December 31, 2009, 12:00 AM

Big box retailers get most web traffic from natural search, study finds

Despite a heavy investment in paid search, 66% of the traffic at big box retailers’ web sites comes from non-paid clicks.

Zak Stambor

Managing Editor

Big box retailers’ web sites drove more than a billion search visits from July 2008 to July 2009, collectively spending about $678,000 per day on more than 1.2 million paid keywords, according to “The Big Box Retail Industry,” a new report from search engine optimization technology vendor Conductor that analyzed the search traffic of the top 10 big box retailers in the third quarter. Yet, despite the heavy investment in paid search, 66% of their traffic overall came from natural, or non-paid clicks.

Though natural search drove a higher percentage of search activity overall for the group, individual retailers varied widely in their search marketing strategies. For example, the web sites of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., which are the big box retailers that get the most search traffic, employed very different approaches to search.

Wal-Mart, No. 13 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, averages 19 million search visits per month. It gets 91% of its search traffic from natural search and only 9% from paid search, on which it spends an estimated $9,000 daily. (A PDF version of the financial and operating profiles of the retailers mentioned in this article can be ordered by clicking on their names).

Among the retailers studied, Costco Wholesale Corp., which ranks tenth in overall visitors, is an outlier, spending only $109 on paid search per day, the report says.

Direct competitors in the home improvement category, the Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos. Inc., receive nearly the same volume of overall visitors. Home Depot receives 49% of its search traffic from paid search, spending $51,842 per day, while Lowe’s gets 40% of its search traffic from paid search at a daily spend estimated at $40,498, according to the report.

Wal-Mart is No. 76.

The report gauged whether a retailer was optimizing for a natural keyword by determining whether the retailer’s listing appeared high in natural search results for the keyword, with a high ranking suggesting that the retailer was, in fact, actively managing it for natural search.

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