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Why Search Engine Marketing Works
By Andrew Goodman, Oct. 18, 2000

From the buzz in news releases, in email correspondence, and on popular discussion sites, we've learned that one topic seems to inordinately fascinate many people somehow connected to the "Internet industry": marketing. Take, for example, many of the sites that are often thought of as "webmaster resources," such as Search Engine Forums. This site is in fact almost entirely devoted to search engine placement or "search engine optimization" (SEO) and is aimed at smaller webmasters wanting to get noticed as well as consultants who help companies get their sites ranked well in search engines. In other words, the whole thing is about marketing.

Marketing (and its high-flown cousin, branding) separates success from failure. People love to talk about what doesn't work: Super Bowl ads and other expensive campaigns which raise awareness but don't attract customers; annoying forms of "interruption" marketing; and so on. Inevitably, one clever marketer has even launched a review of bad online marketing strategies called fuckedmarketing.com. But let's focus on what works.

Search Engine Placement: Marketing that Doesn't Look Like Advertising

It's no accident that search engines are still seen to be a great marketing tool. Not only is much of the traffic free, but it's targeted, so the response rates are higher. Think about it: you have pre-qualified customers looking for solutions - even looking to buy something. They'll be much more predisposed to your message, since in a sense they initiated the transaction themselves. This and other forms of marketing which are unique to the Internet are still poorly understood by many. Just as you shouldn't believe the hype about everyone in the technology industry getting rich, you also shouldn't listen to all the doom and gloom that says nothing works.

MSN Works the Soft Sell

Everyone's selling something on the net (or, some say, if they aren't then they need to be). I just leafed through some featured "top" news stories at MSN - they were, curiously enough, all about dating and relationships. These things lead right into the more targeted (and highly emotion-charged) content directed at women. Some of this stuff is very successful, and why shouldn't it be? Print women's magazines make a bundle on advertising, in part because the subject matter leads into sales for products relating to personal care, which is linked to emotion and wants as opposed to rational assessment's of one's so-called "needs." Although it hasn't been totally figured out, content can sell products on the Internet just as it does in print. You wouldn't believe that if you'd been reading the newspapers lately. (Part of the problem, of course, is that some of the more lavish online content sites were launched as if a whole editorial organization could be supported by banner ads. Nope.)

But content can also sell content. If print magazines are profitable, then maybe their online incarnations need to (a) reach more relevant readers and (b) make sure there's a compelling reason for a lot of them to subscribe to the print version! Thus let's never overgeneralize when it comes to the media business. There are many reasons for trying a number of strategies, and the "business end" may be lurking at several removes. Hard-nosed students of business models may miss the subtleties of how growing awareness can be turned into profit.

Why Shameless Self-Promoters Love the 'Net

It's also becoming apparent that individuals with something to promote (even if it's just themselves) can make great use of online strategies. Let's take a glimpse at something like this in action. MSN's featured links about the perils of dating lull the voyeuristic reader to glide from one article to another, and suddenly there I am reading a Miss Manners column. Because of its subject matter (it's gossipy voyeurism), it's fairly riveting. The first thing to realize about it is that in reading her column, we just "bought" a bit of Miss Manners - again. What I mean by that is that Judith Martin just got another bump in the mind share department. For that alone, it was worth it for her to give away her column.

The coup de grāce, though - and what she couldn't get so directly from a column in the newspaper - was a plug for her latest book. If you liked the way she put readers' problems into perspective - a unique perspective that is far from psychoanalysis but more like "sensible advice for not making mountains out of molehills," you might be very interested to read her latest book, Miss Manners' Guide to Domestic Tranquility. With a column featured on a major portal like MSN, even a miniscule response rate would sell a lot of copies of the book. Amazingly though, MSN doesn't make it easy to buy (no link and no affiliation with Amazon or Barnes and Noble online book sales).

The point is, this is a very old game. The Letterman interview provides legitimacy for the sales pitch for the latest Tom Cruise flick. Emeril Lagasse appears on nationwide TV for a cooking segment on Jay Leno, and it boosts his ratings for the annual Super Bowl edition of Emeril Live. The Oprah interview gives that John Gray book a publicity boost, and again, the sales pitch aspect is almost invisible to many viewers. Why would online media not seek to create similar marketing opportunities?

Online marketers therefore need to think a bit about what kind of journey the customer is travelling before she lands on a site. What paths set up the site as a legitimate authority or vendor? This is why there's so much to love about search engines and portals from the marketer's perspective.

Case Study: Say You're Promoting a Motorcycle Magazine...

Think about this for 30 seconds or so. A consumer who just happens to use Hotmail frequently does many searches at MSN (since Microsoft has done a clever job of getting a lot of people, not least Hotmail users, to use MSN). They go looking for print magazines relating to their hobby - motorcycles. Now here's the important thing: MSN uses the LookSmart directory structure and LookSmart directory listings to power its web search. That's a lot of queries, as MSN is a top three portal in nearly every country in the world. This means that a magazine which is in the category "Lifestyle > Auto > Motorcycles > Publications > Complete Coverage" in the LookSmart directory is one of a select few which are getting found by consumers searching on MSN. If Texas Moto has a prominent listing here, they're getting a steady stream of paying subscribers. And if your magazine isn't here, you're losing a steady stream of paying customers to Texas Moto. And note the sales-friendly description the LookSmart editors have written under the entry: "Publication contains useful resources for motorcycle enthusiasts such as a dealer, ride and club locator. Learn how to subscribe."

If you've got a business, then your issues are no different. You need to take some quick shortcuts to ensuring maximum search engine visibility. Instead of sitting around and getting jealous of the Texas Moto's of the world, do what they did: get into the Looksmart Directory right away. You can do this by paying for the LookSmart Express Submit service, which gets your submission reviewed by an editor in 48 hours. Not only does a listing in this directory get you into MSN results, but also into search results for dozens of other wide-reach portals: iWon, Excite, and the list goes on and on.

How To Get an "Unfair" Advantage

LookSmart listings (and other paid listings, like GoTo, Sprinks and Realnames) can also give a site a higher ranking at metasearch engines like Metacrawler, which gives sites an aggregate score based on rankings in various search engines and directories, or Ixquick, which gives a site a "star" for each time it appears in the Top 10 on a major search engine or directory. As it happens, a search for motorcycle magazine using those two keywords on Ixquick gives Texas Moto two stars - one of them thanks to Looksmart, the other from Alltheweb, putting it on the first page. More hits for the Texas Moto site, and more to the point, perhaps, a certain legitmacy. Ixquick is a bit of scientific magic, so if you're ranked high here, the user might assume, you've got to be doing something right.

A check of Metacrawler shows Texas Moto a #3 ranking overall there using the keywords motorcycle magazine - another nice result, this time owing to good (but not Top 10) placements in Google and AltaVista. It looks like Texas Moto's really got some horseshoes. But to some extent, they made their own search engine "luck."

Make no mistake about it: search engine and directory listings are not just good because they're targeted, it's because they are seen as legitimate, even scientific. Consumers click on search results because they are NOT advertising, NOT a sales pitch. They're seen as objective - at least about 100X more objective than a banner ad.

"But," you say, "I can't eat legitimacy!" Think again.

See also: Why Search Engines Must Continue to be Referees

Andrew Goodman is Editor of Traffick.com. Need advice on marketing your web site to search engines? Andrew's consulting firm, Page Zero Media, can help.

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