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Search Engine Marketing beyond 2006, an Interview with John Waddy of TwentySix2 Marketing

By Jennifer Peterson, Marketing Director, Galaxy Bright::

Jennifer Peterson: How has the search engine marketing environment changed since the time you first entered the search engine business in 1997?

John Waddy: When we first started, most people didn’t understand search or pay per click marketing. When we would call on prospects, 90% of the job was customer education. With the popularity of Google and Google’s IPO, most everyone understands the value of search. Today, our business is more dependent on our firm’s qualifications than educating prospects and clients.

In the early days, it was very easy to get good results for our clients in natural search because very few companies were competing for the top space. Today, it is far more competitive and far more difficult to achieve great results that deliver a strong return on investment. All the top agencies are opening search engines practices. But by focusing only on search and having been in the business so long, we still have a great niche. It’s just more competitive than it used to be.

JP: During the Internet’s conception there were a lot of search engines. Do you feel that Google is the #1 search engine all companies should work to rank on?

JW: There are really 3 search engines that matter most - Google, Yahoo and MSN. Of the top three, Google covers about 55% of all searches, with Yahoo and MSN competing for the other 40% of the market. While each search engine has their own algorithm, they all follow the same general rules, but they put emphasis on different things. Google is the most popular of the search engines and probably has the highest quality of end users. Google is just a search engine, where as Yahoo and MSN are more like online portals. Google will probably remain the dominant search engine for a long time to come.

JP: Google’s goal is to categorize legitimate information. Google has penalized sites using “black hat” techniques, such as using keywords in white on a white background or link farms. How do you examine and abide by Google's rules and regulations?

JW: Very good question. Google has done a couple recent updates. At the end of 2004 they did something called the “Florida Update” where they changed their algorithm and a lot of top raking companies moved around. As search engine marketers, we had to adjust and figure out what Google was focused on and what they were penalizing sites for. Just this November they came out with another big change in their algorithm called the “Jagger Update”. This penalized companies that used automated linking programs. To avoid getting caught in these updates, we recommend that all of our clients play by the rules. If you are cheating, Google and other search engines will eventually catch you. At the end of the day, search engines want to favor good, quality sites with lots of content. If you play by the rules and do the work to build a good site with lots of quality in-bound links, you win.

JP: What is the best way to rank for a company who’s website is already established verses a newer company’s site?

JW: Probably 60% of the reason a site ranks well in Google is link popularity, which is a reflection of how many other sites link to your site. Google counts these links like a vote from site A for site B. If 10,000 sites vote for a website’s content by linking to it, and you’re the new kid on the block with no links, you have an uphill battle. Clients that have been around a while on the Internet have an advantage because they usually have more links to them. After link popularity, it’s more of an optimization issue and a content issue. Google, Yahoo and MSN all look for legitimate sites that have legitimate content because they want their customers to get good information on the topics that they are searching for. So the real thing you have to ask yourself is: Am I cheating or bending the rules? If you’re cheating, Google will eventually change their algorithm again and catch you. The same is true of the other search engines.

JP: Should a new website go after keyword phrases that are really popular, or would you recommend going after less popular, but still relevant keywords?

JW: We have a client that does bikini laser hair removal. Six thousand people search “Atlanta laser hair removal” each month, but two thousand people search “Atlanta Georgia laser hair removal”. By starting with a less competitive keyword phrase but still targeted like “Atlanta Georgia laser hair removal”, you have a better chance of ranking for it. Then as your link popularity builds, as your site ages, and as your content increases, you can go after more competitive keywords.

If you are a new site starting a new business, you should start with more targeted, less popular keywords. So “casino” is a broad keyword you’d never rank for. But “Connecticut gambling casino” may be much easier to rank for because it has fewer searches and is less competitive. Our recommendation depends on the DNA of the client’s site. Things that affect our strategy include the competitiveness of the keyword phrase, the number of links to a client’s site, the number of links the competition has, the age of the site and so on.

