July 28, 2010, 3:18 PM

Opportunity knocks for merchants who embrace optimization

Savvy retailers can knock information sites out of top search results.

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Natural search is the land of opportunity for online retailers. One big opportunity is to learn how to displace content sites holding down key positions in natural search. And another exists for smaller retailers to use natural search to compete with much bigger retailers.

Of 297 keywords tested for Internet Retailer’s 2011 Search Marketing Guide, 219 of 930 top keyword positions—24%—were held by informational web sites or other non-merchants. That’s a mirror image of last year’s data: content-based sites held 24%, or 223, of 927 top positions.

The challenge for retailers is to get ahead of the content providers who show up at the top of the lists on many of the terms that users search on when they are shopping. For example, web merchants held 20 of 45 top positions among 15 keyword places in the Consumer Electronics merchandising category in this year’s study. The other 25 slots were held by informational web sites, such as Wikipedia.org, HowStuffWorks.com and ConsumerSearch.com. By comparison, retailers held 22 of 45 positions in last year’s study indicating there is plenty of room to improve.

“Informational web sites appear so frequently in the top search results for high-value keywords in so many merchandising categories because Google believes users are best served when natural search results are devoted to editorial content,” says Larry Becker, an e-commerce marketing analyst. That doesn’t mean retailers can’t compete for strong natural search placements in those categories. “But it does emphasize the value of retailers developing abundant relevant content for their own sites,” he says. “Smart retailers in info-rich categories like consumer electronics can win strong search result positions with articles, videos and reviews that address consumer questions like ‘how to choose’ and ‘how to use.’”

That content should be written for the user, Becker says. “If content answers a question or solves a problem other sites will link to it, increasing its relevance in the eyes of the search engines,” he says. “Proper formatting of this content—for humans and search engines alike—makes a difference, too.”

Retailers can compete with content providers in commodity products categories such as consumer electronics by targeting the staples in a product line, not the hot new items, says Amanda Watlington, president of Searching for Profit, a natural search marketing firm. “Retailers have a lot more keyword real estate they can cover. Because many of the products are not highly specialized, there are more keywords open.” For example, most retailers shouldn’t optimize for terms such as “4G iPhone” because the technology is so new, she says. There’s more to say about digital cameras and DVD players. They stand a better chance of getting noticed by search engines in commodity markets by creating objective product reviews, organizing customer reviews and joining forces with or establishing links to external equipment ratings organizations.

Links to social media sites, such as Facebook “Likes” that Google is now tracking and blogs also can increase exposure, experts say.

One retailer that’s been committed to natural search since its launch in 2002 is Hayneedle Inc., No. 69 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, which operates 220 niche sites and is the top-ranked retailer in the Home Furnishings merchandising category. The company has increased its exposure to search engines through its Facebook page, which has more than 6,000 friends, and by posting product and company videos on YouTube. Hayneedle also posted consumer product review videos on YouTube. All help increase its exposure to search engines.

Hayneedle, formerly named NetShops, operates many web stores in the home and garden market and has relied on natural search to establish itself as a centralized location for many related products, as well as to help spread the word about its new name, says Ash ElDifrawi, chief marketing officer.

Internet retailers held 41 of the top 45 keyword spots in the Home Furnishings category and also were dominant in the Accessories category where they held 46 of 48 top keyword spots.

In addition to competing with content sites for top keyword positions, natural search enables the smaller retailer to take on the big guys, the study shows. Good examples of small retailers beating out their bigger competitors include Wild Attire Inc., parent of WildTies.com, in the Accessories category. The company held the second position after eBags.com in the top five rankings of web retailers in each of 20 merchandising categories. And in the Apparel category, Fresh Pair Inc. held down the second position.

Fresh Pair, a retailer of underwear for men and women showed its savvy with natural search terms by tying with much larger retailers Gap Inc. Direct (No. 23) and The Men’s Wearhouse Inc. with 77 points. In the Hardware category, niche web retailer Direct Door Hardware LLC managed its natural search terms well enough to hold down fourth place, behind Amazon (No. 1), Lowe’s Cos. Inc. (No. 81) and ToolBarn.com Inc.

Natural search is a key opportunity for many small retailers to best their bigger competitors in the search marketing arena, says Nathan Safran, senior research analyst at SEO research firm Conductor Inc. Conductor analyzed SEO effectiveness for this report and found that 67% of 250 retailers scored excellent or good. Conductor’s rating is based on a combination of retailers’ resources devoted to SEO, use of analytics tools and keyword visibility. But there’s room to improve, Safran says.

One way to get better at search engine optimization is to gather non-branded keyword terms for a particular market. Google’s AdWords Keyword tool is a good place to start, Safran says. Another is reviewing the global monthly search volume for those search terms from Google’s Keyword tool, and then testing those keywords. Those tactics work in both paid and natural search marketing.

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