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Weather.com's SEO Efforts Rest Heavily on Analytics

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When creating a search marketing program for Weather.com, the marketing team at The Weather Channel Interactive depended heavily on Web analytics to inform both its organic and paid search decisions.

The Weather Channel has used Coremetrics' analytics for two years, and less than six months into the relationship, Derek van Nostran, director of marketing, started digging into the search data in the application. That led to a comprehensive search marketing plan that rested heavily on site data gleaned from the analytics application.

Van Nostran and his team started by developing a plan for Weather.com's SEO efforts. First, the site was optimized overall for weather-related terms.

"Being a leader in the space, there was a feeling that we were entitled to the top spot for certain terms. We got some pushback from management when we tried to explain why that's not the case," he said.

The Weather Channel used Coremetrics to baseline various site areas' traffic volume via natural search and analyzed the seasonal keywords driving visits. It used that data to build a strategy for natural search optimization.

Next, the site's lifestyle sections were targeted, including some with health- and travel-related articles, live traffic reports, and weather information related to specific events, such as weddings and sporting activities. The Weather Channel had particular success in optimizing a wedding planning section it introduced last year.

"Those sections are important, because we can sell them at higher CPMs than our run-of-site inventory," van Nostran said.

The lifestyle section was originally optimized for such terms as "wedding planning" and "wedding planner." It ended up with a first-page ranking for these queries, but van Nostran was still disappointed with the conversion results, which were tracked through Coremetrics.

"We went back into Coremetrics to find the traffic we could support. We decided to optimize for 'outdoor weddings' and 'plan for outdoor weddings,' and although we were driving less traffic to begin with, it was better quality traffic," van Nostran said.

Visitors who arrived via those more targeted queries would consume more pages of content and were more likely to become repeat visitors, he said. Overall, pageviews on the Outdoor Weddings page increased by 144 percent.

Another move guided by analytics was a decision to tailor the SEO program for Google. "Optimizing for Google makes more of an impact and by far sends more traffic," he said. He also spends more on paid search with Google, though Yahoo is still productive from a cost-per-pageview target, he added.

The Weather Channel's SEO program was primarily aided by two reports: a natural search referral report and a customer segmentation report. "The referral report helps us keep track of which trends are shaping our business, and the segmentation report lets us dig deeper into those terms," van Nostran said.

The Weather Channel had been working with SEO firm 360i for two years, but it ended that relationship at the close of 2006 to bring its SEO program entirely in-house. According to van Nostran, the agency was very helpful in doing the heavy lifting in the beginning, but the fine-tuning and incremental tweaks were things he felt would be better done in-house. Paid search will continue to be outsourced but will be partially managed and tracked in-house.

The company hired a full-time search marketing manager in December to take on the task, along with van Nostran, who dedicates about half his time to search, and a tech lead dedicated to search part time. The search for that SEM manager took six months and ended with someone who had agency experience and happened to be local to Atlanta, he said.

"Search requires one of the hardest skill sets to find," van Nostran said.

The Weather Channel also runs several pay-per-click campaigns, using Coremetrics for reporting. Van Nostran said he has set up a three-month reporting window, with the capability to attribute conversions to a campaign up to four months old. The campaigns are tracked down to cost per pageview, allowing van Nostran to account for every penny spent on search.

To benchmark The Weather Channel against competitors, van Nostran compares site data in Coremetrics with Hitwise data to calculate the universe of clicks in the category and quantify how many of those clicks go to Weather.com. That not only helps optimize the site for certain keywords but also makes it easier to sell search internally, van Nostran said.

"Our analytics data drives 95 percent of our decisions. We want to make sure what we changed worked and have data to back up our decisions," he said.

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