand in hand.”

There’s no doubt that at times it has seemed easier for marketers to simply pay for a keyword, measure the return and present the numbers in a neatly tied package to those in the organization to whom they’re accountable. So since search engine optimization’s effectiveness is harder to measure against ROI, marketers are learning to value it by other yardsticks: as a way to test strategy, offset other ad spending and maintain a consistent presence online, as well as build traffic and sales.

“If you can do well in natural it really helps you fund your other marketing campaigns,” says Robertson, who is speaking at Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition, June 4-7 in San Jose, in a session entitled Using Customer Product Reviews to Attract Loyal Shoppers. “If you can get sales at a low ad cost ratio, then you can start using your marketing dollars toward buying more or more expensive paid terms, or spending more on e-mail or affiliate programs. It’s a really important program from the perspective of maximizing marketing dollars.”



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