Search engines have become a critical source of traffic for many Web sites. In fact, search engines can account for as much as 80 percent of their traffic.
However, search engine placement is a complex and ever-moving target to hit: search engines refresh their listings constantly to produce new content. They also use a unique and proprietary (read: “top secret”) algorithm to determine a site’s relevance to keyword queries. You can never be too sure as to what Google or Yahoo wants from a site to merit a top ranking.
Playing catch-up with search engines can be time-consuming and costly. Worse, search engine visibility takes time to achieve and only seconds to lose.
If you are operating a web-based operation, you will need to make a number of business decisions regarding search engine marketing. The key to successful search engine marketing strategy is constant testing, revising and optimizing based on metrics. Here are some business decisions that you need to address in search engine marketing:
1. Are you keeping up with the changes?
Search engines are constantly trying to improve their search results. In so doing, you might find your site in the number one position one morning, only to slide to page 10 the following day, or worse, dropped from the engine’s entire index. You check your web stats to find that your traffic decreased by 10% or so because one search engine reduced its referrals to your site. Do you know what just happened?
Google, for example, constantly tweak their algorithms leading to a shakeup of the search results. A lot of webmasters are finding it hard to keep track of what Google wants or not. Yahoo, just recently, stopped showing Google results (Google used to be the provider of Yahoo search results) and shifted to their own “internally powered results” (from all accounts, looks to be a hybrid Inktomi processed by Yahoo’s new algorithm).
Search engine optimization is a never-ending game. You need to dedicate time and resources to understanding how you can optimize your web site for search engine rankings. With each new shakeup, the results will either be positive (if your site gets better ranked in your keywords) or negative (if your site drops from your rank or disappears altogether). And paying to get into the search engines is not even a guarantee of a top (or even “good”) spot.
If you are running a business on the Web and you rely on search engines to give you a significant amount of traffic, you must keep your eyes wide open for any changes. Read as much as you can for information. Check out Webmaster or search engine forums. Absorb everything you learn and apply them to your site.
2. Are you willing to pay to get your site indexed or listed by the search engines or directories?
Getting into the search engines is not as easy as it used to be. With more Web sites sprouting all over the Internet, there are more pages for search engines to index. To “expedite” your listing in search engines, some search engine providers have introduced the concept of “Pay for Inclusion (PFI), which means submitting a web site or web pages for a fee in exchange for guaranteed inclusion into a search engine’s database/listings for a set period of time. Inktomi, Fast/AlltheWeb, Teoma/Ask Jeeves, and AltaVista are the search engines that currently require sites to pay to be included in their search listings.
If you are operating a small-to-medium site, your fee is based on the number of URLs that you submit for indexing (cost is anywhere from $16 to $39 per URL for one year). Bigger sites, often defined as those with 1,000 or more pages are typically charged on a pay-per-click fee basis. The benefit will be the assurance that the web pages you submitted will “typically appear within 72 hours and updated every 48 hours.” In many search engines, you will also be provided reporting details and ability to manage your account.
Yahoo also has a separate Paid Submission program for its directory. For a fee of $299 per year, you are guaranteed a review of your site. Inclusion into the directory, however, is not automatic and will depend only whether your site meets the stated guidelines for submission.
Take note, though, that PFIs can be pretty expensive, and costs can set you back thousands of dollars depending on the number of pages you want to be included. For example, a 100-page submission at $25 per URL will set you back $2,500 per year!
It is also important to take into consideration that PFIs cannot guarantee prominent listing or ranking in the search results. The rankings are often based on the search engine’s unique algorithm, which takes into consideration both URLs that paid for inclusion as well as URLs that are picked up by their spiders (for free!). PFIs will only guarantee that you are included in their database, but will not provide assurance that you will be in the top 10 of the listing. The ranking criteria will still depend on how your pages are optimized and their popularity.
A number of complaints have also been raised against the PFI programs. Some site owners report that pages already indexed for free suddenly disappear in the listing as soon as they paid for its inclusion. For example, a site owner with 500 pages in the search engine decides to pay for inclusion of 1 of its pages, only to see the 499 dropped from the index. Some webmasters opine that the thinking behind this action is to compel the site owner – who has already shown their willingness to pay for inclusion – to pay for the rest of the pages.
The alternative, of course, is to resist paying for inclusion and wait for your URLs to be picked up by the search engines for free (yes, they still do that!). It may take a few months for their spider or human editors to stumble on your site, but doing so can save you a lot of money. In the meantime, you can develop more pages, improve your content, requests for links from similar websites, and develop a customer base.
3. Are you willing to attract more search engine traffic by paying per-click?
Overture pioneered the pay-for-placement (PFM) model, where you bid a price on keywords you wish to be included. Payment is on a pay-per-click basis, and placement is often based on the amount of bid you placed in comparison with the offer of other bidders.
Your placement in Overture, FindWhat, Kanoodle, and others will depend on how high you bid on your keywords. The top placements are the highest bidders for the keyword. Google AdWords, on the other hand, combines the amount of bid placed on the keyword with your clickthrough rate.
It is important to note that PFM model is basically pay-per-click advertising (with emphasis on advertising). According to a study made, the top 2 organic listings usually receive more than 50 percent of the clicks on a search results page, whereas the average click through for a paid search placement is about 2 percent.
Listings are often shown under the label “Sponsored Listings” and are not integrated with what is called the “natural” search engine results. Once your budget runs out and you no longer bid for your term, your listing disappears.
When you run pay-per-click campaigns in the search engines, it is extremely important to manage your costs, as listings can be very expensive to maintain. The key is to choose the right keywords for your budget. Some keywords targeting the same customer may cost you $0.05 per click, while a different one can cost you $0.65 per click. A thousand click-throughs will cost you $50 if the keyword costs only $0.50, while the cost can go up to $650 for the $0.65 per click.
4. Do you have a diversification plan?
The old adage “don’t put your eggs all in one basket” holds true even in search engine marketing: if search engines drop your site, do you have any back up plans to get people to visit your site?
If you concentrate solely on search engine marketing and it fails, you will lose not only traffic but also sales and revenues. It is important that you have alternative marketing plans in place. In fact, it is best to have a well-laid marketing plan, one that uses other online and offline marketing strategies in addition to search engines. Carve out a plan to market your site off the Web, whether through a press release in your community journal, or attending networking activities.
With almost 80 percent of Internet users using search engines to find information on the Web, there are only two possible outcomes when someone performs a search: either they will find you or they will find your competitors. Search engine marketing –getting your Web site visible in the search engines – should be a key element of your business strategies.
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