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Low Budget Search Engine Marketing

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A special report from the Search Engine Strategies 2001 Conference, August 12-14, San Jose CA.

Need to be found in the search engines but can't afford to hire a search engine specialist? How can you attract visitors to your web site with little or no funding? Three experts share their proven low-budget techniques.

How to bring visitors to your web site with little or no funds? Need to be found in the search engines but can't afford to hire an search engine specialist? These and other issues facing small businesses and non-profit organizations were addressed at the recent Search Engine Strategies' Small Business & Non-Profit Forum.

The panel, consisting of search engine marketing (SEM) specialists with extensive experience in optimizing limited-budget sites, shared their strategies and advice on how small outfits can successfully reach their target audience online while staying cost-conscious.

Is it really possible for a small outfit to achieve regular high rankings without a big budget? "Definitely so," encourages Anne Kennedy, Managing Partner of Beyond Ink. Presented by her were several examples of sites without big budgets that achieved top keyword listings: a women's shelter (non-profit), a Chamber of Commerce (business organization), a jewelry store (micro-business), and a holiday wreath store (small seasonal business).

"But taking on a small business or non-profit site can be a continual uphill battle," cautions Kennedy. "You usually find yourself working with little or no marketing budget, and sometimes menial support or accountability... You can't afford mistakes, so have to do it right from the get-go."

The panel concurred that the most overlooked problems small business/non-profit sites have with achieving search-engine visibility could be pinpointed to three things:

* Not having enough content on their sites
* Not utilizing free or cost-conscious tools and services
* Attempting SEM in-house without proper experience or guidance.

So what SEM module is needed for small outfits? The panelists agreed such a module should include all of these components:

* Research & SEM plan
* Tools
* Content production
* Linking
* Bartering
* Submission values & freebies
* Expert assistance

Research & Search Engine Marketing Plan

Caryl Felicetta, Creative/Technical Partner for i-Position, explained that an SEM plan first involves doing thorough research in advance, both internally and externally.

"You need to first identify your organization's strengths and weaknesses," says Felicetta. Next, you need to identify your target audience. "What search engines do they use? What sites do they visit? What are they looking for? How are they finding your site? Where is your site now?"

For a small outfit, time is especially valuable. Yet Felicetta says that most SEM newbies waste much of their time with how they research online. They either don't use the many search tools available, or they focus too much on general, highly competitive keywords that are not specific to their target audience.

"Use the free search tools available on the search engines themselves," advises Felicetta, such as the "related searches" or "search suggestions" boxes for other popular keyword phrases. Those looking for an affordable and highly effective search tool under $220, Felicetta suggested Wordtracker, which can calculate both the popularity and the competitive value of multiple keyword phrases throughout the major search engines, directories and paid services over a measured period of time, then batches those results for easy reference.

So how do you determine what keyword phrases a small outfit should try for? "Look at more specific options with your keywords," advises Felicetta. "They have less traffic, but you can reach more qualified visitors and receive better click-thrus from them."

Content Production

Despite this being one the easiest things to do, content production is something small outfits seem to take the least advantage of. "What you lack in budget, you can make up for in content," says Felicetta - both in quality and quantity. "Give your site enough pages to make it truly relevant for both the search engines and your audience."

Jamie Low, Internet Marketing Director for SearchEngineMarketing.com, further elaborated on where small outfits may already have valuable content resources at their disposal. "Use your print and offline materials, utilize in-house talent, and engage in community participation -- message boards and forums, contributed articles, open letters and editorials, and customer product reviews."

Kennedy also added that non-profits possess an advantage for achieving search engine visibility with their content. "They already have expertise in a particular field, which translates to valuable content the search engines want."

Linking

All small outfits should have a good linking strategy, and linking to others costs nothing. "Build good links is how you will maintain your positions in the search engines," explains Kennedy. "Take advantage of reciprocal link opportunities. Link with complimentary sites, trade directories, etc." Linking to related sites with quality complimentary content enhances the value of your own site.

