May 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Creative Climbing

Online retailers are learning how to move up in blended search results that can include blogs, videos and news, as well as traditional web sites.

As the Internet has evolved, so has the information on it. While online videos once were scarce, now YouTube and Hulu are household names. Social communities are among the most-trafficked sites on the web, and many people turn to blogs daily for their gossip fix or news.

This explosion of web content has led major search engines Google, MSN and Yahoo to change the way they present search results to incorporate the broad range of web content users are looking for.

Google Inc. was first in line, launching two years ago Universal Search, a major revision of how search results appear to include news, images, videos, blogs and other content besides standard web sites. The two other major search engines, those of Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., soon followed suit with their own versions of what is now typically referred to as blended search.

Over the last two years online retailers have developed strategies for taking advantage of blended search to gain prominence in search results. Several have found the keys to success-in some cases, by accident.

Among them is GK Elite, a retailer of gymnastics leotards.

While GK Elite is all about selling apparel for gymnasts and sponsors several big-name Olympians, a phrase like “Gymnastic Olympic Champion” wasn’t bringing up GK’s e-commerce site on the first page of search results. So GK tried another approach, creating a blog titled Gymnastic Olympic Champion that now often occupies a page-one spot on Google’s blended search results when a consumer searches the term.

Blogging bonus

GK has launched about 30 blogs with specific titles and content. Some of those blogs, such as one on Mens Compression Shirts and others, are appearing high in Google search results. In many cases, the blog postings appear higher than the e-commerce site itself.

“Our web site wasn’t appearing in blended search results for key and common phrases, but our blogs are,” say Andrew Foss, e-commerce manager for GK Elite, which conducts about half of its sales online. In fact, the blogs, which GK launched in January, have increased GK’s revenue from organic search by 39% and the net online revenue increase as a result of the blogs is 30%.

GK uses a blogging software program from Compendium Blogware. Each blog has its own page title and URL, which is important because it allows search engines to index each blog separately and allows GK to better target specific search terms, says Chris Baggott CEO and co-founder of Compendium.

Compendium’s clients typically create 20 to 100 or more blogs with individual titles and content centered around specific keywords, Baggott says. Blog copy is focused on the targeted phrases which, along with the title of the blog, help search engines connect the targeted search terms to the blogs. Links to the e-commerce site are peppered throughout the entries so it’s easy for consumers to quickly move from reading a blog entry to making a purchase. Compendium charges clients by the number of blogs it manages.

Foss says he and a colleague write each brief entry-often just a few sentences, sometimes adding in an embedded video. GK strives to add one post to each blog daily. The entire program takes Foss three to four hours a week to manage.

Because the blogs are appearing high in blended search results, GK has been able to cut its paid search budget 30% since implementing the program. He says the blogs paid for themselves in three months.

Foss says the program is easy to use. Red and green alerts tell him when his copy has too many instances of the key phrase and could be flagged as spam, or when it doesn’t have enough mentions of a key term. “We just keep tweaking until we are in the green, it’s really simple,” he says.

Localize

Multichannel retailer Bice’s Florist, was able to use another type of blended search, local or geo-targeted search results, to boost sales and traffic. “We saw Google start placing more emphasis on local business,” says Keith Riewe, president of Bice’s, which has a bricks-and-mortar location in Fort Worth, Texas, in addition to its e-commerce site. “For example, we noticed Google now has local listings that show up when you search for ‘Fort Worth florist.’”

Reacting to the change, Riewe updated his local ads with Google AdWords, modifying the phone numbers from 800 numbers to numbers with Fort Worth area codes. Google, he says, seems to have picked up the changes, and Bice’s is now showing up as a local listing in Google’s search results for Fort Worth florists.

The company is getting more clicks and business from the local listings on Google, and online sales stemming from local listings have increased about 30% since Bice’s made the change, Riewe says. “I think this is a good move on Google’s part because it allows the consumer the chance to know they are doing business with a local company,” he adds.

More natural search traffic was an unintended but welcome benefit that Canada-based book e-retailer Indigo Books & Music experienced when it launched a social community for book lovers. Visitors to Indigo can create a free profile and join the community, which now has more than 200,000 registered members who browse books, check out book clubs and read reviews. They also can communicate with one another through blog posts and comments.

With the move to blended search, engines are often including in results social networks and communities, such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook. Soon search engines began noticing the Indigo community. “Natural search was an unplanned benefit that actually dwarfed the original business case for the community,” says Sumit Oberai, vice president of customer solutions at Indigo Books & Music.

Non-Canadian natural search traffic has grown by more than 100% to the retailer’s e-commerce site since the community launched and Canadian traffic has increased by 30-50%. Oberai believes the rise in traffic from outside Canada was more pronounced because it had been so much lower previously. “We’ve always had good traffic in Canada,” he says.

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