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The search engine marketing environment is undergoing enormous changes as the industry and the Internet mature. The changes we’ve seen over the past six months are only the tip of a much larger iceberg as new technologies and innovations on established ideas radically alter how we look for information and how that information is delivered to us by search engines. For marketers and advertisers in the traditional world of print and broadcast media, change happens slowly, generally with enough warning to allow for long-term decisions and campaign planning. On the Internet however, change happens at light-speed and alterations to search engine algorithms, fees, services and listing distribution can literally happen overnight. These rapid changes present several planning issues for search engine advertisers and the marketers who represent them, especially for those running active campaigns.
“It is a bad plan that admits of no modification.” – Publilius Syrus (~100 BC)
Most readers will remember November 16th, the day the Florida Update was implemented at Google. In less than 48-hours, Google’s results were radically altered and literally millions of websites which enjoyed prominent placements appeared to vanish from Google’s listings. Two months later, Google made another obvious tweak to their algo, resulting in more changes and dislocation of many websites. Last week, Yahoo announced a conglomeration of its paid-inclusion and cost-per-click programs that continues to create buzz in the SEM world. Six days ago, Ask.Com announced the acquisition of the once popular search engine Excite. Today, Yahoo unveiled a local-search feature that combines maps with search results. Sometime in the coming months, MSN is going to unveil its own, proprietary search engine. In short, there is so much going on it is difficult for anyone, even the professional search engine marketers to keep up. Imagine trying to outline a six-month campaign or trying to explain the impact of these changes to a client. While the best laid plans of mice and men often produce unexpected outcomes, it is still very important to map out your plans and intentions for a search engine placement campaign. Here’s a glimpse into our planning process as it works today (March 10, 2004).
“If anything is certain, it is that change is certain. The world we are planning for today will not exist in this form tomorrow.” – Philip Crosby, Reflections on Quality
Step 1 :: Keyword and Competition Research (2 – 6 hours)
These may seem like separate steps but in our methodology, they must be conducted in conjunction with each other. As search engine marketers, our perceptions of what constitutes a competitive businesses is often slightly different from those of our clients. While ABC Widgets and XYZ Widgets may have a fierce rivallry for clients in the mainstream world one or the other might not have a website or they might not be competing for search engine placements under the exact same keyword phrases. Our idea of competition is found on Google, MSN and Yahoo under the Top10 placements for a specific keyword phrase or a set of phrases. On one hand, we don’t really know who the competition is until we research the keywords we are targeting while on the other hand, the companies indicated by our client as important competitors often help us find keyword phrases to research, recommend and target.
Step 2 :: Cost Benefit Analysis (2 – 4 hours)
Every day for the past seven days I have fielded phone calls from concerned clients. This week they are thinking about the new fee structure introduced by Yahoo and the impending costs associated with these new fees. With Yahoo stating they will charge $0.15 to $0.30 per click for sites participating in the Site Match program, and costs between $0.15 to $1.00 per click for much larger sites feeding data to Yahoo through the Site XChange program, businesses need to know the least expensive methods of getting prominent placements. In order to provide the best possible advise, StepForth is now conducting a cost-benefit analysis for all new campaigns and will be applying this analysis to currently existing ones.
The major factors in relation to Yahoo/Overture placements involve the actual costs associated with the new fee structure. Even after signing up for Site Match, paying the review fee and agreeing to the cost-per-click fees that will be charged against the listing, Top20 placements will still depend on good site optimization. As any honest SEO will tell you, search engine optimization is a kin to loading dice. Getting the placement is still a roll of the dice but at least we can help weigh those dice on your behalf. So, SEO is a good bet for front page placement at Yahoo but we know of a 100% sure bet, Overture. There are several examples where the cost-per-click charges that will be imposed by Yahoo will be higher than the third place bid-per-click at Overture. With the top3 bidded listings at Overture displayed on the front page of Yahoo and other Yahoo owned search engines, the best option for our client (in this scenario) would obviously be to pursue Overture advertising and avoid rolling the dice on SEO/Yahoo cost-per-click. Not only will the costs be lower, front page placement is guaranteed as long as Overture and Yahoo retain the distribution agreement that displays Overture ads at Yahoo. We have a general idea of costs existing clients will face by taking their average number of visits per day, dividing it against the approximate 41% market share Yahoo currently enjoys, and multiplying the dividend by $0.15 or $0.30, depending on the client’s business sector. Please note, we realize how unscientific this method may be but it does offer our clients at least some approximation of the long-term costs of their campaigns. This is an oversimplified view of our analysis but it does express our basic premise, there is almost always a less expensive option to find for the clients.
