Content vs. SEO

Hamlet Batista, president and CEO of NEMedia, wants to change your content. He wants to change it so much that he can’t wait to get his search team cracking on it. It’s his bread and butter. And like any SEO outfit, he claims he can get your site optimized and ranking rapidly. But he also has a passion for words. He wants to respect your content – the carefully crafted articles, summaries and reviews you painstakingly labor over. “You have to write the content for the user,” he says. “If they don’t like it, they are going to leave.”

His mantra seems to echo throughout the Internet recently, especially as Google and other search engines keep refining how they rank your site. That means publishers have to keep toying with their optimization. There’s just no way around that, but it also means that some site owners will sacrifice the uniqueness of their content to get the rankings. So, the big question becomes, does doing good SEO cancel out the ability to have compelling content?

Batista points out that about 20 percent of queries people type every day are new keywords. He calls this the “invisible longtail” where there is always a set of new keywords publishers have to optimize for. He calls it a new opportunity. For some sites, just following the SEO 101 rules about using keywords in content and getting your tags and titles in order dilutes the single exclusive thing that makes a site unique – its tone of voice.

Taking a Tone

Attitude is often ignored as more search marketers chase the most recent algorithm changes in Google. But adjusting a site and content accordingly is always going to have only a short-term effect.” It’s important to understand the fundamental nature of how information retrieval works to really be able to get the most out of an optimization project,” LeeOdden, CEO of search and public relations consultancy TopRank Online Marketing, says. However, he adds that, “I often hear content purists confuse attempts at understanding how search engines work with gaming them and it’s just not the same thing. It’s the old debate about whether great content or great links gets you better rankings.”

Odden likens the question to debating which is most important, air or water. “Links and content are both necessary for competitive search marketing efforts. Emphasizing one over the other depends on the situation. Excelling at both is the ideal,” he says.

While understanding all that goes into making search engines tick – in terms of algorithms, methodologies and the importance of link building – is helpful to an overall optimization plan, Odden says that content is equally important.

NEMedia’s Batista goes one better and says that “Content producers don’t use the same words as a content consumer. “He says that users will write in terms of problems, not in keywords. If you’ve been robbed and you search for an alarm system, Batista says that most people will present the problem (“They broke into my house and stole my laptop.”) and not the solution (“I need an alarm for my 4 bedroom house.”). He likens it to the symptoms you relate to a doctor. Most people do not go into a doctor’s office and state, “I have a liver condition; I need Lipitor.”

Going Natural

That’s why some search professionals are advocating more natural language in content whether selling shoes or promoting CRM software. Write content naturally at first and do not worry about the page, suggests Batista, then go through it for keywords, adjusting tags, titles and link building along the way. Don’t get too focused on rankings for all the keywords on the page and neglect a sense of narrative. Batista says a lot of SEO people get too caught up in the technical side of optimization and ignore common sense. Lisa Barone, a senior writer at search consultancy, Bruce Clay, writes that content itself is changing. “It used to be that you go to a page, you open it, you parse it and you index it. Now, Web pages are increasingly based on AJAX. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. It’s all little fragments of XTML. Crawling it is a hard thing to think about.”

“Sadly,” says SEO and marketing consultant, Anthony Gregory, “a lot of SEO copywriting is not very charming for humans to read.” He says to “remember that the goal of effective SEO writing is not only to improve your searchability and search engine rankings but also to lure customers to your site.”

Keyword stuffing – the practice of repeating the keywords in content copy until it looks like a gorilla wrote it – is a rejected method these days. He says the search engines have become too smart and can recognize this pretty easily. A site could be labeled as a spam site and create a big headache when trying to get it ranked again. He says that a site full of badly written SEO articles makes the site owner “look greedy and desperate for business.” A talent for writing for the user and the search engines is a rare one, and not one that necessarily comes when hiring an SEO professional.

A Balancing Act

There are some things that an SEO consultant may know that a publisher doesn’t. SEO consultant J. Walker says some search engine algorithms prefer pages with higher word counts. The highest ranking pages in Yahoo averaged 1,300 words per page while Google’s high rankers averaged 900 or so. Not that word count alone will propel your site to number one. She says that unless a publisher is able to pour money into paid ad campaigns, they should hire a copywriter or learn the SEO techniques for themselves.

Some writers struggle with striking the balance and do all they can to help keep a piece of copy optimized – even through adversity. Shailey Motial, a writer for content provider Chillibreeze.com questioned herself when assigned to write copy incorporating the phrase “statistics of home schooled in kindergarten” a minimum of four times in a 500 word article.”Was I corrupting my art?” she asked. “Am I guilty of diluting the form of writing by inserting predetermined keywords? I toiled through my first piece, a little unhappy, and a little lost about what to do. I grumbled, as is natural for all of us faced with change. However, pragmatism soon took over and I realized that my writing was of no use, if it did not get any readers. It had to be noticed and hence using the selected keywords would distinguish my work from the clutter,” she says.

Motial adds that the task involves pleasing a human as well as an algorithm – a unique mandate, perhaps impossible to realize completely. But while she says that links can come and go and be dead tomorrow, good, useful content will never be stale. That’s also why firms test their pages as best they can, testing being another revenue source for SEO companies.

Robert Bergquist, CEO of testing and optimization company WideMile, says that with conversion rates currently at .5 percent to 2 percent, sites can’t afford to not test thoroughly. “What they haven’t learned is what to do once they come into the site,” he says. Batista explains that’s why he puts an emphasis on thorough keyword research and link building.

Beyond that, paying for syndicated copy to post on a site has proven popular for many, especially site owners with product-specific sites that can benefit from articles on their niche or theme. Outfits such as uclick.com, Content Infusion, and YellowBrix which bought out syndicated content pioneer iSyndicate, specialize in selling copy from cartoons to political columns to news of the day. Copyblogger.com also offers a handy list of tips to make you a better copywriter.

SEO and online marketing blogger Andrew Girdwood goes so far as to classify a distinction between SEO and “ethical SEO.” Simply put, ethical SEO is about allowing a search engine to see what your website is about as clearly as possible without any”black” arts like keyword stuffing, confusing URLs, or dubious link building. He quotes Google’s “evangelist” Adam Lasnik, who has said that “our algorithms want to see something that’s a happy medium cleanly between: Extreme A — Not listing relevant terms at all on the page. ExtremeB — Focusing on increasing keyword density to the point that your English/Writing teacher would thwap you with a wooden ruler. Hard. Repeatedly.”

