Overcoming Your SEO Fears

Ask nearly everyone and they’ll say that search engine optimization is intimidating. Search engine optimization – SEO for short – should be a familiar term and practice for anyone or any commercial company with a website. SEO is what you do to your website to get a higher ranking on search engines,particularly Google,Yahoo and MSN.The higher you rank the more likely someone will click through to your site and buy your stuff. Lately, information and tips on just how to do that can fill a library.

“I don’t think you can be in business without realizing that search is a big part of the tool you need – you need to have a strategy to be found,” says John Battelle, search guru and author of the book The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture.

And yet being found is still perceived as some sort of magic formula. “SEO is not sorcery or deception; just something that requires diligent research and staying on top of changes to the way search engines do things,” says Joe Balestrino, who runs the Mr. SEO website.

If someone enters the term pizza into Google, for example, the first results are most likely the product of SEO. Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Papa John’s have all made an effort to rank in the top three spots on Google. Whether they remain there is something search engine marketers will need to stay on top of. Search engine marketing – SEM – are the tactics employed in order to rank higher, be they through paid search or other nonpaid methods. It could be by transforming a website’s look and feel to gain higher ranking.

Many Search Marketers Fail to Measure Results Take the term iPod and plug it into Google. What you get is a sponsored (or paid) search result for Apple. The first nonpaid result is also Apple. Not a coincidence. The Apple brand is so strong that it ranks very high on unpaid results, and paying for a sponsored result is just bet hedging.

People who are new to selling on the Web can get very confused by the “science” behind SEO. Talk of relevant keywords, algorithms and cost per click can terrorize Web sales newcomers. It’s an issue that continues to frighten brand-name companies as well. Since the concept of SEO is only about eight or nine years old, most companies have typically hired a chief marketing officer with as little as two years’ experience in matters of SEO.

Companies are also realizing that search engine marketing is a full-time job and have created executive positions just to monitor and enact SEM strategies. Companies that will do your SEO for you are growing as well. Books and conferences continue to provide advice whether you are a newbie or have been practicing SEO for awhile.

While trying to demystify SEO for people who have gone to a few dozen websites and have not been able to understand it, we can’t ignore the advancements in SEO and how big the market has become. Search still finished first in online ad spend in 2006, to the tune of 40 percent of total online advertising revenue, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers. This trend of 40 percent is predicted to continue through 2010, according to eMarketer.

Back when there wasn’t a name for SEO, the tried-and-true way to rank high on search engine results pages was using as many keywords as you could in your content. If you sold cigars, putting the word cigar in your articles and written materials as many times as humanly possible would probably get you a pretty high ranking. With the ascension of Google and its algorithmic rankings, that doesn’t work so much anymore. Not to look too far under the hood, but the Google algorithm that ranks pages basically looks at who is linking to whom on the Internet and the quality of those pages. The more high-quality pages linking to you, the higher you get.

Most marketers employ a combination of SEO and paid search, also called pay per click, which results in a sponsored ad when someone searches for certain keywords. For example, that’s why searching for iPod brings up Apple’s URL in the sponsored position and as the first search result – or the “natural” search result.

Getting there has been considered by some as rocket science. And there is a current debate in the industry over whether SEO is too hard for the average Joe to execute effectively. Some consultants who do SEO say, of course, it’s a very difficult science. Critics claim that search gurus want to keep SEO sounding complicated so that they will continue to get your business.

“SEO is a new-school-of-marketing thought – switching someone’s beliefs is nearly as difficult as converting someone’s religion,” says Todd Malicoat, who consults on SEO from his StuntDubl.com site.

“I think that there’s a complete misnomer that SEO equals top position on the search engines,” says Dave Taylor, tech blogger at AskDaveTaylor.com. “In fact, smart SEO is much more about being findable for the specific keywords and phrases that will drive customers to your site, rather than just a more simplistic popularity contest.”

Job Functions Performed by Search Engine Marketers in the U.S. - 2006 That said, there is no denying that SEM efforts continue to grow. Forty-two percent of advertisers say that their SEM budgets are new, says the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), in its recent annual survey of marketing executives. The survey also found that 83 percent of advertisers prefer organic (or natural, nonpaid) search, while 80 percent put paid search at second place. Respondents stated that sales was their primary goal for SEM – 59 percent said this. Fifty-three percent said brand awareness was the primary objective and 48 percent said lead generation was the goal. SEMPO’s 2005 survey stated that the North American search engine marketing industry grew to $5.75 billion. That’s a 44 percent jump over 2004.