Step 3 :: Optimize for Inktomi/Yahoo and Link Build for Google (8 – 24 hours)
Our current SEO methods have us optimizing for Inktomi / Yahoo and link-building for Google. The thinking behind this method is based on the behaviours of Yahoo, MSN and Google. Both Yahoo and MSN are currently drawing from the Inktomi database though we know this will change in April as Yahoo will be drawing from its own database, (which will likely be drawn from sites already included at Inktomi). According to Yahoo spokesperson Jennifer Stephens, Yahoo-Slurp (Yahoo’s spider) will act much like its famous cousin Google-bot by crawling sites, following every link found, and incorporating the information found on these pages into its database of spidered sites. Google-bot continues to work the way it always has but the information it gathers is being measured in different ways than it was before. Links are the most important factor (of nearly 100 unique factors) to Google rankings. Assuming the site is well optimized for Yahoo and Inktomi, good, strong links will produce good, strong placements at Google. It is therefore summarized simplest in the phrase “optimize for Yahoo, link-build for Google”
Step 4 :: Submit and Monitor (72 hours – 6 weeks)
After all is said and done, the site needs to be submitted to the search engines and monitored for several months to see what happens. During the second phase we conducted a cost-benefit analysis so we have a plan for how we want to submit the site and can offer reasonable expectations to our clients for the amount of time it will take to be spidered and hopefully appear in the Top20 or Top10. At this point, we begin monitoring the site on a daily basis starting 72-hours after first submission. By that time, we expect to see evidence of search-engine spiders appearing in server logs and may even see a debut placement for the site. One of the greatest benefits of a paid-inclusion program is the increased frequency of spider-visits to a website. Most paid-inclusion programs promise repeat spider visits every 48 – 72 hours, making the SEO job a bit easier as we can see the effects of tweaks in fairly short order.
An important submission note: Most search engines continue to support free-submissions however preference is shown to sites which have paid their inclusion fees with a far greater frequency of visitors. Jennifer Stephenson from Overture said that sites participating in Site Match will be revisited every 48 hours while sites that are found by the Yahoo-Slurp spider and are added to the database will be revisited approximately once each month.
Step 5 :: Client/Sector Communication
In times of great change, the one constant will be people wanting to know what the heck is going on. Businesses of every size need to know how their money is being spent and what factors might effect how that money is spent. All humans react better to known quantities than they do to unknown quantities. Clients who feel broad-sided by changes are generally less than happy clients as many of us in the SEO sector found in November. Even though we were broad-sided by Google’s Florida Update many clients expected us to KNOW what was going on. One of our saving-graces at StepForth was our level of communication with clients and the fact that we honestly stated that we did now know but would work to find out. Always tell the truth to your clients. They will never accept it if you try to bluff your way through but will almost always accept honest answers, even if they don’t particularly like the facts (or lack thereof) presented to them. When major change happens, we write about it here and issue a client-wide bulletin.
The information age has brought about the greatest changes to human interaction since the end of the Dark Ages. The information age, as an era is less than fifty years old. Change happens very quickly these days and that pace of change is quadrupled on the Internet. Even in the midst of rapid change, planning is the best part of execution. Aside from providing a loose road-map, the very act of planning helps perfect your plans.
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890 – 1969)