Visit any webmaster forum, tutorial site, blog or seminar and you are likely to find dozens, if not hundreds of recommendations on how to optimize your site for search engines. Search traffic appears to be the Holy Grail, the answer to making an online business successful and the path to great riches.
I'm here to tell you, it ain't always so.
Pull Marketing and Demand
In order for search marketing to be an effective marketing strategy, people have to look for what you sell. This seems to be an obvious statement, but it's surprising how many business owners overlook this detail. They've heard the stories of people who've made fortunes once their site was listed at the top of the search engines; they might even have had a hard sell from an SEO who's convinced them that the #1 listing is the key to success. It seems clear to many that the way to get business is to be listed high in the search engines.
Unique Products Don't Drive Search Traffic
I recently advised a potential client who was confused as to why his site wasn't performing well. He had reached #1 for a dozen keywords (which he checked daily). He had his site professionally copy written by a top notch SEO copywriter. The pictures were appealing and the descriptions were great. He came to me as a last-ditch effort to find out what was wrong, assuming there must be a usability issue.
A quick glance at the site told me nothing was wrong. I did a webstats analysis for him and found that visitors were staying and exploring his site, returning 2 or 3 times, and conversions seemed to be very high as a percentage of traffic. I asked him specifically what his issues were with the site, and he said the sales just weren't meeting expectations.
I asked him about his marketing strategy. He told me about all their #1 listings in Google and Yahoo. I asked him about his other marketing efforts. There was silence at the other end of the line. He admitted they pinned all their marketing focus on search traffic.
This particular client sold special panels that turn your refrigerator into art.* They were hand painted and very clever; I'd say there is definitely a market for them in home décor. Based on the number of purchases he did get from visitors once they found his site, it was clear that visitors were enticed to buy. However, very few people were actually searching for "refrigerator art panels".
Online Push Marketing Creates Demand
Traditional marketing efforts are more of a "push" technique. They get their product in front of the target audience by placing it in front of them on a regular basis, through broadcast and print media as well as outdoor advertising, sponsorships, and public service.
It's even easier to do "push" marketing online because you can clearly target the people who might be interested in your products.
To return to the refrigerator-art example, we set up a marketing plan. We started out by writing some really descriptive press releases about the introduction of each new "style" and fanned those out over several months. The releases were practically feature articles in themselves and got picked up via newsfeeds on a wide number of home décor-related news and resource sites.
By following the links from those press release sites, we found sites that offered affordable online advertising through banner and text ads. We started campaigns on those sites and soon, qualified traffic was increasing.
Many of these sites had newsletters and blogs and were constantly looking for fresh ideas to pass on to their readers. Before long, several feature articles were written and archived about this neat idea. The key to it all was that the concept was introduced to a large number of people interested specifically in home décor, through opt-in newsletters and blogs.
NOW, people were searching for the phrases that had been optimized and all the effort into SEO, writing, and usability was paying off.
Great Search Terms, Low Sales
Conversely, I've worked with sites that have gone after that broader term of "kitchen décor ideas". Even though they only have a few specific items to sell, they target the broad terms and spend lots of money and time chasing those rankings. When they get the rankings and the traffic at great cost, they still don't get the sales.
They would have been more effective simply buying advertising on the site that already WAS at #1 for "kitchen décor ideas". And with the money they spent on optimization for the terms, they could have bought ads on the top 10 sites for "kitchen décor ideas". When the rankings changed, they could have easily switched their advertising to the new top sites; instead they scrambled to regain their footing in the listings.
Local Sites Need More Than Search
I've worked with local clients such as a "landscape designer in Portland, TN*" who wasn't likely to see search results from his efforts for a long time, simply because people weren't used to searching for those services locally yet. However, by integrating their website into their offline marketing, we were able to drive people to the site where they could learn more about the vendor, use specialized tools and forms to help them decide on what they needed, and even book an appointment online- all of which increased sales and decreased phone support time.
The more they marketed themselves offline, the more people in their area started to search for them. And there they were! Often, you have to create the buzz that stimulates the search traffic. But... the point isn't that people used search to find the site. The point is that business increased, costs decreased, and the search was simply the part of the marketing plan that enabled people to find the business once the demand had been created.
Fit the Strategy to the Site
There is so much more to online marketing than search optimization! While it is a critical tool in your box of strategies, it's only one tool and it may not be the most effective or efficient tool to use at the beginning of your marketing efforts.
Should your site be search-friendly and optimized for targeted keywords? YES. Absolutely. There is no reason not to have a search friendly site, and as demand grows for your products, you want people to be able to easily find you.
Should you spend your entire advertising budget on linking strategies? Probably not at first, unless you are in a field where the search traffic is high. Spending your time and money resources on linking is only effective when there is an existing demand for what you sell and you really do need to be on that first page of results.
Should you spend every day suffering over the minor changes in your search engine listings and tweaking the content, watching for spider visits? NO. Even if you do have a highly competitive market, tweaking for search engines on a regular basis is too much. Instead, spend your time creating new content or researching new alliances with sites that have complimentary products.
Should you spend your budget on links that send you qualified traffic and enhance your brand awareness? YES. Always. That is marketing that enhances your brand awareness, qualified traffic, AND helps with link popularity.
Sometimes Search Alone is Enough
For many businesses, being listed in the Yellow Pages is enough. They simply need the biggest and best ad, and business will follow. For many businesses, a listing in the search engines is also enough to drive the traffic needed to sustain the business. Sometimes it can even be more than the company can handle!
However, most businesses need to get out there in front of customers AND have a listing in the Yellow Pages/search engines. When you are determining your marketing budget, make sure to put your efforts into the strategies that will drive the most business, in the order that you need them. Sometimes, search is the last part of the equation instead of the first. Remember that marketing is an ongoing process and your strategy should be layered to reflect the growing awareness of your business.
Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
March 22, 2005
Scottie Claiborne is the facilitator of the Successful Sites Newsletter. She is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences and the High Rankings Seminars as well as the administrator of the High Rankings Forum.
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