“Search engine marketing is growing at a faster rate than television, than radio, than print media,” pepperjamSEARCH.com CEO Kristopher B. Jones said at a press conference in August 2006.

While brands are becoming more adept at SEO, a battle is still ongoing behind the scenes between traditional advertising and search marketing. “I think the big brands are starting to get it, but yes, at a snail’s pace,” says Mr. SEO’s Balestrino. He says that while a few of the “heavy hitters” have been looking for SEO people to get them started, most still rely on the word of their SEM. “As you might imagine, few SEMs are into SEO because it can greatly reduce the need for PPC over the long haul.”

Balestrino adds that some companies are starting to see PPC “for the losing battle it can become,” especially among highly competitive retailers and service providers. “The company who is willing to spend the most can rank the highest, but the ROI is dwindling because PPC costs are rising faster than inflation,” he says.

StuntDubl’s Malicoat says that “I no longer try to claim that ‘branding is dead,’ but that certainly won’t keep me from kicking it while it’s down. It’s amazing how often I see a big brand completely blow top search rankings that could have been achieved with a little understanding, some initial planning and very little additional budget.”

Keywords are Key

The camp that believes SEO is not an intricate science say the first thing any SEO beginner needs to do is figure out what your relevant keywords are. Since the major search engines are organizing results based on the word or words people type into the engine, knowing how to organize your keywords is step one. Plus, coming up with all the applicable keywords for your site helps you understand much more clearly what it is you sell.

You can find these keywords by writing down as many as you can think of, or you can survey your core audience. You can also buy software to help you come up with words. There are sites and software to help you find the value in the keywords you have come up with, such as Overture.com (now known as Yahoo Search Marketing) and WordTracker.com.

Statistics associated with your keywords will help you decide what words get more traffic than others. Companies such as Trellian offer SEO software tool kits that help manage keywords, check your rankings, edit your meta tags and create PPC bid comparisons, among other things. For your cigar site, for example, “Dominican cigars” may get far more traffic than “Mexican cigars.” In fact, the latter may do so poorly as to warrant omission when it comes to keyword bidding.

What you are shooting for is a site that can be easily indexed by a search engine. Search engines send out automatic programs that look for new content and create an index based on the words on each website page. That means that attention to Web design and quality writing will boost your site’s chances of getting high rankings. For example, try to keep each Web page small in size, have no broken links, use correct HTML, a server that is up all the time, no identical Web pages on your site and good, clear navigation. All these elements help the site get indexed by search engines.

Some believe that little things such as title tags can make a difference in your site’s rankings as well. Title tags are the one-sentence descriptions coded into the HTML that are displayed at the top of the browser when you visit a page. Organizing your site in URLs that make sense also may contribute to rankings (URLs that show the structure of the site in words as opposed to a series of numbers). Something as simple as a sitemap page helps when you are being indexed.

Especially in Google the more sites that link to your pages the higher your ranking will be. This is called backlinking and is very effective when “high quality” sites link to you – and is even more effective if the link text itself contains one of your keywords. This may mean you will need to put on a public relations hat and send information or press releases to other sites. Joining industry Web forums can help get the word out as well.

This is how SEO has operated over the last few years. There have been many nuances along the way and those degrees of execution are what make SEO seem very impenetrable. In recent years, companies and website owners have opted to buy SEO from firms that do it for you – pepperjamSEARCH.com, Prominent Placement, Fathom SEO, SEOInc.com, EngineReady.com, Adoofa.com and iProspect, just to name a few.

SEMPO’s annual survey indicates that more companies are interested in outsourcing their SEO, but the overall numbers are still small. Only 26 percent of advertisers plan to outsource half or more of their paid-placement budgets for 2007. About two-thirds said they plan to do all of their organic SEO in-house. Only 10 percent said they would outsource all of their SEO needs. The high tech sector is also not immune to the difficulties of search. Among top software firms surveyed by marketing research firm MarketingSherpa, 25 percent were not “sufficiently optimized for search engine visibility.”

Brand Awareness

Some search pundits and bloggers continue to believe that big companies are slowly awakening to the power search brings to their brands. “Big companies are doing too little, and many small companies are too focused on SEO at the price of good content production. The magic bullet is just to produce lots of good, fresh unique content; not to play SEO games and trick people into linking to you,” says Taylor.

Having everyone on the same side of the fence would solidify search as a must-have for all companies. Currently the jury is still out about what constitutes the best approach to search. Some critics have written that SEO is a “one-time fix” – that once a site is optimized, you won’t have to touch it again. Counterarguments are that sites have to change as search engine algorithms change. “I think there are more than a few [SEO firms] that give companies the indication that over-thinking an SEO strategy is necessary, when in reality, it isn’t,” says Mr. SEO’s Balestrino. He says that most companies budget SEO expenditures pretty low, but not necessarily too low to be effective. He says to be wary of the “overly grandiose implementation.”

