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Search Presents Challenges for Retailers

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Search marketing can be challenging for all online businesses, but it can be especially challenging for online retailers, who may have hundreds or thousands of products with little unique content, complex site structures, or other search-specific challenges.

While many retailers are engaged in search advertising campaigns and other pay-per-click advertising efforts, some are not going beyond paid search to other complementary tactics. Two such areas where retailers should pay special attention include shopping search and search engine optimization (SEO), according to a new report from TrafficLeader, a search marketing consultancy and subsidiary of Marchex.

By adding these elements to the marketing mix, a retailer can boost traffic and conversions, increase lead-generation, and improve cost efficiencies of search marketing efforts, says the "2007 Search Marketing Insights for Retailers" study.

"Many retailers are struggling to get the basics. Their Web sites are geared toward selling, not being an information resource. But those are the kinds of sties that rank well in search engines," Matt McGee, SEO manager for Marchex and co-author of the report, told Search Engine Watch.

Pay Attention to Product Descriptions

Most medium to large retailers will have a database of products, with product descriptions that are substantially the same between products, or even between competitors who sell products from the same manufacturer. Search engines are not likely to index multiple pages with very similar content, and without something else to differentiate a page from competitors, ranking for that product name will be difficult, McGee said.

In fact, it's not likely that retailers want to rank for their exact product names, as found in the product database. Most searchers are not entering a query for "Izod solid crested pique polo," but will instead search for "Izod polo shirt," which would be a better phrase to optimize a page for, he said.

"Product databases are not optimized for searchers. It's not hard to convince a client that when we show them how many searches are being done for general terms, like 'polo shirt,' and how few are being done for the specific brand name in the database," McGee said.

Streamline Site Architecture

Another challenge for some retailers is the lack of a text-based navigation system, which leaves search engine spiders unable to access many of the products on a site. While all sites should have a search box on their site, it cannot be the only way to navigate the site, McGee said.

"At the very least, they need to have a directory or sitemap. But since many users like to browse instead of search for specific products, they should consider adding navigation to product category pages as well," he said.

That's not to downplay the value of a well optimized site search. On a large-scale e-commerce site, visitors will head for the site search box about half the time, by some accounts. In addition, many SEO experts agree that generating reports from site search can show the retailer searcher intent and help optimizing pages for certain keywords, both for internal site search and for external search engines.

In addition to on-site SEO, retailers should follow the same strategies as other sites to get inbound links to their sites -- such as by providing informational content worth linking to. This can be done with specific sections of the retailers site, new mini-sites or blogs. Retailers should also consider tagging their product images with relevant keywords and making them available to spiders to they'll be found in image searches.

Consider Shopping Search

Another tactic to increase traffic and inbound links is to take advantage of shopping search engines. By showing up in the many places shopping search engines display their results, retailers are increasing their exposure. And since many retailers are currently not taking advantage of these listings, this exposure will give those retailers that do a competitive advantage, if only for a short time.

The top five shopping search engines each had more than 20 million unique visitors in December 2006, according to comScore and self-reported numbers. Yahoo Shopping, and CNET topped 30 million unique visitors, followed by PriceGrabber, Shopping.com and Shopzilla. NextTag and MSN Shopping added a combined 24 million more unique visitors, bringing the total unique visitors to the top 7 shopping search engines to 163 million last month.

In the case of Froogle, Google is making those results more prominent in relevant searches by highlighting product results in the OneBox area at the top of a SERP, giving those results even more weight even than the top AdWords ads, in some cases.

And because searchers who use shopping search engines have self-selected themselves as being in the market for your products when they find you there, these targeted visitors are more likely to convert than general search engine visitors, writes Jake Berry, director of partner management at Marchex, who authored the shopping search part of the report.

Combine that with the increased product detail available to searchers in a shopping search engine, and the experience can be very helpful in turning searchers into buyers.

"The comparison shopping environment offered by shopping search engines pushes consumers further down the purchase funnel, providing retailers with a significant opportunity to convert customers at high rates," Berry writes.

Of course, crafting and maintaining multiple product data feeds will add a significant amount of responsibilities to a search marketer's workload. Field requirements and listing procedures vary by engine, prices change, and demand varies with the season. Learning which shopping search engines work best for their particular products is the key, but overall, shopping search engines can be worth the effort, Berry writes.

"Despite the intricacies involved in managing shopping engine campaigns, the benefits of integrating these cost-effective, quality traffic sources generally outweigh efforts to maintain listings," he writes.

In the report, Berry proposes six steps for a successful shopping search campaign:

  1. Start in high-margin areas
  2. Actively manage CPCs across campaign, category and product
  3. Measure progress against goals
  4. Understand pricing, pricing changes and bidding
  5. Maintain complete listings
  6. Take advantage of enhanced listing opportunities

These kinds of strategies, both for SEO and shopping search, have been adopted by many large retailers at this point, and the ideas are trickling down to medium and small retailers as well, McGee said. That means that it can give retailers a competitive advantage today, but more importantly that it will be a necessary part of doing business soon enough.

"You need to cover all the angles; they don't exist independently," McGee said.

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