June 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

It’s only natural

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E-commerce chief Robertson started by boosting dollars allocated to search optimization, focusing on more dedicated web development, marketing and content production staff, and eventually, outside consultants. On the technical side of natural search, “There are different activities, and some have a faster payoff than others,” he says. “Changing title tags and meta-tags and doing some manipulation of content has a faster return, but it might be very specific to categories. An architectural change could have a much broader effect.”

The team initiated the difficult work of page architecture adjustments to make all web pages readable by spiders. The next step was to produce copy and content for the pages that would serve up what search engine spiders look for when determining the relevancy of the content they crawl.

Initially that was hit or miss. But when efforts at optimization started to bring J.C. Whitney up high in natural search results on targeted keywords, it was time for paid search to kick in, too. “If you can present yourself really well on the natural side, it balances out your e-marketing spend. And if you are No. 1 on paid search on a term, and you start coming up in natural search, you may not need to spend so much on paid. You can reallocate those dollars. It becomes this virtual cycle,” Robertson says.

When to pay

At the museum store of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, web site optimization efforts didn’t start until 2003, though the site’s been up in its current design since 2002. The initial optimization review-with search engine marketing company MoreVisibility, still the site’s search services vendor-was “an eye-opener,” says Janice Yablonski, manager of e-commerce. It turns out the web site was doing everything wrong from the perspective of spidering, Yablonski says. Major changes in site architecture and content management tools followed, and optimization has continued at a steady pace since then.

A very broadly assorted yet relatively small number of products on the site dictates how natural and paid search are used together. “Many of the museum store’s 2,000 to 2,500 SKUs are proprietary products developed internally, and they range from books to scarves to paperweights to toys and more,” Yablonski says. “For a retailer with that broadly focused range of products but only 2,500 SKUs, we have challenges in how we market this assortment.”

Greek history

Much of the product text on the web site consists of historical references, and that constrains certain types of optimization efforts. “We can’t say ‘Greek jewelry’ on a page 50 times above the fold. So we use paid search techniques for Greek jewelry,” she says. “With paid search, we are able to be present where we might not be found strongly using optimization.”

Yablonski adds that conversion is higher on orders that come in to the site through natural search. And with seasonal exceptions, average order size also is higher, and natural search produces longer site visits and more page views.

“We spend so little on optimization compared to pay-per-click marketing and we get such good results, optimization should be taking up even more of my time,” Yablonski says. “When the budget runs out on ‘Greek jewelry,’ you would take the word down and you’d have no presence. But with natural search, you are always present. That’s how the two complement each other. They make up for each other’s deficits.”

When Nebbia arrived at Officefurniture.com last year, the entire online advertising budget was focused on pay-per-click and comparison shopping engines. Nebbia was concerned about the rising costs of pay-per-click advertising and also with research suggesting that some consumers pay attention only to natural search listings.

A consumer eye-tracking study last year from research firm MarketingSherpa in partnership with software company Eyetools showed, for example, that in a product search on Google with two top ad units displayed, the top organic listing beat the two sponsored links in both clicks and in getting users’ attention.

Marketing efforts that lean exclusively on pay-per-click thus potentially miss out on a large part of the company’s potential market, Nebbia figured. So now, Officefurniture.com’s search strategy includes both kinds of search.

Insights from one side are used to inform action on the other. “If a keyword works well from paid we will try to add that content to our web site to get more traffic from an organic perspective,” Nebbia says. For example: Keyword analysis showed that in paid campaigns, singular terms in some cases performed better than plurals of the same term-“computer desk,” for instance, vs. “computer desks.” That intelligence went into writing copy for the site with an eye toward creating content that would rank high in natural search.

Working with search marketing vendor iProspect.com Inc., Nebbia and his team identified a list of keywords to pursue for high rankings in natural search. That and optimization efforts have helped produce a 35% lift in sales from natural search since 2006. Officefurniture.com also has added many of the terms successful in natural search to its paid search program.

“SEO is one of those things you can’t do just once and then walk away from,” Nebbia says. “It’s something you need to keep on top of because things change so quickly.”

For smart marketers, search engine optimization has never dropped out of the plan. But there’s no doubt that at times it has seemed easier to simply pay for a keyword, measure the return and present the numbers in a neatly tied package to those in the organization to whom they’re accountable. So since search engine optimization’s effectiveness is harder to measure against ROI, marketers are learning to value it by other yardsticks: as a way to test strategy, offset other ad spending and maintain a consistent presence online, as well as build traffic and sales.

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