Others predict that the future of SEO is specialization – broad-category specialists who see SEO as “just plain marketing” and people who will specialize in areas such as keyword research, link building and analytics.

Search engine marketers are still having a hard time because so many of them working for mid to large companies are not focusing exclusively on SEO. A JupiterResearch/iProspect survey found that 88 percent of SEMs are doing SEO; however, 58 percent of them are doing website design, 26 percent do public relations, 44 percent do market research and 22 percent do direct mail. There are only so many hours in the day and only so many hats for overworked SEMs.

This is where legitimate SEO firms hope to gain ground. While MarketingSherpa research stated that SEO firms were still mostly “mom-and-pops,” staffs are growing at these firms and client accounts have doubled. MarketingSherpa says there are a handful of SEO firms reporting more than $10 million in revenues from SEM work and there are at least a few companies reporting $20 million in SEM revenues. The research reveals that most of these businesses have only been in operation for about four years at the most.

Some say that the buy-in from companies who could use search isn’t complete. SEMPO’s 2005 marketing survey stated that only 37 percent of companies said that executives were “moderately interested in search engine marketing practices.” Even companies who would like to outsource their SEM appear to be intimidated by the choices. “The biggest mistake is not doing enough homework on who is reputable and what works,” says StuntDubl’s Malicoat. “Companies should search names, company names, past company names and really be diligent in learning what is going to work best for them.”

Battelle is straightforward when it comes to telling companies what they need to do. “It is hurting companies that don’t use search,” he says. “It is our user interface. It is like a listing in the Yellow Pages.”

Optimized for the Future: Q & A with Noah Elkin

Noah Elkin is the director of industry relations at iCrossing, which was recently named Best Search Agency of 2005 by industry trade publication OMMA. iCrossing, started more than nine years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., is jumping into new arenas, such as the mobile search market, and expanding client services to include content creation and website design.

Elkin is responsible for iCrossing’s public messaging and interfacing with high-profile analyst firms, along with sitting on industry committees, such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Direct Marketing Association and the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, which puts him in a unique position to observe the online advertising industry from a variety of angles. Elkin, who previously worked as a senior analyst at research firm eMarketer for five years, has a Ph.D. from Rutgers University and received a B.A. with honors from Columbia University. He recently spoke withRevenue senior editor Maria Sample about winning industry accolades, providing services for the little guys and where search marketing is headed.

Maria Sample: Your company calls search marketing “reverse direct marketing.” How would you describe it?

Noah Elkin: It’s something of a philosophical shift in how customers and businesses interact. Customers are now actively searching for brands and products and services, for information. It’s a seismic shift from a typical push-advertising model where you get an email message or a TV spot or a regular print advertisement. It reflects the degree to which the customer is in control. With reverse direct marketing, a customer has already given an indication of what he or she is interested in. Search, as we like to say, is like a giant focus group.

MS: What’s the main difference between iCrossing now versus 1998?

NE: Our recent restructuring of the organization into three main service lines – marketing services, marketing technologies and marketing properties – is a major shift. Another difference is the building of expertise in these separate business units. And the addition of certain services like creative is one of the biggest changes, not only for us, but also for our space as well.

MS: What has remained the same at iCrossing since 1998?

NE: Certainly the talent of our people has been the constant, and the expertise across the board has been a constant since the start, and it’s something we’re very proud of. It will drive us forward as we expand. And as we continue to receive accolades from the industry, it will enable us to attract the top talent that we’ve become known for.

MS: What has changed since iCrossing won the OMMA award?

NE: We’ve been building really powerful partnerships with the world’s leading brands for more than seven years now, and along the way, really changing the ad agency landscape by helping clients connect with their customers anytime, anywhere, however they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. We feel the OMMA award is a great honor. We’re really proud to have worked so diligently to build these kinds of partnerships that we have with Fortune 500 companies. That’s a tremendous validation of the work that we’ve done, and it sends a message about the potential that search and commercial brand marketing have for helping businesses interact at a much higher level than ever with their customers.

MS: How is iCrossing different from its competitors?