That advice speaks to the difficulty of saying once and for all what is the right balance. Girdwood says some believe all you have to do is reach a certain percentage of keywords per page to rank well – anything over that gets labeled as spam. Lasnik has also said you can’t believe that. “There is nomagic number,” he says. Odden adds that “a combination of content as well as social networking, link networking, public relations and gaining editorial visibility as well as viral and individual link solicitations will all work together synergistically.”

Many believe that while good, natural writing is key, finding good writers is a dilemma. Affiliate marketer Kim Rowley finds good writing in family. She employs her two aunts to help her write fresh copy for her many websites and she keeps a pen and paper by her bed to jot down new content ideas. She keeps her blogs personal because it goes well with the kinds of sites she has on baby clothes, florists, coffee, pregnancy and coupons. She adds that some of the best content she’s received is by asking visitors to submit posts. This way, she says,”the content is true and unbiased.” She also builds content based on traffic stats and can write more for a particular site if there is a traffic spike.

Creating Compelling Copy

There is little consensus on how to write truly engaging copy while hitting all the SEO marks, but some of the key elements include:

  • Write naturally and try to add SEO elements later.
  • Use unique ideas for content instead of relying on cookie-cutter advice from SEO books.
  • Use consistent title and tag information – make it straight forward but descriptive.
  • Narrow keywords to the most strategic ones. Don’t over-stuff with keywords tangential to your topic or theme.
  • Think of the descriptive tag as a story and not just a spot to place keywords.
  • Make sure keywords match what people are looking for.

Matt Cutts, Google’s search guru, weighs in on his blog about content as well, warning that “if you put in time and research to produce or to synthesize original content, think hard about what niches to target.”

Cutts advises not to begin with broad articles about “porn/pills/casinos/mortgages” but with a smaller niche. “Look for a progression of niches so that you start out small or very specific, but you can build your way up to a big, important area over time. There are a lot of niches that just take sweat equity. You could be the SEO that does interviews” Or the SEO that makes funny lists. Or the SEO company that provides WebMasterRadio. Or the SEO that makes podcasting easy.”

The right balance may be yours to define. J. Walker says that “SEO methods are specifically designed to increase traffic to your website. Marketing techniques are designed to keep that traffic on your website, and encourage visitors to make a purchase. Your challenge is to find the delicate balance between them.”

Lights, Cameras, Action!

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Blendtec. I bet you are familiar with Blendtec and I bet I know how you first heard of their blenders – from their viral video series called “Will it blend?” That series, showing iPods and other unusual items being reduced to powder by a powerful blender, serves a strong branding message: If it can annihilate an iPod, it will make quick work of your smoothie.

Whatever people conclude, the videos are certainly working. Blendtec’s sales have quintupled since the start of the campaign. Total cost of all this marketing: a few thousand dollars for video equipment plus the cost of the objects destroyed. Every video viewed was the result of people passing them to their friends or finding them through search.

Videos provide the richest way to send a message to your customers, and they might cost less than you expect. Online videos can be targeted at far smaller audiences than TV commercials and cost nothing to distribute, unlike mailed DVDs. Online video is especially important to marketers targeting younger audiences – 42 percent of individuals between 18 and 34 watch video online at least once a week.

So how do you go about making your own online video? Here are five tips for making great online videos.

Keep it short. The shortest videos seem to be the most watched, with the highest viewership for clips between one and three minutes. Some popular video podcasts are five minutes long, and many are ten. Don’t make yours 30. Better to do a weekly 10-minute show than a monthly hour.

Use tight shots. Some people will watch your clips on iPods and other small screens, and even those that watch on their computers generally do it in a small window. So, when you shoot your video, use close-ups with your subjects. And forget widescreen mode – stick with standard mode.

Don’t move. Talking heads work best. Many fast-motion sequences will be lost on an iPod’s small screen.

Write big. When you add on-screen titles to your video, remember that text that looks fine while editing your video on your computer could be unreadable on the tiny iPod screen and small computer windows. Use text judiciously and in a large point size.

Watermark it. If your video is well done, people will share it, which is great. But if you don’t identify the site it’s from, people won’t know where to go for more.

You can’t expect to reach people with online video as easily as you would with a TV commercial. With TV, you merely choose the show that matches your target market, plunk down your cash, and your commercial runs. On the Web, customers usually find your video through search, so search marketing is crucial to getting your message seen.

The best way to do that is to optimize your videos for search. Google’s Universal Search and other blended search result pages have made it more important then ever to optimize your video clips for search.

The good news is that if you know how to optimize Web pages, you already know a lot about optimizing videos, because search engines don’t see the actual video images and can’t hear the audio soundtrack. So the page containing the video carries a lot of weight with search engines.

Place each video on a separate webpage, so that you can optimize that page with the keywords that best match the clip. As always, use those keywords in the title, the description, and the body (especially in headings). Include a short summary of the video’s contents within the body, or, even better, post a transcript of all the words spoken.

But there’s more. You must get the videos themselves indexed by search engines.Some search engines crawl videos, so place all your videos in the same directory, as close to the root directory as possible. If you’re producing a steady stream of videos, set up a Web feed for them, pinging the search engines each time you add a new clip. You can also use a Video Sitemap (sitemap.org) to get the same treatment for your videos that you get for your Web pages.

And don’t stop there. You can improve your search results further by following these four tips:

Use keyword-rich file names. Name your video files to show the search engine what they are about. If it is a demonstration of a product, name the file after that product, such as ipod-nano-demo.mpg. Don’t drone on with keyword after keyword in the name – keep it short, with just a couple of keywords.

Optimize your metadata. Videos can be encoded with metadata keywords within the “properties” of the video file itself, by tools such as Autodesk Cleaner (www.autodesk.com). Video search engines frequently rely on this information when deciding which videos to show in the search results (and in what order).

