New Media Focus
One of the biggest talking points online today is the growth in the power of search engines and the marketing opportunities that they offer. In the space of a few years, search has become second only to email in the reason people use the internet, with over 80 per cent of web users using search engines to find products and services.
With paid-search seeing a growth of around 79 per cent year-on-year – accounting for over 50 per cent of all online revenue – it is no longer a case of ‘build it and they will come’. Consequently, individual websites are finding it harder to gain standout.
The numbers involved are staggering. Google has indexed over four billion web pages and processes over 3,000 searches every second of the day. However, only one per cent of people look beyond the first 30 results on a search engine.
Everyone wants to be on page one of Google for keywords important to their business, and to make matters even more difficult, browsers only want to see websites and pages relevant content based on their searches.
It’s not going to get any easier either. According to recent figures, the volume of internet traffic is expected to double annually over the next five years, with consumers expected to account for 60 per cent of all internet traffic over that period – the rest of the market being made up by business users.
Estimates vary but many suggest there are around 700 million people now online, with several hundred million websites competing for attention. Search engine optimisation (SEO), done properly, puts websites in front of hungry crowds at the time they want it most; when they are searching.
\"SEO is critical to ensure that any business maximises their market share online,\" says Ben Hatton, managing director of online agency, Rippleffect. \"In an ever-competitive market place, it is very important that a company\'s website is visible in the major search engines – if they’re not, there’s a good chance that their competitors are! Lack of visibility means lack of traffic, which in turn means lost leads and lost business.\"
Ricky Chopra, head of digital marketing at Quba New Media, explains SEO’s importance. \"Many people will not look past the first two or three pages of results, which is bizarre as more and more of us will carry out price comparisons to find the best deal on the web,\" he says.
\"As we become more search savvy, we begin to make quick assessments about sites [companies], the first being if they are not on the first couple of pages they are not worth purchasing from.\"
There are now many search engines, with Yahoo, Google and MSN Search the most recognisable names in the current marketplace. The fight to reach the top spot on page one is a long and hard one which few sites will achieve in their own category. But how does a site track the success of its optimisation in order to continue to help it climb the search engine rankings?
\"Using analytic software SEO is very trackable,\" says Chopra. \"We know which search engines people are using to find the site, which search engines turn out to be the most popular. We can then make changes to the site if we take a competitor’s site that’s ranked higher than our client’s. We can look at which search terms people are using to find that site and why that site is higher, and we can then adjust our client’s site to match.\"
So what are the other benefits SEO offers, which has made it a vital tool?
Chris Heginbotham of Manchester-based Code Computer Love explains that cost is another incentive for clients to use SEO in relation to their business site. \"For the majority of businesses, I\'d say it ought to be the most cost-effective marketing they will ever do,\" he says. \"Not only is it the cheapest source of attracting visitors in most cases, but the visitors are of the highest possible quality and convert much better than they do from most other sources. In almost all cases – except where search volumes are miniscule – SEO is significantly more cost effective than PPC [pay-per-click], so a sensible SEM [search engine marketing] strategy should usually start with SEO and use PPC to fill in the gaps. In our experience, it\'s not particularly unusual to see a 50-fold return on investment.\"
Darren Walls of Birmingham-based, Tomorrow People agrees that it is a very cost effective marketing tool, and that it is an extra piece of planning that has to be added to the strategy and budget in order to realise fully the use of its online media. \"If you’re using an agency which specialises in SEO, then obviously when your website goes live, it’s about getting up the rankings of Google and there’s no ad spent to get there,\" he says. \"You’re not paying for sponsored links and you’re not paying per click. There’s probably a bit of fallacy that anybody thinks that their site can get to number one or be on the first page. In some instances that’s just impossible because there’s too many people vying for what is essentially the first ten spots on the search engine.\"
As clients become more aware of the marketing benefits offered by SEO, its use has become all the more important for companies, but it has to be used correctly.
According to Rami Nseir, search engine marketing consultant at TH_NK in Newcastle, more businesses are diverting a chunk of their online budgets to SEO. \"Many businesses are becoming aware of SEO and the benefits derived from it. Search engine users now trust natural, organic search engine results more than ever. This trust is transferred to listings appearing in the search engine results pages, particularly for Google and MSN.\"
Heginbotham believes that the search engine is as important to individual sites as to the internet as a whole. \"General internet behaviour is now very search dominated and 91 per cent of adults who have ever used the Internet have used a search engine to find information,\" he says. \"Recent search data has shown that approximately 70 per cent of users will click on one of the first three listings in a search engine and 36 per cent of internet users are confident that the companies listed among the top results on a search engine are top within their field.\"
According to Barry Mills, managing director of Halifax-based Netstep, despite the advantages that a company can gain through the use of SEO, it is not always necessary in order to launch a successful online presence. \"There are some campaigns that don’t need SEO because they’re selling or promoting things that people aren’t searching for,\" he says. \"If you are building a very short term campaign, for example an event that you didn’t have a lot of time to plan ahead for, then SEO probably won’t help as it takes too long for Google in particular to pick up new sites and rank them properly. But if there’s reasonable public awareness of the sector you’re in or the kind of thing you are offering, people are likely to be looking for it, and if you aren’t in the natural rankings you will miss out. PPC can always compensate to a degree, but you won’t get all the visitors you would from good, natural rankings no matter how much money you throw at it.\"
SEO can also provide an option to revitalise a site that is in need of a boost, but has not previously considered using it. This can often mean that the site needs an overhaul or in some cases a complete rebuild, as Hatton explains: \"If you can build it to use SEO initially then we’d advise that. We’ve taken over websites that have been badly developed, we’ve taken them over about a year later and we’ve revitalised them and improved their search engine position, so it can be done.\"
Nseir believes that SEO shouldn’t be the only thing to think about when building a website, though.
\"While it is important to write copy with SEO in mind, one should always write copy for the user first and the search engine second,\" he says. \"When writing for SEO in basic terms, we are talking about ensuring that the relevant keywords are incorporated in the copy.\"
Walls disagrees. \"The copy is very important and has to be thought about during the building of a site,\" he stresses. \"From a copy perspective, a lot of sites we work on are Flash-based websites, and because it’s Flash, it’s instantly not readable by search engines. A Flash website isn’t going to get ranked as it’s a paid-for-listing. If we are doing HTML or a scripted website, we will consider what search terms people will search under and ensure that, in the body copy of the page we’ve got those references and that we’ve got those search terms included.\"
Heginbotham feels that SEO should be able to work hand-in-hand with marketing campaigns. \"Quite often, marketing departments treat paid search and SEO as separate campaigns with separate owners, which is wrong,\" he says. \"SEO – combined with paid search campaigns – can provide powerful results, particularly with increased branding awareness. Also if we incorporate the metrics from both PPC and SEO together we can get the whole visitor picture.
\"Even if most searchers are aware that some of their search results are from paid advertisers, the methodology they use to find relevant pages is exactly the same. It makes no difference to the searcher whether the listing is sponsored or organic. So it makes sense that a highly effective search engine strategy would employ the use of both PPC and SEO.\"
Mills highlights one drawback in the use of SEO. \"It is important that everything works together. The problem with SEO, and the thing that probably puts people off is that it’s a bit out of control. You can’t control when it works very precisely, and you can’t turn it on and off at will. But really SEO is only about exposing your messages to people who are looking for your content. So as long as you’ve got the messages right, SEO can’t really do much that conflicts with your other marketing.\"