NE: As our founder Jeff Herzog likes to say, iCrossing has been an innovator in search advertising since before Google was Google. What we have that’s unique is our full-service approach. We’re not just a search engine optimization vendor; we’re a fullservice marketing connection. I think that’s a major differentiator between iCrossing and other companies. We’ve really been growing the company with the evolution of search as a medium. I think it’s that kind of vision that puts us on the leading edge, helping to drive the future of advertising – with our in-house expertise on the services side and also on the technology side. We’re the largest independent agency out there, and we back up our tremendous talent with our market research, our strategic alliances, planning and client services with our proprietary technology. That’s a one-two punch that most other places can’t really boast of.

What makes us different is that we have this expertise in market research that provides clients with the deep-dive analytics about their company and industry. We give them the knowledge and tools to help succeed by planning how to accomplish short-term goals and long-term opportunities, using a full array of tools and services organized around search.

Another exciting differentiator for us is the creative service we offer. It’s one side of the business that we’ve really been building in the past year, and it’s really going to grow quite a lot in 2006. It’s everything from copy to actual website design, all organized around improving and maximizing both user experience and optimization of search. We see ourselves as a one-stop shop when it comes to advertising online as well as through emerging technologies, mobile included. We are launching a major mobile innovation called mCrossing, expanding our expertise from natural search optimization on the Web to global devices.

MS: What’s the most important service your company offers?

NE: The most important service is the fact that we offer all of the services, but our strength is expertise in natural search optimization. It’s been able to help prepare us to expand to mobile devices. Bear in mind that natural search results are clicked on 80 to 85 percent of the time, far more than paid search. It’s very important to have that grounding in natural search; it’s the bedrock of what we do. It’s important to have strong expertise, and we’ve been able to complement that with strengths across the board as well as market research and our agency services.

MS: What kind of search are you going to be capitalizing on in the next year?

NE: Mobile search is a very exciting opportunity in the year ahead. Global is one initiative, and certainly local search and classified search – yellow pages. We’ll have a product geared toward the small- and medium-sized business market organized for local search that will be going out toward the end of the quarter.

MS: I’ve heard a little criticism that some of the smaller businesses can’t afford the products you offer.

NE: That’s why we built this technology in-house – that’s a real differentiator as well, that we build all our technology platforms inhouse. Technology is the largest department in our Scottsdale office. Expanding on that, we looked at the small- to midsized business market as well and discovered people that don’t necessarily have either the need or the budget, but they probably want some of the benefits of visibility on the Web. If you’re a plumber in Illinois, you don’t really care if someone in New York finds you on a search for a plumber, because chances are that person is not going to use your services. What we’ve done is to build a selfservice platform that integrates our optimization and tracking software in a way that will make it more accessible for the smalland medium-sized business. Our approach is, whether you’re local, national or international, we help your brand make the connection and quantify the results. What we do best is help companies reach their consumer at their point of interest.

MS: How are online retailers missing the boat in search?

NE: There’s a growing need of the importance of integrating search engine optimization into the workflow process and ensuring that this takes place before the product is launched and before the copy for it is written. Companies and clients need to understand that products must be optimized well before they’re launched, and make sure that search is a priority and not an afterthought. You’re going to get the majority of traffic from natural search, so we strongly encourage clients to plan for that well in advance.

Another way companies are missing the boat is not implementing recommendations in a timely fashion. Clients who receive recommendations from the search agency and then sit on them really run the risk of not getting the online visibility for their products that they would otherwise get from implementing optimization recommendations. This can be particularly crucial at specific times of the year, such as prior to the holiday shopping season, which is obviously the most important time of the year for online retailers.

MS: Give me an example of a client that implemented recommendations in a timely fashion.

NE: One of our best examples is Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. They’ve been a client with us for a very long time. It’s really a great success story of crowding out the competition, like critical search engine traffic drivers such as Orbitz, to really control the user experience and the message that consumers are getting. That’s one that we’re extremely proud of because, as a brand, you want to make sure you control the experience and not the search engine. So it’s been a great partnership for both Fairmont and iCrossing.

At the beginning of our engagement with Fairmont, in terms of keyword visibility, we saw the number of keywords appearing on the first three pages of search results increase to 2,579; a total jump of 1,156 percent, from a baseline of 223 keywords. In terms of baseline search traffic, which was established at 29 percent, within a month of implementing optimized coding elements, the search traffic increased by 41 percent and booking reservations increased by 150 percent over the baseline.

MS: Do you have any studies planned for 2006 that you’re particularly excited about?

NE: We have a relationship with Harris Interactive – they do studies for us and we have three or four planned for 2006. But we’re really excited about a couple of themes that we’re going to work on from both a horizontal basis as well as some of the vertical industries that we’re targeting. One is branding search – why major companies are becoming more comfortable with this concept and how we can augment individual marketing and help branding efforts.

