Home-Grown Search Engine Optimization

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

Managing a search engine optimization effort needn't be stressful if you follow these tips from a panel of experts.

Tracking ROI to prove value to senior management topped the list of preferred strategies for managing corporate Search Engine Optimization (SEO) programs in-house, followed closely by clear communication at all levels and, of course, sticking to fundamental best practices, according to panelists in the "Doing it In-House Forum" at Search Engine Strategies last month in Dallas.

"Because we were tracking ROI from the beginning, we were able to see immediate positive returns from our test Overture campaigns," said Cam Balzer, Manager of Online Marketing for Consumer Guide. "The initial PPC gains made our potential search engine audience tangible to senior management."

"Take credit for your work. Steer [management” away from thinking of search engine optimization (SEO) as black art," said Marshall Simmonds, Director of Search for About.com. Monitor your search engine marketing ROI and help senior management understand its value to their business, he explained.

"Little or no knowledge can have repercussions. Communicate lots of no-brainer basics and manage expectations by quantifying the results you expect," said Simmonds.

When is it time to call in hired guns? Balzer suggested when your marketing nirvana becomes a nightmare of data avalanche, compounded by tectonic changes in the search engine landscape. You should also seek help when facing inflated management expectations brought on by initial success.

"Professional search engine marketing vendors have more experience, time and resources than in-house program managers," said panelist Anthony Muller, President of Web Mercs and author of a book on SEO vendor selection. "Try inter-sourcing to augment internal resources," suggested Simmonds, meaning allying your in-house SEM team with an experienced vendor to plan and implement your program.

In addition to heading up search operations at About.com, Simmonds is also responsible About's parent company Primedia's publications online. In this role, he shepherds 1,000 editors through content optimization.

"Repeat your messages a lot to make sure everyone is up to date," he advised. And handle them with understanding. "Editors get threatened when witty writing style goes up against key-word rich content," said Simmonds.

Specific site improvements Simmonds recommended include:

  • Annotating all links with two sentences of keyword-rich content.

  • Use Keyword rich introductory text for all pages.

  • Put your time into good page title tags and content, and spend less time on meta tags.

  • Cultivate relationships with SEO tool vendors that have good relationships with search engines.

  • Monitor your traffic.

While continuous enlightenment is Simmonds' strategy for managing Primedia executives' expectations, Cam Balzer kept Consumer Guide's senior management in the dark about early pay-per-click (PPC) campaigning, hoping to produce convincing results before going to the brass. A risky career move, perhaps, but if ever results made a case for SEM, Balzer's do.

Just a year in action, his program is bringing in seven-figure revenue streams, click through rates of up to 20 percent, and a 2500 percent increase in free traffic, resulting in millions of hits per month. "More importantly," said Balzer, "the measures we care about improved: showing up above or along with our competitors and gaining a large volume of traffic directly to our content pages."

Balzer's lessons learned were straightforward and fundamental:

  • Nail the basics. Focus SEO efforts on "crawlability," keyword placement, and links -- both internal and from directories. Leverage PPC with ROI tracking, copy writing for keywords and visitor qualification.

  • "Kick-start your program with pay-per-click and use the results to find your positive ROI niche." Start with high-volume venues, but go after medium volume keywords. "Used car" has 600 impressions per month, while Balzer's highest unit volume keywords get just one to five percent of that.

  • Skip the lab rats and go straight to human trials. "Get some PPC up there and see how it does," he suggested, noting that Overture provided the best resource for measuring bidding ROI, while Google AdWords was the best venue for road testing copy.

  • Place keyword-rich copy in templated locations on pages -- for example in product or category links -- to help users as well as search engines find related pages easily.

  • Introduce keywords in batches periodically, track them and eliminate the ones that fail to meet your ROI threshold. Roll successful keywords out to premium links and second-tier pay-per-click media.

When you set out to find a vendor, Muller recommends asking a set of specific and pointed questions of each prospect. His questions, with his comments, would be as follows:

1. "Do you specialize in SEO?" This field is demanding enough that you can expect a specialist to be more up to date and expert in current best practices.

2. "Does all your work reside on your domain?" A popular spam technique is to host questionable practices on their own domains, instead of their clients', where it should be.

3. "Do you use doorway pages or landing pages?" Most are spam and are risky practices to try with the major search engines. "Bridge page, jump page, ghost page -- a rose by any other name," said Muller.

4. "Do you rely on a proprietary software that automatically generates thousands of keyword-rich pages?" Definitely a suspect practice.

5."Do you use a technique or technology that serves up different pages from those that users see?" Be wary; this is often seen as a deceptive practice; major search engines frown on it.

6. "Is link popularity a focus?" Be wary if you hear "we link your site to thousands of websites in our database." It's a fancy way of saying we'll link your site to two-cent spam domains.

7. "Are your live examples the same as your references?" Use Google to check find out if the answers are true, advised Muller. Compare a reference site to the version Google has cached to see if they match, as they should. Check for link farming by viewing the backward links for many similar URLS, especially any with references to search engines.

In the Q&A session following the panel, speakers offered a useful roundup of fundamental SEO tactics.

ROI Tracking

Easy tools like HitBox and GoToast add JavaScript to your pages to track visitors, said Balzer. Session ID's are decidedly not easy, he added. Make sure your tracking mechanism doesn't interfere with search engines accessibility, said Muller.

Meta Tags

Meta tags are less important than page titles, content and links. Inktomi is the only major search engine that supports meta tags. However, they are important for internal search engines. Simmonds recommended no more than five words in your keyword tag, and picking up the first four lines of content for the description tag. Balzer said the templates he created use the first 300 characters of the "Highlight" text.

Page Titles

"Put whatever is most important first," says Muller, as the words might be truncated. "If your brand is known," commented moderator Danny Sullivan, "There's an advantage to using it in your title; however titles should be unique to each page."

Submitting to Search Engines

Submission has little to do with ranking, said Sullivan, reiterating that search engines rank according to content and links to popular sites. "Never submit to Google," said Muller. "If you must," added Simmonds, "submit only your home page and site map." If you have a great many pages to submit other search engines, "That's exactly what paid inclusion in is for," he added.

Links & Affiliate Programs

"You don't get link popularity from those third party affiliate links," said Muller. Instead add real links from your affiliates. However, "if it makes good business sense to have an affiliate program," said Sullivan, "then go ahead."

Establish baselines and manage senior executive expectations to make your in-house program a success, said Simmonds. "Manage your first forays internally to build in-house expertise," concluded Balzer, "and seek additional resources as the growth curve tapers."

To find those resources "RFP away," advised Muller. "The more you do, the more likely you are to find the right fit... then go with your gut."

Anne Kennedy is managing partner of Beyond Ink, Web marketing consultants based in Portland Maine, which she founded in 1997. Also publisher of online digest SEONews.net, she speaks and writes frequently on Internet marketing.

About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.