16 November 2007

Travel diaries: Search Engine Marketing with the AMA

I traveled to Chicago earlier this month for work and attended a American Marketing Association 'Hot Topic' seminar: Search Engine Marketing. It was very informative, and filled my head full of useful tools and website info which will be immediately applicable at work. It was one of the best conferences I've been to in terms of the ratio of chair time to applicability of content. Following are some jotted-down notes I made of things that were of most interest.

The conference covered at its core the search engine bots - how they work, and why, and how to play nicely with them. The bots have an affinity for certain web elements - attractive hot spots that call out to them for attention. Similarly, there are certain chilling items that will drive the bots away. Fortunately, the bots' activities are based on some sound statistical linguistic processing algorithims - at least for now - and it is not arduous nor unethical to work to improve one's search engine ranking through applying some knowledge of how they work to one's own site.

A 'hot spot' for the search engine bots is the page title, which is often underutilized for marketing, or used to promote the company branding instead of the specific offering being made on the page. Title pages should be reflective of the conversion activity on the page, either related to the product or the action. I just finished Chris Anderson's The Long Tail and one of his key points there was that as the technicality and specificity of the search query increases, the frequency of searchers at that index point drops but the propensity to convert is much higher. For example, someone searching for 'external hard drive' is likely to be part of a large crowd searching for just that term who are less inclined to buy - they may be just browsing. But someone searching for 301110U - the sku of a LaCie 500GB external firewire drive - is likely to be part of a much smaller group of searchers who are ready to buy immediately. The following article is useful on this topic: Web Page Title Tags by SEOLogic

Another hot spot for the bots is the keywords; in designing a site for SEO, more technical keywords are recommended: use product SKUs where available. I ran into this myself today, when searching for a new firewire drive with which to start taking advantage of the new time machine feature of Leopard - in hunting down where I would buy from, I found it easiest to narrow down to a sku at the manufacturer's website and then check out distributors offering that SKU. Websites featuring SKUs fared well in this effort; those without became difficult to find. (Frys.com take note - checking out my product sku for my new LaCie 500GB Firewire drive dropped me onto the Leappad Disney Princess Stories. Uh, no, that's not what I wanted!)

The last hot spot of interest is the anchor text. As anchor text is highly interesting to the googlebot, monitoring this is essential for a comprehensive strategy of SEM. For example, googling 'click here' at this time will display a link to Adobe's pdf reader foremost, because that anchor text is so often used to direct people to the site. Check out how many times the phrase "click here" shows up on your website, and change that to be more useful text in order to improve your site's search engine placement. More importantly, in the web world, 'click here' is analagous to the ums in a spoken presentation - just wasteful filler.

A series of tools were reviewed, as follows:

  • One of the reviewed tools was the Neat-o tool for checking backlinks from We Build Web Pages, including a display of the anchor text used for the backlinking.

  • A historically useful tool is the Waybackmachine at archive.org - useful when evaluating paid ad spend options, to see who has previously been in that ad spot at which you're looking. For fun and kicks, compare the first incarnation of Blogger with today's current blogger homepage.

  • Another interesting tool was Alexa.org's site comparison tool. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to do very much for sites not in the top 100,000. But if you have one of those Goliaths, check it out.

  • A Googleite presented also regarding Google's tools for webmasters. I found that pretty darned interesting, in terms of what tools are out there and what they can do for you. Check out the webmaster tools for inbound link checking to your site.

  • Some new cool search tools are showing up, including Yahoo!'s mindset and Become.com. These provide for differentiated search results depending on the stated frame of mind of the searcher: checking out "Ethiopia", where a pal of mind is heading this week, allows you to differentiate between shopping and research type results. One complaint I have is that there are many more dimensions to a concept than just these two variables, but in beta mode that's all that is available.

  • A variety of keyword popularity tools are available at inventory.overture.com, wordtracker.com and keyworddiscovery.com.

Finally on the web, each page should have a call-to-action, somewhere, and the effectiveness of these should be measured and tracked. I don't advocate overcommercialization, but as one of the presenters pointed out, you are investing in your web site to do something - educate, advocate, profit, or whatever - so that should be more than an afterthought on the site.

One thing that seasoned marketers will have to wrap their heads around is the idea that the IT functions relating to marketing need to get a few cycles of brain time. If not properly set up and maintained, a web site's results can't be measured, won't convert properly nor will the site be represented in its optimal position in the search engines. So, whether you like IS or not, it is time to make friends with your local IS department geek and find the resources to do what needs doing - otherwise the effect of the dollars spent on web advertising will be diminished. This includes checking that multiple domains reroute via 301 redirects to the preferred domain and ensuring that each page of content can be accessed directly by http: string; if it can't be accessed due to technical restrictions, it can't be indexed.

Websites offer a direct-to-customer communications path from the corporate Marketing department for the first time since Moses got the message from the burning bush. Cutting through the clutter offers wonderful opportunities to increase revenues profitably by serving customers what they need when they need it.