In 2005, there was a lot of talk about paid search, and quite a bit of money spent on it, but we really see natural search as the biggest driver of traffic to websites. We want to focus on and evangelize why and how you can provide the best return on marketing spend and how to budget and manage for a successful marketing campaign.

Another area is about marketers themselves, about what kind of website, from a design and architecture perspective, is going to really reinforce the brand. One of our goals is to optimize the creative and maximize the value of the client’s investment in natural search results for years to come. We do this by optimizing Web pages, building specialized microsites and landing pages designed to drive specific consumer actions, and deploying paid media and mobile marketing campaigns. We partner with clients to break down the barriers between them and their customers.

MS: Is that one of the reasons you joined the Mobile Marketing Association?

NE: In part, yes. For us, that was an industry-leading move, and we’re certainly the first search marketing agency to do that. We want to make sure we’re positioned to take full advantage of opportunities in the mobile space and, in some ways, to branch out our contacts and gain potential opportunities to companies that might not think to come to us.

MS: What do you want most for your company in the future?

NE: Continued growth, continued profitability and continued engagement with the world’s leading brands. A deepening of relationships with both interesting and new clients. As online advertising continues to grow, the lion’s share of those dollars is moving to search. And to really be able to apply our expertise on the agency and technology side, to really be the one-stop shop when it comes to interactive marketing. We want to be top of mind when companies are looking to embrace interactive and emerging technologies.

MARIA SAMPLE is a senior editor at Revenue. In the past 15 years, she has worked for Ziff-Davis, CNET, Charles Schwab and Restoration Hardware. This is her first article for Revenue.

Winning the Seasonal Race

Managing a seasonal program is akin to drag racing – lots of hard work goes into the preparation, the light turns green, then it’s over.

For a seasonal program to be successful, it’s crucial for its managers to think like affiliates. If you were a top affiliate looking for a program, where would you go and what would you want to hear? If you can get into the head of an affiliate, you can gain the perspective of a top performer, understand the tools necessary for success and learn how to win.

Attracting Valuable Affiliates

All of your affiliates are valuable, but the top performers will give you the highest return on investment. Forget the 80/20 rule (80 percent of revenue comes from 20 percent of affiliates). In 2005, for example, only 1 percent of TaxBrain.com’s affiliates generated 80 percent of affiliate revenue. Obviously some affiliates were better prepared before the season began. They most likely used the following steps to success.

Find the best program. Check out resources such as search engines, affiliate networks, directories, forums, events and other networking opportunities. Within these, look for the most compelling stories on potential earnings in terms of conversion rates, clicks per sale and commission structures.

Use the right keywords. Your program’s online presence begins by building affiliate pages optimized for keywords in your niche. Online marketing success means ranking high in the search results for your particular niche (such as "tax affiliate program"). Searching on Google for "affiliate program" yields 134 million organic results as opposed to 74 million for "top affiliate program." Paid search has a decent ROI, but you can also achieve meaningful results by site-targeting popular affiliate and webmaster hangouts, as well as home businesses and small-business portals.

Spread the word. Take advantage of communication opportunities available through your affiliate network. These include multiple category listings, newsletters, conferences and email marketing. Top-performing seasonal programs are often overlooked by the Big 3 affiliate networks (Commission Junction, LinkShare and Performics). This is because their indicators are heavily weighted with off-season trends. To overcome this, capture your performance results when it’s your time of the year and trumpet that information all year long.

Get listed. Affiliate directories work well, so get listed in as many as possible and pay those that are worthwhile. Often, reciprocating links are all you need to offer. To attract the best performers, talk payouts, highlight impressive stats or try catchy headlines like "Top Affiliate Earned Enough Last Season to Take Rest of Year Off!" Most directories don’t offer much listing space, so make your sales pitch count.

Use the forums. Forums are a beautiful thing – think of them as the eBay feedback mechanism of affiliate marketing. They allow you to monitor affiliate concerns and provide an excellent opportunity to market your program. Buzz around the forums, abide by the rules, post when appropriate and be sure that your signature promotes your affiliate program.

Make it personal. Personal relationships with affiliates often begin at trade shows and other industry networking events through direct contact. When online, you can gather contact information by using freebies and give-aways as motivation. For example, offer T-shirts or publications in exchange for direct contact information.

