January 31, 2008, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: How to find the payoff in search marketing

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“Search engine optimization requires a lot of work to manage and attention to detail,” says Stuart Larkins, vice president of search marketing for Chicago-based search marketing firm DoubleClick Performics. “Some retailers will tell themselves they can get an immediate impact with paid search, so why not put more of their money behind paid.”

Instead, retailers need to be thinking more about how to strike a balance between SEO and paid search, Larkins says. “When properly managed SEO will create a lot of synergies with paid search that broadens the reach of the overall search campaign,” he adds.

This limited view of search engine optimization is not always prudent. “Retailers need to holistically manage their spending between paid and search engine optimization,” says Jeanine Belsky, vice president of retail for 360i, a New York-based digital marketing firm. “SEO is a way to hedge search marketing spending.”

Part of taking a holistic view toward search engine optimization is examining the length of page URLs. If the page URL is too long, it is less likely to permit search engine spiders to deeply crawl the site and identify the pages and the content on them that will generate higher natural search rankings, such as blogs and customer reviews.

Netconcepts’s GravityStream product uses algorithms to scan page URLs and determine the optimal length of each. One retailer boosted page traffic by 55% simply by shortening the URL. GravityStream is a natural search advertising platform that large retailers are using to more effectively manage natural search.

“Lengthy page URLs create more friction between the page and the search engines, reducing page visibility,” says Klais. “Shortening page URLs increases visibility of the pages within the site to the search engines. It’s shocking for retailers to learn that a higher percentage of their pages than thought do not drive traffic or conversions because of this.”

Sometimes liberating the content within a site requires creation of a subcategory page dedicated to the desired information. YourAmigo’s Coupe cites the example of an apparel retailer that used YourAmigo’s Search Engine Enhanced Content (SEEC) service to identify opportunities to create subcategory pages that generate significant conversions.

Search Engine Enhanced Content analyzes the keywords shoppers enter when conducting a natural search, that are relevant to the products in the retailer’s catalog. SEEC crawls the client’s web site and publishes new optimized pages that are based on the keywords that shoppers use. Updates to optimized pages based on changing products and inventory are made automatically.

SEEC identified for the apparel retailer that high traffic and sales would come from a page optimized for the search term “black skirts.” The web site only had a general category page for skirts, which would never rank highly in the search engine results for the search term “black skirts.” SEEC added a highly optimized black skirts subcategory page (and thousands of other relevant pages) which boosted traffic and sales. SEEC is available to retailers as a managed service which runs on YourAmigo’s servers, and does not require the retailer to modify their web site, saving IT resources and costs.

“Subcategory pages feature products in different ways around important keywords and allows traffic to come into the site through them, when it might otherwise not,” says Coupe. “A lot times we end up generating more subcategory pages to aid with search engine optimization than category pages.”

Evaluating page design is another opportunity many retailers miss to improve search engine optimization results. While Ajax, (Asynchronous Javascript and XML) and Flash are becoming mandatory in site design they can hinder page visibility to the search engines. Ajax is used to create more interactive site applications and Flash enables fast video downloads.

“Retailers need to be careful of embedding their page content with Ajax because search engines can’t crawl the content contained within Ajax particularly well,” says Klais. “If retailers don’t watch out for this, they can inadvertently decimate their natural search rankings. This is something we talk to retailers about a lot, because there are serious ramifications for SEO if these applications are not properly used.”

Site navigation through left hand navigation bars on web pages is another area retailers overlook in search engine optimization. While these navigation bars are intended to help shoppers drill down into a product category, the words placed around the links are often unrecognizable to the search engines.

“We worked with a toy retailer that put detailed subcategories in the left hand navigation bar, such as ‘Ages 5-7,’ ‘Ages 8-10,’ etc., but they were too specific for the search engine crawlers to recognize how they linked to pages deeper in the site,” recalls Klais.

Netconcepts used an algorithm to identify keywords around the links that the spiders could recognize, such as “Toys for Girls ages 5-7.” “Retailers tend to use their own vocabulary for category links, rather than the words shoppers will use to search for those products, which creates a disconnect with the search engines,” says Klais.

Just as with paid search, retailers can leverage SEO to build their own brand with shoppers. “Some retailers see value in brand recognition by driving traffic to the site that does not always convert immediately, but that will convert later in response to other types of marketing campaigns,” explains Coupe.

Some retailers prefer instead to focus on brand integrity, which means creating a consistent look and feel for every page throughout the site so the shopper has a consistent shopping experience, regardless of what search result they click on. “Brand integrity is an important part of search strategies,” says Coupe.

Finally, retailers with large product catalogs must realize that successful SEO is a combination of human input by experts and an automated process to achieve the necessary scale. “While manual search engine optimization can be effective, it is too time intensive monitoring the changing content within a large Web site, analyzing changes to the ranking algorithms of major search engines such as Google, and then hand coding for thousands of pages,” says Coupe.

Given the range of opportunities that retailers are overlooking in search engine optimization, they still have much to learn.

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