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Monday, September 15, 2003

That Same Old SEO Soft Shoe?

Fredrick Marckini, a well known author and entrepreneur in the search engine optimization business, is a recent addition to ClickZ's author lineup.

Unfortunately, Marckini's first two columns are little more than a transparent attempt to sell his company's services. Though not universal, self-promotion is a growing trend at ClickZ which many have noted in the past year. I suppose I'd do the same put in Marckini's position, but that probably underlines a key point about editorial integrity. Someone at ClickZ has got to start taking a tougher stance (although that would probably require them to pay writers).

No one's saying that natural search traffic is a bad thing, so Marckini and others seem to be arguing against straw figures when they extol its benefits. But on the "SEO vs. PPC" debate, we'd like to see a little more objectivity. When readers write to me to ask for studies or resources to help them in their marketing presentation to the boss, I'm often at a loss, because most of the studies and stats in this area are produced by companies with an ax to grind. LookSmart is fond of pointing out that "organic listings" get a higher percentage of clicks overall than the advertising listings (I should hope so!), but they naturally fail to question just how organic a search listing is if the listee, er, advertiser, er, website, is paying LookSmart and MSN for every click.

Today's column by Marckini trots out numbers: big numbers of visitors to websites from organic search. Oh, yes, visitors, remember them? The metric favored most by bubble companies at the height of the dot-com madness. Again, it's little surprise that search engines refer a lot of traffic; people love search engines! But isn't it a little outdated to discuss "visitors" without discussing the revenues or on-site actions those visitors might produce? Are we supposed to go on faith? No doubt in the third instalment of Marckini's trilogy he'll address the need to convert visitors (a key phase in what Marckini dubs "inquiry marketing" with nary a tip of the cap to Godin and permission or to Nielsen and "request marketing"). But to some extent, the damage has already been done. We're back to fixating on big visitor numbers, with a promise that you, too, can get it all for free.

Moreover, is it not the case that ultimately, the search engine (and the external community) determine which websites are relevant and deserving of visitors? Is it also not the case that they might well tweak their algorithms to favor resources and publications of general interest so that commercial sites and their product pages ultimately don't rank as well? Companies like Google stake their future on making money on commercial listings and on retailers listing in shopping engines like Froogle.

Even for those merchants who do rank well in the organic results, it's often the case that these rankings are little influenced by an optimization strategy. That's as it should be.

Marckini's columns, unsurprisingly, gloss over a couple of tough issues that face the search engine marketer. In particular, it needs to be admitted that algorithmic search scientists do have something of an adversarial relationship with product marketers, especially when the algo designers are embedded in search companies whose revenues depend on ad revenues from such marketers. (In the immortal words of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau: "Why should I sell your wheat?") It's also clear that many optimization companies (and those who simply observe what optimizers have traditionally done) know this.

In Marckini's previous column, Forrester analyst Charlene Li was quoted as saying that you have to shape your optimization strategy for different search engines... that a "Google searcher is not the same as a Yahoo searcher." The fact that there are different demographic profiles on different search destination sites is no secret, but how does one respond to this fact? Does this mean we're still designing websites with an eye to reverse-engineering their search methods, to "crack" each one separately? Does that mean cloaking and doorway pages? If not, then what? (Making rational choices about how to allocate paid advertising, perhaps?)

Natural search traffic is great for any business. But it's time to stop cloaking it in mystique.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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