Submit your videos. Video sharing sites, such as Google’s YouTube (www.youtube.com), allow you to post your videos right on their site. But you should reach farther than YouTube. Use TubeMogul (www.tubemogul.com) to submit your clips to over a dozen sites simultaneously and to track their viewership. Use keyword-rich titles and descriptions on those sites – they’re just as important as on your Web pages-and tag them with keywords, also. Some video sharing sites allow a linkback to your Web site, so take advantage of that, too.

Publicize your video. If your clip is noteworthy, submit it to social bookmarking sites, email people who would be interested, and link to it from your blog or another Web page.

If you follow this advice, you’re sure to improve the visibility of your online videos.

But it’s not enough to optimize your videos for search, however. Just as getting a #1 ranking for a Web page does not get that page clicked, your video must be watched, not just found. How do you get people to watch what you’ve created? Learn to share. Ensure that videos posted, especially to social networking sites, are marked “public” rather than private.

Give your videos “curb appeal.” Some video sharing sites allow you some control over the image selected as its thumbnail image – the picture shown before the video is played. Select an attractive thumbnail. Emphasize what works. Pay attention to viewership metrics, so you can repeat techniques and themes that have succeeded with your customers in the past.

Video has become a force in Internet marketing. If you produce compelling videos, optimize them for search, and get them watched, the force will be with you.

YouTube Should Get Down to Business

According to the U.S. Census Bureau,there are nearly six million businesses in the United States. Think about the enormity of that number.That’s billions and billions of dollars in revenue generation every year. That’s also six million businesses that all require the same basic nourishment to survive – marketing and sales.

If you’re one of those six million businesses, there’s no way around one basic fact – if you want sales; you need marketing. There’s simply too much competition in the global marketplace to survive without marketing. Even items like water, a basic life essential that has always been free, is now big business. But water is also heavily marketed. The messages are that it is “the freshest” or the “finest natural spring” water in an attempt to convince consumers to choose a specific brand.

And right now the old (or shall I say, traditional) methods of advertising and marketing are beginning to fade away or take a new shape. For my money, that new shape is online video. However, some of the biggest names in video have yet to fully embrace the medium as a highly effective marketing platform. And, yes, I’m talking about YouTube. You know, that little company owned by the other little company called Google? I target “Goo-Tube” because it’s just not being very innovative these days.

Case in point, Google executives recently came out and said the company doesn’t know how to make money with YouTube. Gasp! Google doesn’t know how to make money? That’s certainly not the innovative company I know.

So here’s my plan for Google to get back some of that innovative spirit it seems to have misplaced – YouTube Business. It’s the innovation YouTube should build if it wants to start making money right away,and at the same time, explicitly lock up almost every business on the planet into a long-term subscription based plan. Sergey, don’t try pretending that the plan isn’t Google global dominance. We all know the score.

There’s no doubt that every company that does marketing in the future is going to find it necessary to have some type of video on its website. Those videos are either going to be commercials or infomercials. Product demonstrations, training guides, video spokespeople and customer testimonials are just a few examples of video elements consumers are beginning to expect from businesses.

Currently, there really isn’t any place for a business to quickly, easily and cost-effectively post their business video content. Companies could invest in third-party hosting, but that requires figuring out how to create a proprietary Flash player to stream videos. But, more importantly, videos hosted on YouTube will definitely benefit from being indexed into Google’s universal search.

The bottom line – even for large companies – is that it’s much easier to have a single site or repository specifically to host business video content. That type of site also solves all the issues associated with the complexities and hurdles of video including streaming, compression, and quality, etc.

It’s All About Subscriptions

But there’s no point in building something that isn’t going to generate a profit. After all, this is business we’re talking about. For the sake of this argument, let’s conservatively estimate there are 1 million businesses ready to sign up today to this new YouTube Business channel (why wouldn’t they?). Let’s say that YouTube Business charged each one of those 1 million businesses $100 per month to host their videos. That’s $1,200 a year per company multiplied by 1 million accounts. That equals $1.2 billion a year. That’s not a bad business model.

So the real question is…would a business pay $100 a month to have its videos hosted at YouTube? I say, yes! They’d pay that in a heartbeat and here’s why:

  • Universal search integration for videos that meet “requirements”
  • The ability to remove the YouTube branded logo on the player allows the business to both stream the video on YouTube, as well as on their website
  • Full HD capability, if wanted
  • Long-form videos (allowing videos up to two hours in length)
  • Maintaining brand equity by segregation from amateurish and inappropriate videos in the general population
  • Unlimited views
  • Trend tracking and analytics
  • Private community
  • Custom-branded business channel pages

I like to think of an innovation as something that is created out of a need. Sure, sometimes innovations “just happen”, but most of the time, someone is trying to solve a problem. In this case, YouTube has a BIG problem. It can’t make money.

It’s time for someone at YouTube to stop worrying about skateboarding videos and start thinking real practical money-making innovations that solve problems for millions of revenue generating, and spending, businesses. It’s time for YouTube Business.

If you’re interested in learning more details or giving me your thoughts, you can read the entire plan at www.JimKukral.com/ytbiz.

Hooking Search Talent

“As search marketers, we are the insiders. We are supposed to know and understand search in all of its dimensions. We are moving into uncharted territory. It is not territory that I am excited to explore, but I will go there nonetheless,” writes Amanda Watlington of SearchForProfit.com.

Despite her status as an expert on blogs, RSS and search marketing, Watlington is still trying to put a finger on what may be coming down the pike for search this year. Her pondering may sound a bit gloomy – because in many ways, things have never been better for search.

According to GroupM, search will make up about 65 to 70 percent of the measured online advertising in 2008. That’s up from 50 percent in 2005. Also consider that search budgets within brands have become bigger; search marketing professionals now easily have three to five years’ experience handling search initiatives; and most excursions on the Web start at a search engine.

Yet there are really no guidelines on what search-related skills a search team must have in order to propel a company forward – not written down in the company manual anyway. “Knowing” search and running a search team for your company are entirely two different things. Knowing how to budget for search and staying abreast of search innovations is something few teach.

A recent survey by the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) stated that in-house search managers are now handling budgets on average of $200,000. However, up to 40 percent of those managers are shepherding that money with three years or less of professional search experience. About 26 percent have five years of experience or more.