Bartering

Successful bartering - exchanging goods and services -goes back to acknowledging one's own strengths and weaknesses. Since most small outfits don't have the capability to do everything that's necessary for SEM, bartering is a very good option. "There are numerous things you can barter for," says Low, including "funding, expertise, in-house staffing, cross-promotion partnerships, even search engine optimization (SEO)... you can also barter for content with authors and publishers, business organizations, and copywriters honing their skills for the web."

Low showcased the example of his award-winning client site, rafting.com, to demonstrate how bartering online can produce strong returns for all partners who individually have limited resources.

"Rafting.com was to expensive for just one company. So we offered it as an investment opportunity for partners in different regions and gave exclusive listings on the site." Low's SEM strategy involved pooling resources, utilizing linking strategies, creating a search engine-friendly site design, providing extensive relevant content for the search engines, and making updates regularly.

As a result, they managed to double their annual revenue without increasing their annual marketing budget, drove more qualified sales leads to other marketing partners, and made the site a long-term business model for generating traffic and income.

Submission Values & Freebies

While many small outfits expect the search engines to eventually find them and crawl their sites on the web, it could take many months or longer for that to happen. Knowing your options with either paid or free submissions can expedite getting found online.

"If you can afford the basic [paid” submission tools, start with submitting to Yahoo Express," advises Felicetta. While Yahoo would seem to be a high fee ($299) for those on a small budget, it is one of the best ways to reach a large qualified audience, and non-profits are not required to renew the annual fee.

Other inexpensive options suggested by Felicetta were paid submission programs (Inktomi, FAST/Alltheweb, AltaVista, Teoma/AskJeeves), and low pay-per-click models such as LookSmart, Google AdWords, and Overture for select low-bid keyword phrases. Even cheaper pay-per-click marketing is available from second-tier models such as FindWhat and Ah-Ha, which have smaller audiences but lower costs for the same keywords.

But what if you have no virtually no budget for submitting? Says Felicetta, "the top major search engines and directories still allow for free submissions; and some search engines are especially accommodating for non-profits," including Zeal.com (the non-profit site of LookSmart) and Yahoo (which offers free submissions if you're a non-commercial category.) But when opting for the free route, be mindful not to expect the timely results afforded from paid submission.

The panelists were all careful to warn about using lucrative offers for submitting. "Use freebies wisely," cautions Kennedy. "offers to submit to thousands of search engines for free and other such items are a scam," and could put you on free-for-all "link farms" that will get you penalized in the search engines. "Make sure they're truly free and don't have any hidden costs or agendas."

Expert Assistance

Being that there are an abundance of resources and opportunities available that require great time and scrutiny to sort out, enlisting the services an SEM consultant was agreed as the best means for small outfits to invest their resources.
"It takes years of expertise and skill to do actual SEO," stresses Kennedy. "The industry we're in, it's a steep learning curve and a moving target... We have the insight from being a part of this all of the time."

It's something you have to constantly keep up with," Felicetta added. "It's not like a sideline business, or hiring somebody to do it on the side along with their many other duties."

"Use your limited dollars to acquire the expertise that you do not have. That could be market strategy, optimizing your content - anything you need to improve on."

Conclusion

* Find out what you can do in-house and what you need to outsource
* Spend for things lasting value - content, optimization, research
* Closely monitor what is actually working to maximize budget
* Consider additional education
* Make best use of online resources
* Enlist an SEO specialist for at least consulting

Ending on a note of encouragement, Kennedy left this incentive for the audience: "A professionally designed web site that brings in lots of traffic will justify a bigger budget."

Grant Crowell is the CEO of Grantastic Designs, Inc, (http://www.grantasticdesigns.com/) founded in 1993 in Honolulu. He has 15 combined years of experience in the fields print and online design, newspaper journalism, public relations, and publications. He is a featured speaker in conferences nationwide on banner design and marketing issues, and is a featured columnist for WorkZ.com.


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