July 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Targeting Search Engine Rankings

Online retailers play the paid search game well, but often play second fiddle in natural search results to informational sites.

Given the billions of dollars web retailers spend on paid search each year and their growing investment in site optimization, retailers by now should have a pretty firm grasp of search engine marketing. But a new nine-week study by Internet Retailer for the just-released Top 500 Guide of more than 300 keywords in 20 merchandising categories on Google reveals that retail web sites have a split approach to search engine marketing. While they understand how to manage and bid on pay-per-click keywords, they fall behind informational and other non-retail sites when it comes to natural search results.

In fact, in natural search results, retailers occupied fewer than half of the three top spots in the 20 categories-29 out of a possible 60 positions. Amazon.com Inc., the largest online retailer, led the industry, appearing 11 times in the 60 spots. In six of those, Amazon was No. 1. The next most frequently appearing retailer was Overstock.com Inc., a prime competitor to Amazon and No. 30 among Internet retailers, with three. No other retailer showed up more than once in the 60 possible spots.

Appearing in natural search results is key to a web site’s success. Several studies have shown that consumers’ eyes jump over paid results and go direct to natural. For instance, on Google, one study showed consumers preferring natural results 3 to 1.

Though to retailers, search ranking is a complex, unpredictable process, Google and other search engines work hard to rank what they deem to be the correct sites. If they view a query to be 60% informational, for example, six of the top ten results will be informational, some experts say. If they believe a query to be largely transactional, most of the results will be retailers or comparison sites.

Informational sites stand to outrank retailers in natural search in almost every case, especially for relatively general keywords like the ones used for this research, because they have the capacity for seemingly unlimited content and they can overwhelm retailers in terms of link popularity. While it’s correct to assume that user-driven sites like Wikipedia might not be the most credible in terms of information accuracy, the credibility they have generated comes from the extreme popularity they have achieved. “I don’t think retailers can ever surpass Wikipedia because of the two key pillars in search engine optimization-relevant content and sites linking to you, both of which Wikipedia dominates,” says Suzy Sandberg, president of PM Digital, a search engine marketing company.

But while retailers may never be able to top Wikipedia and other informational sites in all categories of keywords, they can take steps to boost their sites higher in search engine listings.

“Whenever a retailer sees a Wikipedia listing appear in search results, that retailer should immediately ask: ‘Are there pages on my web site that meet the searchers’ informational needs?’” says Shari Thurow, founder and search optimization director at consultants Omni Marketing Interactive. “Many retail web sites contain informational pages, but many retailers might not realize it.”

There are several types of informational pages that can assist in search engine recognition for informational queries: buyer’s guides, blogs and how-to pages are all good examples, Thurow says. An appliance retailer, for instance, might add a how-to page describing the selecting of a proper dishwasher, or a home furnishings retail site could insert a page describing the assembly of a shelving unit.

Creating long-lasting content

Creating such informational pages addresses one of the biggest problems of landing high in natural-language search results: long-lasting, static content. With their ever-changing inventories, retailers rarely have content on their sites long enough to make search engines believe that they should rank high in search results for a long time. “Retailers sell inventory, and inventory fluctuates,” says Robert J. Murray, president of search engine marketing company iProspect.com Inc.

Apart from such content, a further challenge retailers face is that of links. Search engines give higher credibility to sites that have a lot of links, something that is tough for most retailers to accomplish. Retailers can address that issue, in part, by using so-called “bread crumbs,” Murray says. Bread crumbs, or the trail that usually appears at the top of a page that indicates where a shopper is in a site’s hierarchy, create a navigational outline that shows a shopper who has entered a product page from a search engine how to take steps backwards in the site’s hierarchy to a category page. This type of navigational tree creates interlinking and goes a long way, Murray says, in terms of search engine recognition.

Another important tip for retailers is to optimize category pages to accommodate the plural form of their targeted keywords because searchers are looking for a list when a query is plural, and category/channel pages often contain product lists, Thurow says.

Apart from particular steps that retailers can take, they should also look closely at their own site optimization efforts. A three-year study by search engine optimization company Oneupweb of Top 100 retailers’ optimization efforts confirms that they’re not very good at it. The most recent study reports that only 40% operated well or moderately optimized sites. The study looked at site architecture, meta tags, keywords, content and other factors affecting the site’s ability to be indexed by search engine spiders and to be well-positioned in natural search results.

The process may be more difficult, but spending to optimize a web site pays off in the end, Murray says. His clients that have had the most success at optimization and tracking results are those who understand the concept of creating flat, static content.

Who’s where?

So who’s occupying those spaces that retailers are not? Wikipedia.org, the online collaborative encyclopedia, held 17 of the spots, including 11 No. 1 spots. Other information providers, comparison shopping sites or shopping portals occupied 12 spots, with About Inc. holding three of those. The two remaining spots not occupied by retailers were held by Microsoft Corp. and the U.S. Department of Energy, both in the Home Improvements category.

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