As the hobbled economy slows consumer spending, retailers are focusing on both paid search marketing to meet online shoppers’ immediate product needs and-increasingly-on natural search both to drive sales and establish lasting connections with consumers. Retailers’ use of natural search marketing is improving, but potential still is going unfulfilled, according to results of Internet Retailer’s study of keyword use by 250 top retailers, which are featured in the Internet Retailer Search Marketing Guide
The latest study found that retailers held down the top three spots in a little more than half of the 20 merchandising categories measured for natural search, placing in 35 of 60 possible spots. That’s an improvement over the prior year’s study, reported in the 2008 Top 500 Guide, which showed that retailers held only 29 of 60 possible top spots. But retailers have opportunities to gain more ground in placing keywords in the prime positions.
Amazon.com Inc. outpaced the industry in the first study, coming up 11 times in the top 60 natural keyword positions and placing first in six of them. The new research proved to be more of the same as Amazon filled 12 of the top 60 slots and once again claimed the top position in six categories. And Overstock.com Inc. appeared next most often with three spots in 2009, as in the previous study. No other retailers were listed more than once in the top 60 positions of natural search.
Internet Retailer’s study of more than 300 keywords tested on Google’s search engine revealed that in a number of categories retailers continue to come up short in taking advantage of natural search by failing to develop more detailed keyword content. For example, in the Appliances merchandising category, the first three positions were held by informational web sites: ConsumerSearch Inc., Energy Star and Wikipedia.org. The first company with a retail connection was brand manufacturer Whirlpool and it wasn’t until Best Buy showed up in the No. 6 position that a retailer appeared.
One reason retailers haven’t made greater inroads with natural search is that it’s more labor-intensive than paid search. “Paid search is, by design, highly tunable,” says e-commerce marketing consultant Larry Becker. “The retailer can tune paid search to the business metrics that make sense to them.” Paid search is based on concrete mathematical formulas, while natural search, in Google’s eyes, aims to assess editorial, or informational, content. Retailers wanting to take advantage of natural search keywords need to build or purchase content related to their products or marketplace to get consumers’ attention, in theory also capturing Google spiders’ gaze as well. “Creating content takes work,” Becker says.
Some retailers are doing a better job than others of managing natural search terms by re-examining their keyword inventory and making it more brand-specific and by tapping site navigation to identify words and phrases their customers are keying on. Among the Top 25 retailers in natural search, three have shown exponential improvement: No. 3 Target Corp.’s total points rose 787% from 31 in 2008 to 275 in 2009; No. 10 CSN Stores LLC shot up 853%, to 181 total points this year vs. 19 last year; and No. 16 Novica Collectibles Inc. registered a 606% increase, from 18 total points in 2008 to 127 in 2009.
To rank web sites within their merchandising category and by keyword, Internet Retailer assigned point values every time a retailer appeared in the first five paid and natural results in each segment. In the Personal Computer category in 2009, for example, Dell led the way with a score of 324 points in paid search and No. 2 Hewlett-Packard scored 137. By contrast, their respective scores in natural search were 80 and 49, and Dell was No. 5-after PriceGrabber.com Inc. (237 points), Wikipedia (210), Amazon (106) and Cables To Go (84)-while HP was No. 8.