January 2, 2007, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Search Marketers Broaden their Horizon

Blogs, podcasts and social networking info, for starters, have new roles in search strategies.

As retailers closed the book on the 2006 holiday shopping season, they recognized the need to think more strategically about search engine marketing. Creating successful paid and organic search campaigns is no longer as simple as buying the most popular keywords around a specific product and creating a multitude of landing pages to ensure inclusion among the Top 10 organic search results.

Retailers have long deployed such tactics for increasing the effectiveness of paid search as purchasing keywords that score higher conversion rates and creating URLs for web pages that are more easily recognized by search engine spiders. The latter makes it easier for shoppers typing in a highly specific search string to land on the desired page. But in today`s market, retailers also need to think more deeply about leveraging blogs, podcasts, online advertisements, press releases and promotional trailers attached to videos to boost organic search rankings.

"It`s important for retailers to adopt a 360-degree view of their search marketing strategy because the ways consumers communicate with each other and businesses communicate with audiences online is rapidly changing," says Lisa Wehr, president of search engine marketing firm OneUpWeb. "Retailers simply can`t afford to have tunnel vision when it comes to search engine marketing."

Among the most profound changes in the ways consumers and businesses communicate online is the exploding use of podcasts, blogs, videos, and other social networking sites that contain promotional content and consumer reviews of a product or of a specific retailer. Increasingly, shoppers are turning to these pages to aid in the purchasing decision.

As a result of obtaining links from these pages to the retailer`s main web site, these pages can actually help influence a retailer`s organic search ranking. "Social networking sites and blogs are viewed by consumers as endorsement vehicles, which means they can influence consumer purchasing behavior," says Robert Murray, president of search engine marketing firm iProspect. "But if these pages are not on the retailer`s radar when creating their search marketing strategy, they can`t be used to also help influence their natural search rankings."

What makes incorporating these alternative information pages into the search strategy so important is that while they are a step below mainstream consumer search habits--for the time being--they generate top rankings and click-through rates because there are fewer such search terms linking retailers to these pages, and subsequently less competition to be recognized by search engine spiders.

A mass market with niches

Looking for opportunities outside of the usual marketing paths that retailers have followed is crucial to success today as the Internet becomes both a mass medium and a niche vehicle. "Search today is more niche oriented, so retailers need to think more about how to optimize the tail--or the back-end--of their search strategy," explains Gary Smith, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for YourAmigo, provider of organic search engine optimization applications. "If retailers optimize the whole of their business when it comes to search, they can increase business by as much as 25% to 50%."

The so-called head and tail of the search marketing strategy is essentially creating search strategies to deliver product and service information during the presale decision process and post-sale customer care.

On the presale side, retailers can post promotional videos on YouTube.com, run ads where their products appear on blog sites, or create personas on such sites as MySpace.com. Retailers can then use these pages to improve the quality of their organic search rankings. "These pages can be treated as independent destinations to drive sales and traffic to the store or as a way to build organic search results through additional content," explains Murray of iProspect.

Other options include creating on a retailer`s own site podcasts or web videos that promote a specific product or present user opinions about the product, or both, Wehr says. "Podcasts can be promoted in paid and natural search," she says.

Post-sale customer care

Retailers also can use pages within social networking sites to enhance the quality of post-sale customer care. Frequently after a purchase, shoppers will hunt online for tips about product care or how to troubleshoot problems encountered when using the item. That`s where retailers have the opportunity to continue to influence consumers.

"Social networking sites can influence the customer`s perception of the shopping experience post sale, based on customer service information," says Christopher Wallace, vice president of strategy for iCrossing, a search marketing agency. "Retailers willing to emphasize customer satisfaction as part of their search strategy are more apt to win customer loyalty."

By incorporating content from social networking efforts into their search marketing strategies, retailers can dramatically improve their organic search rankings by increasing the amount of content about them or products that can be crawled by search engine spiders.

This additional content can not only generate higher rankings in search results based on relevancy, but also help retailers dominate a results page by returning multiple listings around a search string.

"Social networking creates more content around a retailer`s site and content is the gateway to a successful natural search marketing strategy because it provides more information for search engines to latch on to about the retailer," explains Scot Wingo, CEO of ChannelAdvisor Corp., which provides e-commerce platform and search marketing services. "Blogs, which we are seeing more of, create an audience that wants to read that information."

The more information consumers get about a retailer in their search results the better the odds the retailer has of increasing its brand awareness.

That`s because the content within such areas as social networks or blogs drills deeper into the subject and presents the information on a more personal level, as opposed to information created by the retailer.

"Sometimes the information on these pages resonates more than if a retailer placed a banner ad or created more content pages on their site," says Dave Williams, chief strategist and co-founder of search marketing agency 360i LLC. "While these concepts may scare some retailers, this is the next evolution of search engine marketing, because it is where their audience is moving."

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