JP: Even if a new company has the luxury of a large marketing budget, until their new website can become established in the natural search results, are they only left with pay-per-click and is that a good option?

JW: Pay-per-click is a great option, especially for a new site like you said. The problem with pay-per-click is that prices keep going up about 20% every 6 months. So a lot of advertisers are over spending or paying too much for keywords because they are not tracking their return on investment. Of course, for any pay-per-click campaign we run, we track return on investment. If you’re not tracking your ROI, you are probably spending too much. Conversely, there are also a few diamonds in the ruff of really cheap keywords that will have a high impact on traffic and a good return on investment. If you are Home Depot and you bid on the word “drill”, your pay-per-click price is going to be very high because “drill” is a generic, competitive keyword phrase. But if you bid on a more specific keyword phrase like “Stanley cordless drill”, then your ROI will likely be much higher. More specific keywords tend to cost less and deliver more targeted traffic. So if you’re a new business, you must determine which keywords make the most sense and then do a lot of testing and measuring.

If you’re an ecommerce site, it’s very easy to track your ROI. You can measure which keywords convert and how many sales they generate. If you’re site is not an ecommerce site and you don’t sell anything online, you can still track users performing a call to action like filling out a form online.

JP: No matter how much SEO a new website does, is it still essential to coordinate SEO with other marketing efforts to drive people to its site? This may be TV ads, magazine ads, direct mail, incentives, and contests.

JW: There are a lot of things you can do to drive traffic to your site, especially for a small business. They can create an in-house email list and collect email address and names of current customers. There is pay-per-click advertising and Yahoo paid inclusion. There is link building by getting other sites to link to you. You can write white papers that other people read and republish on their site. Everything should be collaborative and work together.

Internap is one of our clients that we’ve made a lot of money for using search engine marketing. What’s interesting is they just re-designed their website and changed the look and feel. As a result, their conversion rate has tripled since the re-design. When a website goes to a company like Galaxy Bright to get a face-lift, there will be a direct impact on the conversation rate. It’s a combination of those two things, visibility and conversion, that make you successful online. It’s not just SEO, it’s everything working together.

JP: Do you think at some point Yahoo will be obsolete? Google is looking to categorize all information. Do you think they will push Yahoo out?

JW: There is a lot of speculation on the future of search. I think there will remain 3 or 4 top search engines. They may develop vertical search engines for music, photography, etc. and people will become loyal to a specific search engine for a specific need. Right now, natural search is still the most important thing you can do. 90% of all people click on the natural search results and find them the most credible. Only 10% of people click on the paid advertising search results.

At the end of the day, people want to find what they are looking for right away. The challenge for search engines is for words that have multiple meanings. For example, “seal”. When people do a search on “seal”, do they mean a mechanical seal, the musician Seal, or the animal seal? Search engines will evolve to accommodate that question. They are becoming more intelligent. Pay-per-click advertising has gone from a 2 billion dollar industry to almost 6 billion in a few short years. As more money goes into search, people will develop more in-house search practices. It will become a critical component as more people buy things online, do research online and it’s going to do nothing but grow for the next 10 years. The problem is it’s going to become more competitive and harder for the new guy to show up. That’s really the thing; you have to get started as soon as possible on search. If not, everyone else is working on it and you’re falling behind.

Two years ago at a search engine conference they asked what the most important thing was for search. The majority response was measuring return on investment. The technology behind measuring ROI is now standard and every advanced Internet marketer is using it. So the next thing is multi-variant testing – that is, testing different search ads, doing better creative and having better landing pages and really getting a god bang for your buck on your search dollars. That’s where the focus is now. Who knows where it will be next year.

John Waddy is the President of TwentySix2 Marketing. TwentySix2 Marketing is a full-service Atlanta Internet marketing and search engine optimization agency. To learn more, visit http://www.twentysix2.com/