Optimizing Your Program

With thousands of seasonal programs all claiming to be the best and attempting to clear obstacles such as being overlooked by network indicators, it’s imperative that awareness of your program rises above the noise. For a seasonal program to be a winner, it must be well-tuned. To achieve maximum performance, managers can use the following ideas:

  1. Evaluate all existing affiliate communications from sign-up to acceptance. Review and revise your program listing to sell the opportunity, not just the product. Adjust your welcome letter and carefully craft your first message so they are appealing.
  2. Review competition in and out of your own network. Sign up as an affiliate and join your competition’s programs. Examine messaging and compensation within those programs for strengths and weakness. Implement strategies to exploit the weaknesses of your competition. Use the information to increase the appeal of your program while reducing your competition.
  3. Determine the lifetime value of a customer and create the highest commission structure in your niche. Pay more and pay faster. Pay your best affiliates the most. Provide additional strategic information and offer customization. PPC players don’t have much time to test a seasonal program, so you can accelerate their acceptance and understanding by releasing specific ROI stats from your own PPC performance.
  4. Create program offers that are appropriate for differing business models. Loyalty, incentive, shopping and content sites may have different needs than those of email marketers. To help accelerate sales during the season, create tiered offers that reward affiliates with additional commissions when well-defined revenue targets are achieved. Be sure your reward structure is attainable and measurable.
  5. Assess and build compelling creative. Ensure that initial messaging and associated landing pages match for consistency. Eliminate extra clicks or distractions at registration and preserve the initial click through messaging throughout the experience to checkout.

With your engine tuned for best performance, it’s time to put team dynamics into play.

School Your Affiliates

Once you have affiliates, you must teach these new business partners how to sell your product effectively. They have the ability to generate traffic, but you have to show them how to deliver it for maximum conversion. Here are some helpful tips to get the job done.

Organize your approach into complete campaigns – define targets, duration and exact message, using your affiliate Web pages for emphasis. Produce a matching keyword list. Promote each campaign individually.

Separate affiliates into meaningful groups to quickly spot trends. Create "watch" groups so you can track performance and monitor activity. Consider grouping by like business models or by special promotion. Continue to reorganize and regroup as business conditions change.

Communicate specific selling opportunities and develop a messaging strategy around each campaign. Start a blog enabled with RSS, in lieu of an emailed newsletter, to keep affiliates informed. Give your affiliates sufficient notice to put a new campaign into play (some need up to a month’s lead time).

Motivate your affiliates. Contests make things fun, but more importantly they help keep your program top of mind all season. For maximum exposure, create a contest that anyone can win. Have a daily prize throughout the selling season.

Try to identify demographic shifts or new trends that might be happening, then communicate this new information quickly. As an example, Hurricane Katrina created new government initiatives that benefit survivors, which could affect the way consumers search for tax products. This made new keyword combinations such as "hurricane tax," "katrina tax relief" and "hurricane katrina tax forms" valuable.

When managing a seasonal affiliate program, remember it’s the off-season that’s critical to next year’s success. That’s when you should learn from the experience, evaluate performance, incorporate new technologies and make all necessary changes. Recruit, optimize and communicate – these are the keys for managing a topperforming seasonal program.

 

TODD TAYLOR manages business development for TaxBrain.com from Petz Enterprises in Tracy, Calif. He is a technology veteran and entrepreneur with more than 20 years in the industry. He studied economics at Carleton University and is a graduate of computing from St. Lawrence College.

Managing a seasonal program is akin to drag racing – lots of hard work goes into the preparation, the light turns green, then it’s over.

For a seasonal program to be successful, it’s crucial for its managers to think like affiliates. If you were a top affiliate looking for a program, where would you go and what would you want to hear? If you can get into the head of an affiliate, you can gain the perspective of a top performer, understand the tools necessary for success and learn how to win.

Attracting Valuable Affiliates

All of your affiliates are valuable, but the top performers will give you the highest return on investment. Forget the 80/20 rule (80 percent of revenue comes from 20 percent of affiliates). In 2005, for example, only 1 percent of TaxBrain.com’s affiliates generated 80 percent of affiliate revenue. Obviously some affiliates were better prepared before the season began. They most likely used the following steps to success.

Find the best program. Check out resources such as search engines, affiliate networks, directories, forums, events and other networking opportunities. Within these, look for the most compelling stories on potential earnings in terms of conversion rates, clicks per sale and commission structures.

Use the right keywords. Your program’s online presence begins by building affiliate pages optimized for keywords in your niche. Online marketing success means ranking high in the search results for your particular niche (such as "tax affiliate program"). Searching on Google for "affiliate program" yields 134 million organic results as opposed to 74 million for "top affiliate program." Paid search has a decent ROI, but you can also achieve meaningful results by site-targeting popular affiliate and webmaster hangouts, as well as home businesses and small-business portals.

