According to the Internet Advertising Revenue Report by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, $23.4 billion was spent on online advertising in the United States in 2008. This represented a 10.6 percent increase over the year before and the continued growth of the medium’s popularity with marketers. One of the biggest stories over the past decade is not how the Internet has matured, but how during that maturation process the medium’s interactive advantages have influenced how online marketers spend their budgets.
Early in the decade, when search marketing was still in its infancy, the online landscape was dominated by banner advertising. It was not unusual to open a website and find multiple banner ads on a page. Used to images and traditional bold messages, much of this was an attempt to translate traditional “branding” advertising to the Internet model. During this time, major online ad units such as “roll over” ads emerged and were primarily positioned on the home pages of major destination websites such as Yahoo, MSN or AOL for the greatest impact. While advertisers were initially willing to purchase online advertising based on the same reach model as traditional offline media, it did not take long to realize that the greatest advantage of marketing online is the immediate feedback of a “click” to a marketer’s website. Purchasing decisions quickly shifted away from the standard cost per thousand impressions (CPM) to a cost per click (CPC) model, setting the stage for the revolution in online marketing called “search.”
Fueled by the introduction of search engines that could index billions (now trillions) of Web pages and page content, users learned quickly that it was far easier to use a “search” rather than visit numerous websites to find what they were seeking online. Searching a topic or term properly, a user could get a listing of the top 10 most relevant results. Even though users might spend more actual time on content websites, they interact more with advertising (clicks) during their time spent searching.
The feedback received from Internet marketing is second to none, and, while it might not offer the dramatic branding opportunity of a Super Bowl ad, firms can spend marketing dollars more effectively to reach potential clients.
The Search Marketing Landscape
Search marketing can be broken down into four categories:
• Paid Search Advertising
Performance based, advertisers’ ads typically appear at the top, right or bottom of a search results page. Ads are text only and, if done properly, are relevant to the keyword phrase for which it is targeted. These ads will only run when a specific keyword or phrase is searched, so they can be highly optimized.
• Contextual Advertising
An advertiser’s message is delivered at the right or left side of a content page across a network of websites that are partnered with a search engine. The most popular of these services is Google’s Adsense, which places ads based on relevant content and keyword phrases. While this can be highly optimized there is no complete control regarding on which websites an ad will appear.
• Paid Inclusion
Certain search engines, such as Dogpile, Excite and Metacrawler use a mix of organic results and “paid inclusion” when serving search results to users. Paid inclusion provides the ability for an advertiser to gain placement at the top of the results while not necessarily being identified as a “paid ad unit.” The drawback of this type of advertising is that users are increasingly savvy and seek clearly defined paid and non-paid results.
• Organic Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
With years of research now indicating that users prefer “organically” occurring search results, primarily for their relevance, SEO is becoming an increasingly important element for marketers. Organic SEO involves working with the key elements of a website — content, metacode, website build, links and other on and off-site features — to optimize that website’s chances of appearing high in the rankings when the most relevant searches are made. Because there are no advertising purchases being made, various tracking metrics are used to gauge overall success of these programs.
Most Internet users prefer the organic results that are returned when they make a relevant search. The two main reasons for this are the ever-improving algorithms being used by the major search engines to deliver relevant results quickly, and the fact that the paid ads found on Web pages are often irrelevant or too generic.
With all search marketing, whether paid or organic, page one is the target placement. Users seek relevance, so while it varies from category to category, users will only go past page one approximately 15 percent of the time.
Benefits of Search Reach across Business Categories
The major search engines today are indexing Web pages at increasingly faster rates and returning results that are far more relevant than ever before. In Google’s latest beta release of “Google Caffeine,” testers are reporting results that are delivered in twice the speed of the current version of Google. “Bing,” Microsoft’s search engine, will also be the default search engine on Yahoo, under their new agreement. Bing’s ads promise that it will deliver the most relevant results of all search engines. While not available yet, we are perhaps not too far away from what will be “real-time” indexing of Web content for users.
Until recently many people tended to think of the Internet as this great online mall, an easy place to search for retail items. However, service businesses are some of the greatest beneficiaries of users going online to do most of their research. While law firms need to take a broader approach to their online visibility, they also need to be positioned well or they will not be found. There might not be an immediate “sale,” but one page found could be worth thousands of dollars of business later.
