February 1, 2005, 12:00 AM

Finding Help

(Page 2 of 3)

Then retailers can move on to other areas, such as examining the provider`s technology, reporting and account management, says Evans of HPshopping.com. When researching an agency`s technology, Evans advises making sure the vendor can automate the process. "It reduces human effort as well as keeps costs down," she says. Next, she says, see to it that the agency`s technology works with the retailer`s. "If they have a data feed solution in place but you can`t extract the data feed from your content management system, then you`ve got a problem," Evans says.

Don`t just make sure the agency has reporting, says Evans. Find one with reporting that helps build the bottom line. She says one factor that influenced HPshopping`s choice of Performics was that it measures down to the specific actions on a page and is flexible in how it reports information.

Building relationships

When it comes to account management, it`s important to understand the relationship the vendor has with the search engine companies and with shopping comparison sites, Evans says. "The closer tie they have with the shopping sites, the more HP is going to benefit," she says, noting the same holds true with search engines companies such as Google and Yahoo Inc.`s Overture Services Inc.

Before signing on with Performics, Evans and her one-person staff managed paid search with the help of the Google and Overture teams. Evans managed to place her paid search ads high but not as profitably as she can with the vendor`s help, she says. Now, the return on investment is measured for each keyword, and the vendor manages paid search to obtain an agreed-upon ROI. "We`re not necessarily in the top ranking but it`s a much more profitable area for us," Evans says.

The help HPshopping gets from its agency in managing product feeds to shopping comparison engines has been of key importance. "Keeping those straight was not necessarily difficult, but it was labor intensive and something we weren`t staffed to do well," Evans says. The agency also monitors the feeds for errors, a task HPshopping didn`t have time to perform. The reporting system lists products sold, revenue, clicks and feeds all in one area, allowing HPshopping to keep a close watch on what`s working and to fix what`s not. Before, the analysis went only as far as the product line, but now it goes to the SKU, telling Evans exactly what`s selling. Making changes to product offerings in the data feeds to meet shifting requirements now takes a matter of hours, instead of the two to four weeks needed in the past.

Seeing the success of working with Performics on paid search and comparison shopping engines, HPshopping recently asked the agency to begin optimizing natural search results. Because HPshopping has a dynamic site, search engine spiders that crawl sites to find relevant content could not index the site. The relevancy observed by the spiders forms the basis of inclusion in search results. Performics converts the pages to a format that the search spiders can handle and submits them for review and possible inclusion.

The trend

By starting with paid search and then moving into natural search optimization, HPshopping is following a trend, according to Laura Thieme, president of Bizresearch, a Columbus, Ohio, search engine agency. Both steps are necessary to incorporate marketing into a single effort, some agencies say. 60% of shoppers at search engines click on natural listings and 40% on paid, says Stuart Larkins, vice president of partner services for Performics.

Schwan`s Home Service Inc., a Marshall, Minn., $3 billion-a-year company that offers home delivery of food, is taking that approach as well. Schwan`s hired OneUpWeb two years ago to manage natural search optimization on two sites, Schwans.com and ImpromptuGourment.com. By combining paid and natural search efforts, Schwan`s can place near the top of both searches at the same time, says James Siderits, Schwan`s marketing manager. "It reinforces our credibility when someone pulls up that results page and we are at or near the top in both columns," he says. "It creates a double impression."

Before hiring OneUpWeb, Schwan`s tried to optimize pages with a part-time, in-house effort but couldn`t devote the time to mastering the details of how search engine algorithms choose results. It also was hard to establish relationships with search engine companies and keep up with what Siderits calls the "ever-changing playing field" of natural search. "We weren`t showing up in the top 30 page results," he says.

Now, Schwan`s often appears near the top of the first page. In the past, the retailer worked to optimize the home page around a dozen or so keywords but it has now identified nearly 100. Monthly submissions of pages to the search engines have replaced the irregular submissions the company had been making. Reports from the agency also help the retailer keep track of how well natural search helps find new customers, a key goal for the company.

Understanding such objectives separates the best search engine marketing agencies from the also-rans, says Siderits. Any retailer hiring an agency should make sure that the agency is clear on the retailer`s goals. "The key is finding a partner who is willing to learn your business," he says.

Any search engine optimization company must develop a deep understanding of the enterprise to be able to write copy that provides the right customer experience and the right words, titles and parameters for search engines. However, having a productive relationship doesn`t require exclusivity on the part of the search engine, retailers say. In fact, many say they prefer their agencies to have the experience of working with clients in similar businesses. Some retailers, like Peter Dammann, director of online marketing for Redcats USA, the New York-based catalog and web site retailer formerly called Brylane, says he looked for an agency experienced with other apparel and home fashion catalog companies. Redcats brands include Chadwick`s, La Redoute, Lerner Catalog and Jessica London.

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