Spread the word. Take advantage of communication opportunities available through your affiliate network. These include multiple category listings, newsletters, conferences and email marketing. Top-performing seasonal programs are often overlooked by the Big 3 affiliate networks (Commission Junction, LinkShare and Performics). This is because their indicators are heavily weighted with off-season trends. To overcome this, capture your performance results when it’s your time of the year and trumpet that information all year long.

Get listed. Affiliate directories work well, so get listed in as many as possible and pay those that are worthwhile. Often, reciprocating links are all you need to offer. To attract the best performers, talk payouts, highlight impressive stats or try catchy headlines like "Top Affiliate Earned Enough Last Season to Take Rest of Year Off!" Most directories don’t offer much listing space, so make your sales pitch count.

Use the forums. Forums are a beautiful thing – think of them as the eBay feedback mechanism of affiliate marketing. They allow you to monitor affiliate concerns and provide an excellent opportunity to market your program. Buzz around the forums, abide by the rules, post when appropriate and be sure that your signature promotes your affiliate program.

Make it personal. Personal relationships with affiliates often begin at trade shows and other industry networking events through direct contact. When online, you can gather contact information by using freebies and give-aways as motivation. For example, offer T-shirts or publications in exchange for direct contact information.

Optimizing Your Program

With thousands of seasonal programs all claiming to be the best and attempting to clear obstacles such as being overlooked by network indicators, it’s imperative that awareness of your program rises above the noise. For a seasonal program to be a winner, it must be well-tuned. To achieve maximum performance, managers can use the following ideas:

  1. Evaluate all existing affiliate communications from sign-up to acceptance. Review and revise your program listing to sell the opportunity, not just the product. Adjust your welcome letter and carefully craft your first message so they are appealing.
  2. Review competition in and out of your own network. Sign up as an affiliate and join your competition’s programs. Examine messaging and compensation within those programs for strengths and weakness. Implement strategies to exploit the weaknesses of your competition. Use the information to increase the appeal of your program while reducing your competition.
  3. Determine the lifetime value of a customer and create the highest commission structure in your niche. Pay more and pay faster. Pay your best affiliates the most. Provide additional strategic information and offer customization. PPC players don’t have much time to test a seasonal program, so you can accelerate their acceptance and understanding by releasing specific ROI stats from your own PPC performance.
  4. Create program offers that are appropriate for differing business models. Loyalty, incentive, shopping and content sites may have different needs than those of email marketers. To help accelerate sales during the season, create tiered offers that reward affiliates with additional commissions when well-defined revenue targets are achieved. Be sure your reward structure is attainable and measurable.
  5. Assess and build compelling creative. Ensure that initial messaging and associated landing pages match for consistency. Eliminate extra clicks or distractions at registration and preserve the initial click through messaging throughout the experience to checkout.

With your engine tuned for best performance, it’s time to put team dynamics into play.

School Your Affiliates

Once you have affiliates, you must teach these new business partners how to sell your product effectively. They have the ability to generate traffic, but you have to show them how to deliver it for maximum conversion. Here are some helpful tips to get the job done.

Organize your approach into complete campaigns – define targets, duration and exact message, using your affiliate Web pages for emphasis. Produce a matching keyword list. Promote each campaign individually.

Separate affiliates into meaningful groups to quickly spot trends. Create "watch" groups so you can track performance and monitor activity. Consider grouping by like business models or by special promotion. Continue to reorganize and regroup as business conditions change.

Communicate specific selling opportunities and develop a messaging strategy around each campaign. Start a blog enabled with RSS, in lieu of an emailed newsletter, to keep affiliates informed. Give your affiliates sufficient notice to put a new campaign into play (some need up to a month’s lead time).

Motivate your affiliates. Contests make things fun, but more importantly they help keep your program top of mind all season. For maximum exposure, create a contest that anyone can win. Have a daily prize throughout the selling season.

Try to identify demographic shifts or new trends that might be happening, then communicate this new information quickly. As an example, Hurricane Katrina created new government initiatives that benefit survivors, which could affect the way consumers search for tax products. This made new keyword combinations such as "hurricane tax," "katrina tax relief" and "hurricane katrina tax forms" valuable.

When managing a seasonal affiliate program, remember it’s the off-season that’s critical to next year’s success. That’s when you should learn from the experience, evaluate performance, incorporate new technologies and make all necessary changes. Recruit, optimize and communicate – these are the keys for managing a topperforming seasonal program.

 

TODD TAYLOR manages business development for TaxBrain.com from Petz Enterprises in Tracy, Calif. He is a technology veteran and entrepreneur with more than 20 years in the industry. He studied economics at Carleton University and is a graduate of computing from St. Lawrence College.

