June 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

It’s only natural

In addition to using paid search, retailers are hunting for customers naturally

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. Paid search spending was easily measurable and less time-consuming, and campaign results were immediately visible.

Paid search still is all of those things. And it’s something else, too: increasingly costly for the most coveted keywords, a function of increasing competition for those top spots. Fathom Online’s Keyword Price Index shows that average winning bid prices for top keywords across industry segments including retail went up by more than 5% between Q1 2006 and Q1 2007.

“Paid search is getting crazy,” says Geoff Robertson, vice president of e-commerce at auto parts and accessories retailer J.C. Whitney & Co. “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.

What’s different this time around as marketers renew natural search efforts is they have a better understanding that natural search and paid search campaigns work together to maximize marketing efforts. Whether using it to rebalance marketing spending online, maintain a presence in engines between specific campaigns or pull in searchers who ignore paid listings for whatever reason, savvy marketers are viewing search engine optimization as a key part of the mix.

“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 Officefurniture.com, one of five sites operated by National Business Furniture. “So for us it has become more important to focus on search engine optimization. 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.”

Good news

The good news for marketers refocusing on search engine optimization is that properly executed, it can bring in traffic and sales at a fraction of the cost of paid search. Choosing the right mix of keywords and adjusting page architecture, content and copy to make it all friendly to search engine spiders that crawl the web for relevant material is hard work. But the attached cost, basically marketing and I.T. staff time or contracts with outside search engine optimization specialists, generally is lower than the media buy of cost-per-click keywords.

But the rest of the story is that while marketers focused on paid search, search engine optimization grew more complex. The basic principles of what constitutes effective search engine optimization haven’t changed, such as the correct URL structure and readable and current meta-tags and title tags for web pages. The web landscape spiders must crawl, however, has grown significantly larger.

Google, for example, indexes millions more web pages than it once did and as a result delivers more natural search results per keyword, making it more competitive than ever to gain that critical page-one listing. And more online marketers are attempting to optimize for natural search.

Duncan White, director of client services for search engine marketing service company OneUpWeb, says today it’s rare for him to research keywords on a client’s behalf and not find that some of the top-listed sites obviously have search engine optimization in place. “That didn’t happen a few years ago,” he says. And while links pointing to a site still may be part of search engine algorithms, Google has cracked down on link farms existing solely to manipulate rankings in search results, hindering an easy if debatable route to optimization.

Here’s what else has changed: Besides more and better competition from the outside, successful search engine optimization also faces challenges from within a retail organization. A newly-available cornucopia of rich media can make web pages pop from a design and a customer engagement perspective; but in the main, search engine spiders crawl tags and text, not images. That means some demands of search engine optimization can be at odds with web design aesthetics. While Nike.com ranks high under branded keywords such as Air Jordan, for example, it doesn’t rank high in natural listings under the keyword term “basketball shoes.”

“Nike has the brand equity, they have people linking to their site, and they have a lot of what they need to have in place already to take advantage of SEO. But like many big companies, they deferred to having a graphically-based, attractive web site vs. putting in place some of those principles that would allow them to grab positions in natural search,” White says. “But if someone’s looking for basketball shoes and they don’t see Nike as a point of purchase as they are looking through search results, Nike.com may not make that sale.”

With the cost savings of advertising via natural search and the potential instant lift of paid search each having its appeal, smart marketers are actively integrating them and leveraging each for what it can uniquely bring to the table.

Take J.C. Whitney. While always aware that natural search was an important part of the equation, for a time the company focused on the more easily executed paid search. That is, until the escalating cost of paid search and the realization that competitors were placing higher in natural search brought about a change in strategic thinking more than a year ago. The company found more than a way to fix the problem-it identified opportunities it hadn’t previously seen while figuring out how to re-mix its paid and natural search strategies.

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