September 1, 2009, 12:00 AM

Natural search still doesn`t come naturally

Exclusive Internet Retailer Research shows online retailers have made headway in natural search, and remain on top of paid search tactics.

Online retailers are making gains in natural search, but still find themselves trailing informational sites, notably Wikipedia, in many product categories. When it comes to paid search, where informational sites generally don`t compete, it`s a different story, according to Internet Retailer`s study of the natural and paid search rankings of 250 top retailers, which are featured in the recently released 2010 edition of the Internet Retailer Search Marketing Guide.

The 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 last year`s study, reported in the 2008 Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, which showed that retailers held only 29 of 60 possible top spots. But that still leaves retailers with opportunities to gain ground in taking prime positions for common search terms.

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 for these 20 terms.

Internet Retailer`s study of more than 300 keywords tested on Google`s search engine revealed a number of categories where Google entirely passes over retailers in assigning top spots in natural search results. For example, in the Appliances 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 appliance manufacturer Whirlpool and the top merchant was Best Buy, which showed up sixth.

What it takes
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 mathematical formulas that take into account the amount bid as well as Google`s assessment of a site`s relevance to the query. Natural search results reflect Google`s assessment of a site`s content, and retailers wanting to move up in natural search must build or purchase content related to their products. "Creating content takes work," Becker says.

Some retailers are doing a better job than others of gaining visibility in natural search results, often by tapping site analytics to identify words and phrases their customers are searching for or clicking on and making sure a site has lots of content relevant to those terms.

Among the Top 25 retailers in natural search, three moved up substantially in this year`s survey: 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 points this year versus 19 last year; and No. 16 Novica Collectibles Inc. registered a 606% increase, from 18 points in 2008 to 127 in 2009.

To rank web sites within their merchandising category and by keyword, Internet Retailer assigned points 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.

Natural search not only takes more work, results can be harder to identify and success short-lived. " For natural search terms, you try to optimize and then cross your fingers-you don`t feel as empowered as with paid search," says John Morley, executive vice president of marketing at BloomsToday.com, a flowers and gifts retailer. "SEO is ongoing and the rules change all the time. You need to devote substantial resources to it and it`s more challenging than paid search."

BloomsToday has engaged ChannelAdvisor Corp. to help manage advertising on the major search engines. "We work together daily on keywords," Morley says. There`s constant updating of the web retailer`s keywords, such as `flower delivery,` `fresh flower delivery` and `same day flower delivery.`

The partnership works well, Morley says, because ChannelAdvisor knows all about managing keywords, and BloomsToday is familiar with the terms consumers use when searching for flowers for delivery to homes, businesses, hospitals and funeral homes.

Paid search progress
Retailers score far better on paid search results than in natural search, Internet Retailer research shows. Retailers and shopping comparison sites hold 51 of the top 60 positions in the paid search category. That`s up slightly from 49 positions in the 2008 study. Consumer goods manufacturers and lead-generation sites are among retailers` competitors in pay-per-click search ads.

In paid search, Lowe`s Cos. Inc. (No. 1 in total points) was the leader with four spots, Sears Holdings Corp. (No. 2) held three, and Amazon (No. 3), Target Corp. (No. 4) and The Home Depot Inc. (No. 5) each showed up in two positions. No other retailer appeared more than once.

For retailers like Jelly Belly Candy Co., turning over paid search advertising to a third-party provider rather than continuing to handle it in-house proved a smart move. The retailer brought in NetElixir Inc. in 2008 and within a few months the cost per order from paid search declined 10% to 15% and order volume increased by 15%, says Jason Marrone, e-commerce marketing manager.

In addition to managing keywords, NetElixir helped Jelly Belly eliminate competition from its affiliates. The provider helped stop affiliates from bidding on trademarked keywords, such as Sport Beans and BeanBoozled. " We were competing against our own affiliates," Marrone says.

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