Keeping Up With Search

The uncharted territory is the constantly changing nature of the search game. Many search veterans will say that learning search is an ever-changing discipline, fraught with a learning curve that never straightens out. They say that to hire a search manager or search team means upper management must look beyond the experience they have on paper and judge a pro by their passion and innate intelligence.

It’s paying off for some. SEMPO says that about 49 percent of SEM professionals earn $50,000 or less. About 43 percent earn between $50,000 and $100,000 per year. Only about 4 percent of those with five to seven years of experience make more than $200,000 per year. “It’s a respectable career path. I know I wasn’t making 70 or 100 thousand dollars a year when I was three years out of college,” Rob Crigler, co-chair of SEMPO’s in-house committee told SearchEngineWatch.com.

“I equate it to sports – the people who don’t sleep and work really hard get ahead. As a numbers-based job, they attract the hard workers,” says Wil Reynolds of Philadelphia- based SEER Interactive, a search engine optimization company. He says that the tools – software and Web-based analytics and helpers in choosing keywords – are all pretty good now. The ones who rise to the top are the ones with a kind of “street smarts.”

There are some recent attempts to educate the search-interested. Google recently launched a program called Google Online Marketing Challenge, which partners with marketing college professors to teach Google’s popular Ad- Words. Students take a $200 budget and apply it to a PPC campaign for a client. Students then manage the AdWords campaigns including coming up with a pre-campaign plan, manage the ongoing campaign and evaluate post-campaign numbers. The students select keywords, write ads and keep tabs on their clicks. Google then judges the work on up to 30 different criteria and offers an actual prize – a week at Google’s headquarters.

SEMPO also offers distance learning courses in search marketing. Students are introduced to the “foundations” of search marketing; advanced how-tos on SEO; and PPC training. The courses are offered online and can include interaction with “SEM professionals” and grading by SEMPO volunteers. SEER also offers some SEO online video tutorials on its site covering keywords, competitive tools, link building and best practices.

SEM expert Todd Malicoat at stuntdubl.com helps organize an SEO class and an online marketing training class using online courses, podcasts and some PowerPoint. However, he points out that there is really no regulation within the industry and that anyone can build a website and say, “I do search,” and have it be technically true. He notes that the search community has an active base, and learning from these people would be different from the trial-and-error training someone may get when they do it alone.

Reynolds says this kind of education is out there for people to use, “so tenure isn’t important.” What people should really have, he says, is marketing acumen. “If you want to be second place, you go to search training,” he says. “The same materials are available anywhere. But the people who rise are the people that take the basic info and go to the top.”

Matt Spiegel, CEO and founder of Resolution Media, an SEO and PPC consulting firm, says that those with higher educations in marketing have received “little exposure to this new marketing world. The vast majority of recent graduates in advertising and marketing have had little course work specific to online advertising – much less search.” He says to not assume institutions of higher learning will adapt quickly. “Instead, we need to look within the industry for help.”

Rand Fishkin, CEO of Seattle-based SEOmoz, a search marketing consulting company, says that three years’ experience is “quite a bit and is good given the industry.” He says that if he were to interview a search pro for a job, he’d simply ask the candidate to explain how Google works. “How does Google do its rankings and what makes a difference; and how did you pick up these things?” The analogy he draws is with medicine: A doctor should be able to tell you how the nervous system works off the top of her head.

Spiegel says there is a talent shortage. He says to work for his company you do not need a shopping list of skills. “You have to invest in people in this business,” he says. If you are new to the industry, he adds, and learning from the ground up – you get about 18 months to learn nuts and bolts. “When we hire, if they come from another agency, I expect that within 90 days they will be up and running – that you will know enough about search to manage a client list but you may have to learn keyword placement, etc.” He says he has hired one-person shop owners. He looks for attitude as well as skills and a need to “thrive on uncertainty and realize they are at the beginning of an industry.”

Evolving Search Skills

Among the skills that SEER Interactive’s Reynolds looks for is the ability to problem-solve. “Do you like to solve puzzles; things that stimulate and test the mind?” he says. “I would follow that skill with a lack of fear. There are tools are out there to do short-term tests. But are you not afraid to fail? I continue to see more come into the space, but that doesn’t mean they are all going to be good. Anyone with a Net connection and phone can be a search firm tomorrow. That glut can lead to substandard talent.”

Since search seems to be one of those areas that is changing and improving all the time, a search pro needs to stay locked in step with the new. Mike Grehan, CEO of Searchvisible, experts at organic and paid search headquartered in the U.K., has said that it’s getting harder to keep good organic search results on the first page. “What used to work in the good old SEO days won’t cut it in the future.” He notes that while search engines themselves are innovating all the time, search engine optimization is not – meta tags, alt tags, some social media and header tags are still the rage but are seeing their results wear thin.

Constant adaptation is a valuable watchword held by Danielle Leitch, executive vice president of client strategy at MoreVisibility, a search, design and interactive marketing company. She has said that she sees “adaptation of the industry as a whole shifting from just acronyms – SEO, CPC, SEM – to ‘interactive marketing.’ As a result, I believe agencies will become more full service than they had been – which could lead to mergers or partnerships in that area too.”

As the changing landscape continues to shift, SEOmoz’s Fishkin actually sees a constant in search professionals’ qualifications. “To me, the most desirable are those people who started a site in 1998 and have learned from doing. I am always impressed with those guys. They are rare guys.” The other breed of search marketers are those who may have a background working at another agency doing search or with a portfolio of sites they have launched. They may have been a junior marketer on this or that team and they did a search campaign and now they say, “I’m lost.” Now, companies have to spend six to 12 months training this person. He adds that MBAs may spend too much time projecting and doing nothing. “In search, we have to do.” In the end, you can only lose revenue for a few weeks and still correct it and change, he says.

Spiegel says too many companies may hire one person to head up search and leave it at that. “If I were running a company and had to hire one person, I wouldn’t want to put all my eggs in one person. I would hire an agency,” he says.

Searching for Education

Fishkin has put together a primer for those looking for search pros. He states that recruiting might be the hardest part of the work. While portals on the Web offer loads of candidates, the passionate ones are usually found in the Web places where the “young, Web-savvy and tech-obsessed” hang out. In addition to their skill set, you and your company will want to ask how long you will need this pro for; what are the primary priorities for them; and do you want this person or team to grow with the company?

