In search marketing, it's all about the keywords
February 17, 2008 by Lilly Rockwell
Businesses offering, enlisting services to optimize 'good' Web hits, minimize the bad.
Zach Anderson, the vice president of marketing for Austin-based TicketCity.com Inc., cares a lot about Google Inc.
TicketCity counts on online searches to drive customers to its Web site, which sells tickets for everything from college basketball games to Broadway shows and the Beijing Olympics.
"A large percentage, three-quarters, is generated in some way, shape or form from the Web," Anderson said.
And key to reaching those customers is making TicketCity pop up high on the list when they do a Google or Yahoo search for tickets.
That's where Leverage Marketing LLC comes in. Last year, TicketCity hired the Austin firm to help make sure that happens.
For TicketCity and other customers, Leverage determines which keywords on their sites are most likely to result in highly placed searches and attract potential customers, not just a lot of visitors to their Web sites.
That is harder than it sounds.
TicketCity, for example, requires thousands of keywords that change daily, depending on what concerts are booked and which sporting events are coming up, said Abel Alvarado, Leverage Marketing's president.
Alvarado's company is one of dozens in the fast-growing fields of search optimization and pay-per-click management.
Search optimization involves designing a Web site so that it's more likely to show up among the first choices in a Web search. Pay-per-click involves the sponsored searches that are guaranteed top billing on Google or Yahoo pages, depending on keywords and relevance, as determined by those sites' search algorithms.
The search marketing industry is booming, with more companies spending more of their advertising budgets to get Web traffic that way. "This is where the advertising dollars are going," Alvarado said.
In 2007, the search marketing industry was valued at $11.5 billion, according to the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization.
Most of that was pay-per-click management, with $1.4 billion spent on search engine optimization. By 2011, the search marketing industry is expected to grow to $18.6 billion.
An emerging related field is called online reputation management, in which companies pay marketing firms to help bury unwanted search results, such as a critical news story or a nasty blog posting.
Though Google prides itself on objective and untainted search results, there are hundreds of companies working to exploit Google's system to get better search exposure for their clients. That involves identifying the most productive keywords to use on their Web site and how to use them. Putting the right keywords in title tags, for example, will deliver more results than using them in less important places on the site.
In Austin, Leverage recently merged with Web development firm Simply Interactive LLC. The company moved to new office space on North MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) that provides room to grow.
Apogee Search, an Austin-based search marketing firm with 55 employees, recently moved into bigger space off Spicewood Springs Road, with room for 100 more workers.
"Our job is to help clients manhandle Google in order to make our clients money," said Bill Leake, Apogee's CEO.
For example, on a laptop, Leake typed in the names of SuperCircuits and Academic Superstore, both Austin companies that are his clients.
In a so-called natural search for "video security," SuperCircuits showed up right behind companies that paid for sponsored searches. The company sells surveillance and security equipment.
A search for "academic software" brought up Academic Superstore as both the first sponsored search company and the first in the natural search list. The company sells education-related hardware and software online.
Other local search marketing companies include AdLucent, which has 11 employees, and Microsoft-owned Avenue A/Razorfish. Also, advertising agencies such as T3 are increasingly adding search marketing to their services.
One reason search marketing firms are sprouting is that the technology is relatively easy to figure out. Some search consultants work from home or have a small staff.
The market for search engine firms exploded about 2001, when Google started allowing Web sites to bid for certain keywords under its paid search results program. That spawned a new industry of search consultants.
"Compared to traditional forms of marketing, search is trumping it," said Ron Huddleston, vice president of sales and marketing for AdLucent. "Every dollar you spend is returning value."
Huddleston said AdLucent has been approached by companies interested not only in driving their own search results higher, but also in finding ways to hide unwanted results.
For instance, a Google search result for Green Mountain Energy, an Austin-based renewable energy marketer, turned up both references to its business but also a site that is pushing for a boycott of the company.
There are ways to push such results farther down the list so that searchers, hopefully, never see them.
They include building and maintaining a Wikipedia profile, because those profiles consistently end up on the top page of search results, issuing a barrage of news releases to generate positive coverage and creating new company Web sites to get more search hits.
"You can implement different techniques to increase the amount of pages that return for your keyword that push that (negative) one down," Huddleston said. "The way Google ranks for things is based on a formula that they use to decide what is relevant to what you put in. If you increase the amount of positive returns for your business, you can push that site off the first page."
But Greg Jarboe, president of the search engine group, said reputation management is a difficult practice and there is never any guarantee you can affect another site's results.
Jarboe said that kind of behind-the-scenes maneuvering is what Google tries to avoid.
"If you want to boost someone else's ranking or demote someone's ranking, the most effective tactic is links from legitimate news media," Jarboe said. "It's not just positive press releases. You better have truth on your side."
How to game Google
1. Don't use Flash when designing your Web site.
2. Don't use a lot of music and noise.
3. Make sure your home page has a hard-coded 'title tag' that can bring in visitors. Instead of 'Company ABC' say 'Top Online Retail Store Company ABC.'
4. Tag all your photos so they are associated with text.
5. Establish which keywords lead people to your site, and which of those keywords result in actual sales.
How to bury unwanted results
1. Create and manage a Wikipedia profile of your company.
2. Link your home page to other sites.
3. Create additional company Web sites. Try googling 'Google.' It has dozens of company Web sites that show up first.
4. Issue news releases that might prompt positive coverage of your company.
5. Try old-fashioned customer relations. Contact bloggers who may have a gripe about your company or its top executives and find out why.
It's all about the keywords
Sponsored searches: Companies pay Google for guaranteed high placement on search results pages based on certain keywords. Companies choose the keywords based on what they think their customers will type in when looking for a product or service. They're ranked in the results based on how much they bid for the keyword. Advertisers pay only when users actually click on their Web sites.
Natural searches: Unpaid searches based on keywords. Consulting firms help advertisers identify keywords to include in their Web site that are most likely to attract potential customers and how to place them. On SuperCircuits.com, the phrase 'America's No. 1 video security super source' is prominent. That helped the company land a prime spot on the search results page for 'video security.'
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