Searching for Your Site

Unfortunately, many folks create a Web site and then sit back and wait for the orders to start pouring in. That strategy doesn’t work in the field of Internet marketing any more than it does in the offline world. With millions of new Web sites being added to the Internet every month, the old days of hanging out your shingle and waiting for customers to beat a path to your door are long gone.

Effective search engine marketing (SEM) is what separates winners from losers in the world of Internet marketing. And when it comes to SEM you have two choices. The first option is to optimize your site so that search engines find you easily and give you good ranking in their index. The second choice is to buy higher placement on search engines using paid inclusion or pay-per-click (PPC). In other words, you can pray for clicks or pay for clicks, the choice is yours.

Praying for clicks is better known as Web site optimization. When taking this approach, it helps if you offer the search engine gods a peace offering by making it easy for their spiders to find and index you. (Spiders are programs that crawl all over the Web searching for pages.) Whether you choose to optimize your site yourself or pay a search engine marketing firm to do it for you the same strategy will apply, and you should be involved in every step of the process.

Keyword Selection

Choosing the right keywords and phrases for optimization is crucial. If you choose keywords that few people search for, then you can achieve a lot of top search engine rankings, but won’t get any customers. If you choose keywords that are too competitive you’ll find the competition won’t allow you to achieve any decent rank. You should also choose keywords that are attractive to your customer demographic; otherwise visitors will arrive at your site but never make a purchase. Simply make a list of relevant keywords that balance both popularity and competition. Use a keyword research tool like Word Tracker or Overture’s Search Term Suggestion feature to do this quickly and easily.

Measure Your Rankings

Before you can improve your position, you must know where you rank for the keywords and phrases that relate to your business’s products and services. If you did a good job in picking keywords, you should now have a list of highly relevant words and phrases that your customers are using. Use a tool like Web Position Gold, or my company’s free tools at TrafficMentorSEO.com/tools .html to determine where you rank for your targeted keywords on the major search engines.

Page Content

One of the easiest ways to attract both search engine spiders and qualified traffic to your Web site is to create Web pages that are appealing both to the user and to the spider. Spiders like to see short pages with lots of text and few graphics. People probably like to see more pictures. After all, any picture is worth a thousand words, just not to spiders. Balance is what counts. Creating pages that are attractive to users and spiders and free of annoying distractions like flash and frames is the name of the game. Try to create one page for each keyword or phrase you are targeting, and develop quality content that will bring users back to your site again and again.

Optimization

This is the main focus of search engine marketing and the piece that makes all the difference in your Web site’s ability to compete effectively. Simply stated, your goal is to give the search engine spider fodder. The easiest way to determine what it wants is to study pages already ranking in the top 10 and to emulate key aspects of those pages on your own site. Don’t copy your competitors’ source code and content line for line, just learn from their example. Study the basic statistical elements of the page such as meta tags, keyword counts, link popularity, word counts, etc. A good free tool to keep you on track and ensure that your page is spider-worthy can be found at InstantPosition.com.

Submitting

Don’t try to use a submission service to submit your pages to thousands of search engines and directories. These services are a complete ripoff. There are only a few search engines that count in terms of traffic, and you are better off submitting to them manually or using a tool like Web Position. Once you develop some third-party links to your Web site, most engines like Google will re-spider your pages regularly without the need to re-submit.

Traffic and Revenue Tracking

Ultimately, it isn’t just top rankings you want, but more targeted traffic and sales. This is where your investment in search engine optimization really pays off. Once you get your traffic-building pages set up, the pay-off comes in consistently. Utilize one of the many good tools out there for tracking visitors and revenues. You can use these solutions to track both PPC campaigns and organic visitors and you will learn a lot in the process about your site’s usability and its ability to convert visitors into customers.

Follow Up

While some pages may rank well for a long time without changes, most pages will require fine-tuning as the search engines change their ranking algorithms, and index new pages. It’s important to measure your rankings at least monthly. Re-optimize any pages that drop in rank and then resubmit or wait for the engine to revisit the page.

The search engine marketplace can be daunting as things are constantly changing. In order to keep up your top rankings you need to stay informed. Read as much as you can. Sign up for the many search engine newsletters and forums and apply the tips in them religiously.

After that, just sit back and smile as you watch all the visitors coming to your Web site. The best part is that all that traffic is free, and highly targeted. Yes, sometimes even the gods can be friendly.

MARY O’BRIEN is a partner at Traffic- Mentor.net. She has worked in Internet marketing for the past five years and was formerly senior director of sales at Overture.com.