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Secrets of Successful Search Engine Optimization

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A special report from the Search Engine Strategies 2002 Conference, December 11th and 12th, Dallas, Texas.

Despite persistent myths, there is no silver bullet: The best search engine optimization firms conquer client marketing challenges through research, education and plain ol' hard work.

Imagine this: You check your Google indexing and discover that some pages were dropped. Not just one or two. Over 9,000 of your pages, with a paltry few left in the index.

It happened to e-retailer Wine.com.

Wine.com plummeted from a high of 9,240 indexed pages in January 2002 to 28 pages in June 2002. That's when Derrick Wheeler from Marketleap started his search engine optimization (SEO) sleuthing.

Wheeler knew that Wine.com was dealing with some SEO management issues. There were mirror site domains (which were other sites that Wine.com had acquired), pop-ups and pages with invisible text. This "accidental spam," he theorized, may have angered the Googlebot, resulting in an indexing drop.

Immediately, Wheeler recommended the necessary anti-spam changes. Wine.com reduced the pop-ups, deleted all invisible text and used a 301 redirect on the mirror pages, pointing them to the proper Wine.com page.

Anxiously, Wheeler waited with what he calls "Googlebumps" - the feeling you get when you're waiting for Google to recrawl your site.

Wine.com's indexing went up just one page, from 28 pages to 29 pages. And strangely, Google was still indexing old mirror domain pages.

With the Google indexing in flux, Wine.com required search property visibility. Wheeler immediately engaged in "hardcore keyword research" and created specific titles and descriptions for each page. Next, Wine.com implemented Inktomi's Index Connect, Google sponsorships and Overture ads. Every click-thru was tracked and measured.

Marketleap successfully drove new site traffic and unique visitors. After enrolling the Wine.com site with Inktomi's Index Connect, it averaged 3,000 clicks a week (or 12,000 a month).

Efforts from Overture and Google sponsorship drove new traffic, resulting in positive campaign ROI. Even if Google wasn't crawling, Wine.com was still reaching new customers.

As of the conference (December 2002), Wine.com dropped to one page in Google. However, Wheeler feels confident that Google will completely finally smile upon Wine.com and reindex their pages. In the meantime, he has some sage advice for marketers patiently waiting for Google indexing.

"Traffic from any search engine is valuable. Don't put ALL your eggs in Google's basket…no more than 9" he quips.

Staying Sharp with the search engines

Not putting all your eggs in Google's basket is especially important during site redesigns and domain name changes. Sharp Electronics survived the seesaw rankings game, thriving through two major issues - a domain name change and a site redesign.

When Sharp redesigned their site in September 2000, search referrals plummeted 49 percent.

"The rankings were decimated," says Fredrick Markini, CEO of SEP firm iProspect.

What's worse, the odds that people would "guess" Sharp's URL and type it into their browser window were practically nonexistent. The URL was, according to Markini, "lousy," and had no direct navigators (the domain name was sharp-usa.com).

In essence, the Sharp site was almost invisible to new surfers.

During major Web site disturbances, having a sharp SEO strategy is highly crucial. Overhauls can slice top Google rankings - and positions take time to build.

For instance, Sharp's rankings hit their lowest point in December 2000 - three months after the site redesign.

Since SEO was (and still is) Sharp's only online marketing spend, regaining prime positions was paramount.

After aggressive paid inclusion and eventual Google reindexing, total rankings grew from 615 to 3,400 - a 457% increase. Search referrals have increased 226 percent and cost per click is six cents and dropping.

In fact, due to savvy planning, search referrals even increased after the domain name changed to sharpusa.com in June 2002.

The result? SEO is still Sharp's only online spend and they maintain a strong visibility lead over their closest competitors. "Over 50 percent of the traffic is now search engine visitors," says Markini.

Revising keyword choices for maximum click-thru

So, you've conducted your keyphrase research and your campaigns are rolling right along. Although some people believe that keyphrase research ends after the initial SEO campaign, long-term research provides massive search intelligence.

Todd Tweedy, of The Tweedy Group LLC, emphasized that ongoing keyphrase strategy (or what Wheeler calls, "heavy-duty keyword research") is crucial.

When Tweedy started managing the PPC campaigns for The Motley Fool, a finance education site, he immediately streamlined the keyphrase list.

"We started with over 8,000 keyword phrases which we paired down to 1,307 to support SEM activities," says Tweedy.

Tweedy discussed the Pareto Principle, stating that 80% of your keyword searches will be on 20% of your keywords. As an example, he cited that six percent of the Google sponsorship keyword pool generated 53.71 percent of all impressions.

Successful keyword research never really ends. A site's keyword list should be revisited, measured and updated based on click-thru data, site search logs, and emerging terminology.

Also, how people search has evolved and changed. Once upon an Internet time, one-word keywords were all the range. However, people are becoming more search-savvy and specific. For instance, Tweedy noticed that many finance-related searches had four or more terms, for instance:

  • free stock picks recommendations
  • 401k penalties for withdrawing early
  • 0 down real estate investing with bad credit and no job

Markini saw the same trend with Sharp. People were searching under phrases like "microwave ovens" in 2000. In 2002, the searches became more specific, like "stainless steel microwave ovens."

"People focus on one, two and three keyword phrases, but they aren't capitalizing on other phrases. We found that 65% of clicks were from unique queries coming from esoteric long terms," says Wheeler.

Constant client communications drive SEM success

Explaining Googleglitches and conveying SEO benefits means that communication between the SEO and vendor is paramount.

Smart SEO communication skills are a mixture of client education, coding expertise and marketing savvy. Often, that means explaining the SEO process to both marketing and technical teams, helping them understand SEO goals and benefits.

"You have to speak their language," says Cheryle Pingel of Range Online Media.

Pingel's firm manages the pay-per-click campaigns for Travelocity and Pier 1. Both clients had strict SEO requirements - and, in the case of Pier One, was very leery of the search marketing space.

Pier 1 had tried online marketing before with zero results. Through repeated conversations with the client, Pingel won a small test budget.

"We took an insignificant amount of their budget to see if SEO works," she says.

Pingel spent that "insignificant" budget wisely, investing in fast-return AdWords, Looksmart and Overture. The results were immediate.

The Pier 1 SEO campaign contributed 16.2 percent to total company revenue in six months, plus exceeded the cost-per-sales goal by 40 percent. Even with an "insignificant" budget, the benefits and ROI were clear - and Pier 1 increased their SEO budget.

Pingel and her firm expanded their SEO savvy skills, using them to propel Travelocity's online success.

When Pingel and her team initially met with Travelocity, the client insisted on high volume traffic, email sign ups and absolute conversions. To achieve these goals, her firm worked closely with the client, meeting, monitoring and measuring.

"We were there a minimum of once a week. We morphed into Travelocity," says Pingel.

After engaging in pay-for-placement campaigns, Travelocity realized a 32 percent conversion rate in three months, which jumped to 71.5 percent in six months. Plus, as conversions increased, the cost per booking decreased.

"When we saw conversions go up, it made us excited."

Successful search marketing campaigns are an ongoing partnership between the vendor and client. Whether it's listening closely to a client's online marketing goals, streamlining a keyphrase campaign or solving a spidering issue, client communication and constant research is crucial.

"SEO is alive, and must be looked tweaked and managed," said Markini.

Heather Lloyd-Martin is the President of SuccessWorks. She is a regular speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences, offering expert tips on search engine optimization writing. Contact Heather at [email protected]


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