When building the team or fitting the search person into the structure of your company, you need to measure the scale of your search efforts – is your company large enough that you will need more than one person or team? Measure what kind of ROI you want for each segment if you choose to break up the search division into many platforms. And as you carve up search areas and responsibilities, you will still need a person to oversee the divisions.

For training, he recommends letting team members build their own BlogSpot or Yahoo360 sites and experiment with trying to rank them. He likes to give them two to four weeks to “read, learn and get involved.”

SEER’s Reynolds uses himself as an example of the kind of search pro he’d admire. “I loved the game,” he says, “so that’s why I know it well. In the beginning, I loved computers and marketing but also had the cajones to knock on doors.” He says when he got started in search it was a constantly changing and highly competitive field with no rules written. Still is. “Three-year tenure is about all you need – now I have eight.”

MoreVisibility’s Leitch has stated that in the coming year the focus should be on colleges and universities injecting “real world” classes into their business classes. “Those that we will hire in the future need to have solid fundamentals in interactive marketing and search ” regardless of your role in a company or field of interest.”

The Sticky Question of the Results Page

In the mid-to-late ’90s, none of the search engines wanted to be mere search engines, because searchers quickly left their sites. Instead, they largely ignored search to create portals – those sticky sites they hoped would show more advertising to each visitor by catering to all of their information needs.

Then Google came along. Google gained prominence as an unvarnished search engine that got searchers off the search page to where they really wanted to go, and did it faster than the rest. Over time, Google’s search emphasis has made it a far more profitable company than those sticky portals, and Microsoft, Yahoo and the other portals have been forced to refocus on search in recent years.

Well, everything old is new again. Led by Google, everyone is trying to be sticky again. As with the original portal mania, it’s all about advertising. It’s different this time, however, because instead of ignoring search, they are making search itself sticky. Let’s look at what’s happening and what search marketers can do about it.

The New Search Results Page

As you might expect, with multiple search engines out there, we can never talk about the new results page – these changes are being seen in various degrees with each search engine’s results pages. So what’s happening?

From time immemorial (around 1998), the main results page for each search engine has contained a list of 10 organic links to Web pages – period. Each showed paid search ads around those organic links, but those organic results pointed to pages on vanilla websites. If searchers wanted images, or videos, or news, they needed to use more specific searches devoted to those kinds of content.

A few years ago, Google began offering its OneBox capability (such as showing movie times and weather forecasts at the top of its results pages). But that was a small step compared with what the search engines are doing now. The new search results pages break the content type barrier.

Google now offers Universal Search, where all of these content types are blended together on the page. The top search result might be a video or an image, or even a news story, rather than a standard Web page. Yahoo and Microsoft have followed suit. Similarly, Ask.com has unveiled Ask3D, which stacks the search results so that different content types are shown in separate areas on the same results page. Try typing “darth vader” into each of the engines to see what you get.

These newfangled search results pages have been much ballyhooed, but so far, relatively few keywords get the Darth Vader treatment. Search marketers should expect that these blended and stacked results will affect more and more keywords over time, however, for two reasons:

The search results are better. Google and friends believe that their new approaches serve more searchers than their plain Web results predecessors. It does make sense that searchers are looking for more than just Web pages.

Search engines sell more advertising. Some search engines don’t like to talk about their monetary motives for new search results pages, but Yahoo’s Tim Mayer has been refreshingly open about their goal: to keep searchers on their results pages for as long as possible.

Similarly, these new search result pages often highlight Web properties owned by their parent company. Google shows its YouTube videos, Yahoo shows its Flickr photos, Ask.com shows its CitySearch results, each of which shows more of their advertising.

What Search Marketers Can Do

As a search marketer, you can’t control which results the search engines decide to display, but you can provide the kinds of content that the engines are looking for. As these new search results pages begin to be seen for more and more searches, search marketers should:

Use what you have. You might feel as though you don’t have any of these new content types. But you have press releases that could show up in news searches. You might have TV commercials and other videos that you can post on YouTube and on your own website. Don’t overlook the existing content assets you can start with.

Create new content. If Google wants new kinds of content, then feed the beast. Start a blog. Take photos of your products, your customers, your employees – whatever you think people want to see – and post them on Flickr and on your website. Put some interviews on video, or tape live product demonstrations. Provide opportunities for customers to create content for you, such as message boards, product reviews and wikis. All of this content is the new fodder for search engines.

Optimize your content. For the content that you create, continue using your target keywords in titles and elsewhere, just as you always have for old-fashioned Web pages. For non-text content – such as photos and videos – titles and descriptions are especially important. Submit your content to as many aggregators as you have time for, not just YouTube and Flickr, for example. Claim your blog in Technorati (and in other blog search engines and directories). And place social bookmarking buttons on your pages for Digg, del.icio.us and other sites, so your readers can bookmark your content for other social bookmarking users to see.

Although designing your content with interesting titles and descriptions is timeworn advice, it still works. Applying this technique to new content types, such as blog posts and videos, is a great way to start.

Make compelling content. Your Web pages have always needed to be interesting to attract the links critical for high search rankings. These new content types are no different. Moreover, some experts believe that search engines are looking beyond links to other indicators of intriguing content.

No one knows exactly what search engines consider in their ranking algorithms, but speculation abounds that relevance ranking for blogs is based partially on subscriber counts. Videos may get a boost based on how many times they’ve been viewed on YouTube, or on the number of viewer comments posted. Expect search engines to continue to use whatever data is available to determine the popularity of each new kind of content – it’s not just inbound links anymore.

What’s most striking is that marketers who’ve created the most interesting content are beginning to be rewarded for it by the search engines. For those search marketers that were optimizing only Web pages because that’s all the search engines rewarded, they’re getting left in the dust by those marketers that have provided the new content types their customers are looking for.

Eastern Promises

Japan’s had it hard. After nearly a decade of stock market doldrums and an economy on the brink of disaster – just as the rest of Asia struggled too – Japan bounced back. Growth happened. Its economy is still a tad slow, but there are many industries looking way up. Online marketing is one of them.

