Maximum exposure

12 Apr 2005

Since the web has become such a central part of doing business, one area of e-business has attracted more attention than any other — how to harness the major search engines to drive traffic to your site.

By now the basics of search engine optimisation are well known. You want to be in the first page of results when someone searches for keywords relevant to your business. The more relevant the content on your site to that keyword the higher you will be ranked. The more links you have to your site from third party the better. You should also ensure your site meets accessibility standards and has proper tags, page titles and headings.

“I encourage our clients to do good content,” says Damian Keane of search engine optimisation specialists Cobweb. “No matter what the current fads with search engines are, good content will work in the long run.”

The only snag is that getting all that in place and aligning it with your company strategy is not going to achieve results over night. An alternative strategy is to consider one of the pay-for-click programmes offered by companies such as Google, Overture (now owned by Yahoo!), Looksmart or Enhance Interactive. For as little as a couple of hundred euros per month they can attract more visitors to your site and increase online sales significantly.

All of these programmes basically work in the same way by allowing you to bid a certain amount on a keyword. If you are the highest bidder your ad will appear on the first page of the results — either to one side in the case of Google or mixed in with the search results with Overture and others. If a user clicks through on that ad to your site the bid amount is deducted from your account.

Automated marketplaces allow you specify a maximum bid for a keyword but also cap your monthly spend. Users administration of the systems mean that you can easily experiment and make changes to see which search queries drive most traffic to your site.

According to web marketing specialists, if you are interested in selling to Irish web users, Google’s AdWords is the only show in town.

“Google’s AdWords provides immediate results and gives a very cost-effective return on investment,” says David Mahon, managing director of Clientwell Online Marketing. “According to our own internal research, it is the most popular search engine by far, especially in Ireland.”

One of the advantages the Google service has offered over competitors is that it enabled geographic targeting of competitors, so that ads could be served only to users from particular countries. With MSN rumoured to be launching a pay-per-click service and Yahoo! now putting its resources behind Overture, Google is raising the bar further with the ability to target ads even more closely by longitude and latitude, which will enable regional campaigns within Ireland.

Mahon reports that click-through rates for pay-per-click ads are running as high as 10pc if the ad copy is tightly targeted, while banner ad rates continue to languish at less than 2pc. No doubt that is largely because people searching are already inclined to make a purchase of the thing they are searching for, but Mahon believes Google has other advantages as well.

“Users place a lot of trust in Google,” says Mahon. “With Overture whoever bids the most will be listed first, but with Google it’s a combination of price and click-through rates, so the relevancy of the ads is important.”

Despites its dominance that doesn’t mean you can simply target all your online marketing efforts towards Google. For example, while Yahoo! is not widely used by Irish web surfers, a link from Yahoo! will help drive your site up the Google index. In fact Keane estimates that there are about 100 search engines and directories that businesses should register with to help increase their page rank with the major search engines.

Getting click through from the search engines is only part of the picture however — once you’ve got the visitors to your site you’ve got to convert them to customers.

According to Thomas Smith, operations director with E-Business School of Ireland, which markets its courses in international trade online, it is essential to have ads linking to a “killer page” that will convert leads into sales.

In his experience all the ads can either point to a generic sales page that provides a synopsis of what you are trying to sell or for individual terms it may make more sense to link to content specific to that term.

“We try to avoid generic search terms because we found that they were not bringing in very targeted traffic, you just get general browsers,” says Smith. “We would bid high for the term ‘international trade course’ but not for ‘international trade’.”

In addition to Google, Smith has had a lot of success with Enhance Interactive, which provides paid listings results for companies such as EarthLink, InfoSpace and MSN. He advices having some kind of hook that will encourage people who have accessed your site through an ad to register with you. This could be in the form of a newsletter or some other form of free content that the user is likely to value.

By John Collins