For the legal services researcher, business is not about spending $50 for a shirt, but potentially committing thousands or perhaps millions of dollars on a project or resource. The growth of the Internet and the now trillions of pages included in the search indexes provide an unparalleled amount of information and resources for all users searching in business categories, including legal services.
Strategies for Service Industries Differ from Retail
There are some obvious differences in search marketing for the retail and service industries. Online retail businesses will typically deploy a catalog or directory of items that need to be indexed and sold online. Specific ads can be purchased for each item name or type, for example, “men’s blue turtleneck shirt,” so when searched the ad appears. If properly optimized, that same website should also appear in the organic results of search engines in a similar fashion. It is fairly easy to measure success, because an item is either selling or it is not. With a retail site, there is tremendous flexibility for implementing the SEO process and being able to respond to the changing demands of the search marketplace.
For service industry businesses, where a “catalog” does not exist, a broader strategy is often needed, and this presents some challenges. Most major law firms’ websites will have dozens of practice areas covering hundreds of sub-categories. The content contained is often case-related and, where not, the wording is typically written by a team of legal writers and cannot easily be altered for SEO. A law firm website usually contains many pages that need to make their way into the search indexes, most of which might only be searched a few times in any given month. This presents some major issues, the greatest being:
• Difficulties with being able to rapidly conform content to best fit how users are searching for it.
Papers are not written with the searcher in mind. What do you do then when research later shows that users are searching for the information presented in a paper, but not with the phrases that are written into it. Think of users searching for “coat” instead of “jacket” or “cleantech” instead of “clean tech.”
• Getting the deep content of these websites into the search engine indexes.
With thousands of pages of content, most of it relevant, the page-by-page techniques of SEO for smaller websites are not viable, and software solutions might produce better results.
To achieve SEO success in the service arena, a firm’s strategy should include two key efforts. One is identifying the most important practice areas for refined SEO development and perhaps even some paid search advertising. This is particularly important for categories where a law firm might be competing for placement with a nonlegal entity, a good example being the outsourcing industry. Think of a phrase like “human resources outsourcing.” In that area, a law firm will be competing more with actual outsourcing companies than other law firms, so if that phrase is necessary for business, then a proper level of human resources outsourcing content will be needed to compete for those organic placements.
The second effort would be to ensure that the website is deeply indexed according to the search indexes so that “long-tail” opportunities for being seen are realized. This involves deep research, mapping, proper build, item and page and document titling and website navigation. It is also imperative to pay attention to what users are searching to find a firm’s services, not what the firm thinks they are searching. There are tools that can reveal how users are researching categories, and this information is critical in optimizing a site so that it comes up in those searches. This might mean items need to be worded slightly differently on a website or certain phrases added. There is never a guarantee of placement for any page or item, so any website element that limits exposure needs to be addressed.
With any website it is important to avoid shortcuts for optimization. In their efforts to constantly deliver better, more relevant results, the search engines have also developed better tools to devalue the efforts of businesses that seek to “cheat” to get to the top. The most blatant techniques cheats used to try and guarantee SEO success include:
• Link farms (paid and non-paid)
Websites that exist for the sole purpose of providing a link to other sites. Links are an important tool, but must be relevant and provide appropriate anchor text. A “good” link would be a client website or school with a reference link to a firm’s website.
• Spammed content
The constant over-placement of phrases in content.
The creation of a pool of landing pages with the only purpose of linking into the main site to create the illusion of greater importance.
Success Is Difficult , but Not Impossible to Measure
It is fairly easy to measure SEO success when marketing a retail business online. It is not so easy to measure the same success for a service business website because there is no immediate transaction taking place, nor is it common to ask “how did you find us?” Other metrics must be relied upon to gauge the success of service business SEO programs. These metrics include the following:
• Search positioning for target keywords and phrases
• Search positioning for “long-tail” keywords and phrases
• Comparison of above items to leading competitor’s positioning
• Website traffic generated from the above positioning
• Website page saturation (indexing) to the major search engines
In measuring success, it is important to note that you cannot win every battle. Unlike retail where a pool of very specific items needs to succeed to make sales, there is a wide expanse of content for the service businesses. Pay attention to the details and what the research indicates. Be persistent at writing content that matches well what users are seeking, and a great majority of your content will be there at the top of users’ search results.