Of Japan’s 130 million people, about 88 million are online. That’s about 68 percent of the population, according to Internet World Stats (Asia), compared with 210 million of the U.S.’s 300 million and 137 million of China’s 1.4 billion residents. Japan’s may seem like small numbers, but the momentum of online marketing and the ever-growing popularity of affiliate marketing in Japan make it a region everyone’s talking about.

Blogging, for example, in Japan is a popular way of getting products in front of the masses. Technorati Japan says that more than 85 percent of Japan’s bloggers write about companies and their products – and that over half of these bloggers have been contacted by companies to extol their wares. Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications says that bloggers totaled about 8 million in that country, making for an in-blog ad market of about $60 million last year.

Expansion on the Way

In the 1990s, the Japanese did not use credit cards much for online purchases, as bank transfers and postal transfers made e-commerce slow and a waiting game. But by 1999, a tech-hungry culture emerged and online spending came with it. Pay-per-performance business models were not far behind.

A leader in this space is online retailer Rakuten and its affiliates – managed through LinkShare Japan, a U.S.-led affiliate company acquired by Rakuten in 2005. Rakuten is the leader in online shopping destinations in Japan, so their penetration made them a default major player. In fact, Rakuten plans to be in about 27 more markets by 2012, according to Atsushi Kunishige, a vice president at Rakuten. He says they will use LinkShare, for example, as a way to "expand our business into the international market. We want to open a full-fledged Internet mall [abroad]."

Rakuten’s 20,000-plus online stores and merchants did about $66 million in operating profit in the second quarter of 2007. With the company traded publicly on the Japanese stock market, that’s a market capitalization of more than $5 billion.

LinkShare Japan has about 68 percent of the top-selling merchants in Japan and is the leader in customer satisfaction, according to a survey by Japan’s Affiliate Marketing Association. Atsuko Umemura, director, corporate planning, of LinkShare Japan, says that their focus on per-sales kinds of merchants has helped make them a leader. "Affiliate marketing has proven to have the best ROI for us," she says.

Late Bloomers

While the U.S. affiliate industry can trace its beginnings to the mid-1990s, the first affiliate providers in Japan didn’t start up until 1999. The U.S. market has had a few years to evolve and grow, whereas the Japanese affiliate space is still considered a "juvenile." There are more than 80 affiliate networks in Japan that cover both Web and mobile platforms. Some of the more high-profile affiliate networks include Adways, Access Trade, LinkShare Japan, Fan Communications (A8), TrafficGate, ValueCommerce and Zanox Japan.

Anthony Torres, president of affiliate marketing program management company MetaFlo Marketing, which is based in Japan, points out that the key difference between the U.S. market and the Japanese market is that the "Japanese affiliate networks can service only Japanese sites. U.S. networks such as Commission Junction operate worldwide due to English being the most popular language for Web content. So, no matter how large the Japanese affiliate industry gets, it will never be as big as the English-speaking networks," Torres says.

He also notes that Japan is still behind the curve in tracking technology and commission sophistication. For example, U.S. advertisers have more choices in how they reward affiliates. Generally, U.S. affiliate networks allow merchants to pay affiliates based on subscription status of digital content and, of course, future sales even if buyer clicks go directly to a merchant store. The U.S. networks also have more payout choices. A small CPA, plus a larger percentage of future sales generated by the lead is a method that hasn’t made it to Japanese network platforms.

Torres notes that the cost of acquisition of a typical online customer is high in Japan. "When you add in customer service and all of the accumulated costs in the sale cycle, you are left with a lower margin per sale," he says. Merchants in Japan are just not used to paying high commissions or lifetime commissions on a customer, he adds. "As the industry matures here and the ability to attract online buyers becomes more challenging, we may see online merchants less reluctant to try more aggressive commission terms." Unique to the Japanese market seems to be the cross-investment of media sites and affiliate networks. In order to increase media coverage, many networks invest in or make their own in-house media sites.

Considered the real pioneer in Japanese affiliate marketing is ValueCommerce (Yahoo Japan took a sizable stake in the company in 2005), started by a New Zealander named Tim Williams. ValueCommerce has more than 50,000 websites and blogs in its network, with about 2,000 advertisers. The company has about $43 million in annual revenue and trades on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Goldman Sachs veteran Brian Nelson is now CEO, having come on in 2000 as COO. Nelson says that "we focused on our strengths, continued to hire great people, and launched new products and services that kept new customers, especially large brand name customers, coming in to work with us."

Consolidation is Coming

Nelson says that a large product database for shopping and their Web 2.0 applications have kept them in the No. 1 spot. It also doesn’t hurt that there is some consolidation going on in the Japan online marketing space now. "I have been telling people in the market for a long time that consolidation is coming " and it is in full swing now," Nelson says. LinkShare’s Umemura says, "It is a very saturated market right now. There is not enough room for everyone to survive."

Online marketing observers in Japan note that there are just too many networks trying to service the same advertisers. With about 1.3 million affiliates registered with the major networks and the majority of transactions driven by a group of search affiliates and "incentive media sites," there are not enough "quality" affiliates to take on all the offers out there. This means the networks are starting to look at new channels for ads.

One of those new channels is mobile, a platform that has performed very well for Japan. Because the Japanese adopted 3G standards fairly early, more than three-quarters of all cell phones in Japan have smooth Internet access. This means delivery of interactive content and ads to about 86 million cell phones (compared with 31 million in the U.S.). There are more than 48 mobile affiliate networks in Japan, with names such as Moba8, Pocket Affiliate and Smart-C. In 2005, the Japanese spent more than $3.8 billion on purchases over cell phones – 57 percent over the previous year. In addition, the CPA-based mobile affiliate provider model does much better in Japan than in the U.S., where CPC or CPM models prevail. It’s been said the culture in Japan plays a role in this since there are so many more commuters in Japan – leaving more travel time for the Japanese to experiment with their cell phones.

And with greater mobile traffic comes the opportunity to serve more Internet phone search advertising. Local search engines like Goo, Nifty and BigGlobe get a share of those eyeballs, but the leaders are Yahoo Japan (with about 63 percent of searches), Google Japan at 23 percent and about 14 percent left to split between MSN and the regional engines. Yahoo Japan is also the biggest local player in Internet auctions, Web email, mobile content and broadband.

