May 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Search Engine Marketing: The Major Online Promotion Tool

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After a retailer has selected the keywords and made sure they are the right ones, the real work begins. One of the major challenges is making sure that how the site ranks in search results is paying back in sales. “A big change that we’ve noticed in the past 12 months has been that retailers are tracking their conversions,” Schulz says. “There are a variety of ways to understand how they’re doing, but they need to employ some tools beyond knowing the click-through rates.”

Newest services

Until vendors began offering such analytics tools to help retailers test their effectiveness, the only way to know what was happening was to play around with the keywords and observe traffic to a site. “One client was spending $60,000 a month on keywords at Overture and I asked how effective the spending was for him,” Baillie recounts. “He said, ‘I don’t know. I’m afraid to pull my terms because I don’t want our sales to go flat.’”

Measuring the effectiveness of search placements is the newest area where many vendors are competing. In fact, one measure of the importance of such analytics is that just about all vendors are offering analytics products that tie conversions and sales to keywords that customers searched on as well as to sources of referrals. Most also report number of conversions and sales, cost of bringing the customer to the site, repeat buyers and more:

— Go Toast offers its placement and analysis products on an ASP basis.

— Google has created a number of vertical markets including a retail team and has created as a shopping portal.

— Inceptor says its Excedia product analyzes the effectiveness of marketing in all media.

— iProspect recently licensed Future Now Inc.’s methodology for analyzing web content and redesigning pages.

— Oneupweb offers its ROI Trax.

— Overture is working with high-end analytics providers to show the value of paid search placements.

— Priva is rolling out a product it calls PRIZM.

“Rather than rankings and focusing on getting the top spot, the industry is now focusing on what people are searching on and asking: Is being number one in the search results really getting us something?” Baillie says.

Most software that tracks the effectiveness of search results when a customer clicks through to a web site can report which search engine delivered the consumer to the site and which keyword the consumer searched on. Most also then track what the customer views and whether the customer buys something.

Understanding the return

For further analysis, it’s up to the retailer to provide the search analytics program information on profit margins, average sales and conversion rates so the program can measure the efficacy of each keyword that the retailer employs. “Retailers plug in the formula-as much or as little data as they want to provide-and it helps them understand the actual financial return on each campaign,” says Wehr about Oneupweb’s ROI Trax product. “It’s a comprehensive reporting system that helps retailers understand how the campaign is doing and how it can continue to improve and drive more traffic to the site.”

It’s also a way, she says, to make sure they have chosen the right keywords. “Doing the analytics gives us a whole new list of real-world phrases based on what people search on,” Wehr says.

Analytics can further help retailers understand if customers are coming to the right page in order to make buying and checking out as easy as possible with as few clicks as possible. “It’s really important to get the customer to the right page,” Inceptor’s Koehrer says. “We all know there are people who are really savvy and can find their way around a web site and others who cannot.”

The right landing page

Koehrer recommends that retailers test delivering search users to different landing pages at a site to determine how they convert to buyers. “You need to take their eyeballs right to what they want,” he says.

What that page displays is up to each retailer. “Sometimes it’s more economical to have people go to a category page than to a product page,” Armstrong says. By referring customers to category pages, retailers have to manage fewer pages in relation to search results. Others argue that offering customers a few extra products when they get to the landing page is sound merchandising because it offers the opportunity for cross-selling and upsellng.

Analytics also are telling retailers whether the ranking in search results is really beneficial. Depending on the product and the term, a number one spot is not always necessary-but usually being in the top five is, Baillie says. “If you’re a research topic, you can probably be pages into the rankings and still be looked at. But that’s not as true with retail,” he says. “It’s very important to be in the top five.”

As a result of the focus on analytics, search engine marketing companies have found themselves becoming more deeply involved in advising retailers on the content of their sites. “Before a site can be indexed and before the pages are optimized, you have to look at the site and ask whether it can be indexed,” Baillie says. “Unless a spider can crawl specific pages, you won’t get indexed.”

Search engine marketing companies are finding that their recommendations for how to place high in rankings have implications beyond the marketing department. “When we do a search engine marketing campaign and a site gains in rankings, we sometimes find that we are directing changes in a web site’s architecture,” Marckini says. But, he adds, iProspect does not design sites. “We are unconcerned with design; we are concerned with text,” he says.

A balancing act

Thus retailers have a balancing act: Their site design must lend itself to optimal search engine marketing, and their marketing program must take best advantage of their site design. “Retailers need to pay attention to both,” Wehr says. “They’re spending their time developing their web site, and they’re not spending their time developing their marketing program. They have to build optimization into their web sites as they build the sites.”

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