January 31, 2008, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: How to find the payoff in search marketing

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Focusing on branding terms can raise awareness of the retailer among consumers and generate long-term sales. Indeed, brand ads are an essential part of advertising. In the case of paid search, the key is identifying which keywords are geared more toward brand building than immediate sales. “Certain keywords have immense brand value, but like any keyword retailers have to manage them to their ROI,” Szetela says. “The value in brand-oriented keywords is future sales.”

Managing the ROI of brand-oriented keywords lowers the risk of spending on those words, as retailers are no longer picking words and hoping they deliver tangible results, according to Szetela.

This approach has made brand advertising more common among search managers. About 50% of Clix Marketing’s clients focus on paid search for brand advertising. “There is no reason for retailers not to purchase a top ranking for a keyword in a brand marketing situation, even if they have to pay extra, if it is a top performing keyword and the ROI for that keyword is acceptable,” says Szetela.

Indirect boosts to the value of paid search campaigns can also come from mass media ad campaigns created in part to drive search traffic or traffic directly to the retailer’s web site, such as television commercials encouraging viewers to visit a web site or to Google a particular term.

Other marketing’s influence

“Consumer search behavior does not occur in a vacuum; a lot of times it is influenced by other marketing and advertising strategies online and offline,” says Didit’s Lee. “The success of the keyword can be attributable to other types of marketing, such as viral marketing or catalog drops that can spark a product search. The more retailers understand how other types of marketing and advertising impact paid search, the more effectively they can adjust their bid strategies.”

By paying closer attention to the ROI keywords generate, retailers can avoid overpaying for poor performing keywords and identify alternative keywords that can help them get more mileage out of their paid search budgets and compete more cost effectively as keyword prices rise.

Unleashing the power of natural search marketing

The popularity of search engine optimization may have slipped with some retailers in favor of paid search, but it is still a critical component of any retailer’s search marketing strategy. Unlike paid search, for which the cost of keywords is rising and the ROI getting harder to find, search engine optimization remains a cost effective method for generating sales and site traffic, and building brand awareness.

“Merchants are missing the boat on maximizing natural search,” says Brian Klais, vice president of search for Netconcepts, a Madison, Wis.-based search engine and web site optimization firm. “Natural search ought to be treated as an ad channel rather than a marketing effort that is driven more by the IT department because of the need for constant page management to make them visible to search engine spiders.”

By treating search engine optimization as an ad channel, as opposed to a time and labor intensive process of optimizing page content, retailers can effectively broaden the reach of their catalog to shoppers at a much lower cost than buying keywords for paid search ads.

Scaling up at lower cost

“Retailers with 50,000 or more SKUs can’t necessarily afford to market them all using paid search,” says Rahmon Coupe, CEO of YourAmigo, a global search marketing firm headquartered in Adelaide, Australia. “Search engine optimization allows retailers to market more product lines by generating additional category and subcategory landing pages that search spiders can crawl, so those products convert at a cost lower than paid search. Unlike traditional SEO companies, YourAmigo removes retailer’s potential risk by charging on a performance basis, rather than a flat fee under a long-term contract.”

One of the most overlooked opportunities with search engine optimization is long tail search, in which a search starts on general terms, such as books, dresses, motorcycle gear, and then moves to more specific interests, such as “women’s Harley Davidson motorcycle clothing.” With the long tail, the goal for retailers is to tap beyond the head of very popular search terms to the long tail that follows behind. Long tail searches not only collectively generate sizable traffic, which according to studies conducted by YourAmigo can generate 75% of organic search traffic, but traffic that typically converts better than more generic search terms.

“Different shoppers use many different words to express the same thing, but many retailers do not look to optimize their search dictionary and instead focus on broader, more generic terms,” says Coupe. “But retailers can’t just focus on the 20-30 most commonly searched keywords. When all the different phrases and ways people search using the long tail are added up, it’s a very fertile opportunity.”

The opportunity lies in optimizing the content on category and product pages within the web site so it is highly visible to search engine spiders, and in turn generates a high ranking for long tail search strings, which tend not to be brand specific. Research by Netconcepts reveals that for every 40 searches on generic keywords such as “bedding,” one will be conducted for “Wamsutta sheets.”

A lot of work

“Merchants can tap a market value of 40 to 1 by optimizing the long tail,” says NetConcepts’s Klais. “Retailers get a lot of traffic from long tail natural search around brand names, but most do not capitalize as much as they can on this opportunity because they tend not to look at management of the long tail as an ongoing process.”

Indeed, the management aspects of search engine optimization prompt many retailers to focus more attention on paid search because they can get an immediate bang for their buck on paid search ads that transport shoppers to a product or category page. Search engine optimization, by contrast, often cannot bring shoppers to a specific page and, because they depend on search engine spiders to crawl them and then the engines to index them, take longer to show up in search results.

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