Search Challenges

Japanese online marketing agency and search specialist Sozon sees challenges in the search marketing arena. One area in SEO that is unique to Japan culturally speaking, says Andy Radovic, VP of strategy and planning at Sozon, "is its variety in language used. Essentially, there are four methods of writing – kanji, the character system borrowed from China; hiragana, a more simplified form of kanji; katakana, the Japanese expression for foreign words; and romaji, which is the alphabet," he says. "Depending on what you intend to communicate, you may use just one or a combination of these. This greatly impacts the keyword planning stage of your SEO program. Another major difference is Japan’s reliance on Yahoo as the search engine of choice."

Radovic notes that Japanese-run companies are the leaders in services and customized solutions. "There are very few successful, market-leading international companies in the online space," he says. The international companies that operate in Japan tend to do so with a local partner. The exceptions, he says, are technology- dependent products, where some U.S. companies are in the lead, such as in search (Google) and bid management and Web analytics tools (like Omniture). "Some of the Japanese homegrown companies in the mobile, travel and insurance space are getting more sophisticated in their online marketing programs and are tracking to off-line sales," he says.

Scott Neville, COO of Sozon, says that, creatively speaking, ad messages need to really know their audience. "International ad concepts simply will not work most of the time," he says. "Text is definitely king here. More information is better and creative is often very busy with multiple propositions." He says you will need to provide as much detail as possible in your campaigns – that Japanese users will definitely read your privacy policy. He says that text email is the standard and somewhat limiting in terms of email marketing campaigns that may rely on HTML. Flash and graphic-centric sites tend not to work that well at either an advertising or a site-campaign level. He says that Flash campaigns "are not really supported by major portals for media buying and tend to be not that well received." Also, comparison campaigns are not generally used in Japan and "culturally not respectable to run."

While online ad agencies in the U.S. are slowly starting to synergize their off-line traditional ways and the brave new web of interactive display advertising, the Japanese banner ad companies are not doing too well. Two online ad agency leaders, Cyber Communications and D.A. Consortium, actually had negative growth in recent years.

The Network View

Aside from the few U.S. companies acquired or now run by Japanese companies, there are few pure U.S. players in this market and there are not likely to be more anytime soon. Observers note that U.S. networks just don’t have the Japanese-language support. While LinkShare and ValueCommerce have a bilingual platform interface, they are the only two out of dozens. One of the U.S. networks to gain a measurable foothold in Japan is DTI. They host affiliate programs for Japanese adult sites, but since most networks in Japan won’t handle porn ads, DTI has found its niche in this area. Some experts point out that one opportunity for U.S. companies would be to acquire small- to medium-sized networks and re-brand. LinkShare’s Umemura says that in Japan, U.S. companies could have come in at an earlier stage, but that "starting now from scratch would be pretty difficult whether you are a U.S. or European company. There are some smaller U.S. networks that do quite well here."

In terms of what hasn’t been popular in Japan’s affiliate programs are third-party management vendors. Currently, only a handful of the affiliate networks have management services, mainly because they are pushing their own media. However, experts say, tool and service vendors could eventually find a market in Japan. Keywords tools such as Wordtracker, recruiting tools such as Syntryx Executive Solutions and competitive keyword research tools such as the makers of KeyCompete could enter the market fairly easily.

Perhaps the best indicator that the online marketing landscape in Japan is maturing is the formation in May of 2006 of the Japan Affiliate Service Kyokai, an association that started to draw up guidelines, educate the public and monitor ethical behavior in online marketing. The six major networks in Japan founded the association when they felt that "shady affiliates" were starting to encroach on the growth of the business.

A learning curve, however, still applies. Sozon’s Radovic says that "everyone is struggling with how to market in a Web 2.0 environment. The Japanese blog and peer consumer trust are major drivers of consumer purchase. So this is an ongoing challenge." And solutions to the challenge will certainly add up to a better marketing landscape.

Skinflint Search Marketing

I admit it – I’m a skinflint. Call me a tightwad, a miser – I don’t care. Basically, I’m cheap. And even if you’re not cheap by personality, you might need to conserve cash by necessity. If that’s your situation, don’t despair. The Internet is tailor-made for you. Internet marketing, and search marketing in particular, is the land of the free. So step up, you skinflints, and let’s see what you can do for nothing.

Organic search is always free, in the same sense that public relations efforts are free – you don’t pay anyone to run advertising to get your message out there. Instead, you come up with a good story and run it by the gatekeepers – the ones between you and your target markets.

For public relations, the gatekeepers are reporters, editors and other folks with their grip on the media that your audience consumes. It doesn’t cost you any money to get coverage in these media outlets, but it definitely costs time and ingenuity to come up with an idea and persuade the gatekeepers to pass it through.

Organic search marketing has the same elements as public relations, except the gatekeepers are Google and the other search engines. You must “persuade” the search engines to show your story – by giving it a high ranking for a search keyword – before it reaches your audience. That’s a big part of what organic search marketing is all about.

The problem is that organic search requires so much work that you’re tempted to automate a lot of it. That’s where the costs can come in.

Can Free Search Optimization Tools Be Enough?

As with many questions, the answer to whether free tools will be enough for your search campaigns is, “it depends.” What’s clear to me, however, is that free tools are the place to start. It’s best to see how far you can go with the free thing before you lay out a bundle of cash for a high-end tool.

We don’t have room in this article to list all the leading freebies, but let’s look at some of what’s out there. You can find a more comprehensive treatment on my website (at www.mikemoran.com/skinflint) with links to these tools and more.

Forecast your campaign. Good direct marketing principles start by identifying the criteria for success. My website has a free spreadsheet that helps you identify the value of search marketing, even before you begin your campaign. You can project your extra traffic and see how much more revenue it brings – just the thing to justify your plans to the boss.

Get your pages indexed. If your pages aren’t indexed, they’ll never be found. You can use MarketLeap’s free Saturation Tool to check how many pages you’ve got indexed on the leading search engines and then use the free Sitemaps protocol to get more of your pages indexed. You can also use free tools to check your robots settings and validate your HTML, helping you eliminate some common causes of pages being ignored by spiders.

Plan your keywords. If you don’t know what your audience is looking for, you can’t tune your pages to be found for the right words. For years Yahoo’s Keyword Selector Tool was the best free offering, but it spent most of 2007 showing January’s numbers when you’d expect updates each month. Trellian jumped into the void with a free version of its Keyword Discovery tool that helps you find keyword variations along with the search volume you can expect for each one.

Optimize your page content. Analyze your keyword density (the percentage of keywords in your content) and keyword prominence (the importance of the places where they appear) with free tools from Ranks and WebCEO. The results can help you decide how to change your pages to improve your rankings.

Attract links from other sites. Use Backlinkwatch or PRWeaver to analyze the links to your site and to identify where you might prospect for more. The results can form the start of a link-building campaign if you carefully approach the right people with valuable content on your site that their readers care about.

Measure your results. Use free rank checkers from Digital Point and Mike’s Marketing Tools to see where you stand. Then use Google Analytics or the Deep Log Analyzer to count the traffic from search engines keyword by keyword. Google Analytics can also measure your conversions – the number of folks who bought from you or responded positively in some other way.

Will these free tools work in every situation? No. Some tools are limited in scope or in the volume they can handle, and many are limited in features. Perhaps the biggest drawback of free tools is lack of integration – you’ll need to manage all of these free tools and often move data back and forth between them to manage your campaign. It ain’t seamless. But what do you want for nothing?

If you do need to move up in class, some of these free tools are actually the starter versions of more comprehensive fee-based offerings. Regardless, you’ll have gained valuable experience in using the free tools that will help you target the exact features that you need to pay for when you decide to take the plunge to spend money for a tool.

Free Paid Search

I know that “free paid search” sounds like an oxymoron (or perhaps an oxyMoran when I say it), but there are a few free ways to get paid search traffic.

One way is to submit your product to Google Base (you’ll show up on Google Product Search also). Neither of these properties produce a huge number of sales – other product search sites (the ones you pay for) are the leaders in this space – but there’s a lot to be said for free revenue. You might try out your shopping search feeds on these sites and open your wallet to the big guys when you have worked out the kinks in your content.

Another free way to do paid search is to use other people’s money. Can you steal some money for paid search from the sales budget or from other marketing budgets inside your company? Can you work on cooperative advertising with a complementary product? Perhaps if you agree to run the paid search campaign, you can get others to foot the bill.

Regardless of how you do it, search marketing is ideal for marketers with empty pockets. See my website (www.mikemoran.com/skinflint) where you’ll find more free ideas for doing search marketing, plus links to the tools described here. You’ll also see how to apply the skinflint approach to other kinds of Internet marketing campaigns. And every idea is your favorite price: free.

Mike Moran is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and product manager for IBM’s OmniFind search product. Mike’s books include Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and Do It Wrong Quickly. He can be reached through his website (mikemoran.com).

Searching for Alternatives

It was a cold night in Pennsylvania when Leila Crooks was on Digg.com, the community-based popularity site, and came across a story about a "slanket" – a fleece blanket with sleeves that offers the freedom of arm movement so people can play video games or surf computers while snuggling under a blanket.

Crooks was intrigued, bought one, loved it and sent the link to three of her friends who all bought them. At $50 a pop, the maker of the Slanket was benefiting from Digg. The number of sites for finding information online – that are alternatives to search engines – is growing and the traffic to them is increasing. People go to them for different reasons: to find experts who can provide the best possible information, to have material presented in a different way, to see what other users value as important and to find information they know will be relevant to them specifically.

The Slanket example illustrates the difference between search (or "recovery") and discovery. Search (or recovery) is when you are looking for something specific – a confirmation of information that you know already exists, such as information about the governor of New Jersey or a recipe for meatloaf. Discovery is when you find something you were previously unaware of, weren’t specifically looking for or didn’t know that you’d have an interest in. It’s akin to reading additional stories in the newspaper because of the proximity to the article you wanted to read.

Amanda Watlington, founder of Searching for Profit, says social media sites like Del.icio.us or Reddit.com are organized to present information in different ways, which can appeal to people "depending on how their brains work." Users go to the Most Popular section of these sites and check out what others deem to be interesting.

Internet marketer Carsten Cumbrowski says he passes time on StumbleUpon.com, a browsing engine, to find sites that other online marketers find useful as well as to find sites that entertain him. He says it has a good filtering system – "if I say I don’t like something, I never get anything similar again."

Online marketers that want to leverage StumbleUpon can try its advertising system, which includes the link of the advertiser’s website in the regular StumbleUpon rotation. When a sponsored site is shown, a green button on the toolbar appears. However, some advertisers who have placed requests to get visitors in their category have received notices from StumbleUpon that there are not a sufficient number of people to view the ad in the category selected. Skeptics wonder if this is because StumbleUpon does not want to deal with a low ad spend or if they are overstating their traffic numbers.

Cutting Through the Clutter

As users become savvier in locating information, they realize that search engines are heavily monetized and loaded with nearly as many marketing messages as sought-after information, and they seek out alternatives, according to Sam Harrelson, general manager of the East Coast U.S., for Clicks2Customers.

Others agree that "less noise" and the struggle to find relevant information on search engines often lead people to alternative sites.

For example, if users are looking for tax help, they might go to Digg and read an article like "five ways to get your taxes done" rather than entering "tax help" into a search engine, which yields promotional sites about tax services, according to Chris Winfield, president of 10e20, an Internet marketing company.

Users often go to review or opinion sites to find information to complement what they have found on search engines. Winfield says he will search Google for a dentist in New York to get some names and then go to Yelp.com to look at their reviews. Searching for Profit’s Watlington says she searches for hotels in New York and then goes to TripAdvisor.com for the reviews.

Tim Mayer, vice president of product management of search at Yahoo, explains that when users don’t find the answers they want on search engines, they can ask a question on Answers.com. The site includes 4 million answers from publishers, original content created by its editorial team, community-contributed articles from Wikipedia and answers from WikiAnswers.com.

WikiAnswers is collaboratively written by volunteers "in the spirit of growing information for the public good," according to its website. For contributions that users find to be worthwhile, users vote with Trustpoints, which are indicators of how trusted the last contributor is as a member of the WikiAnswers community (as opposed to a measurement of how much you can trust the actual answer to a question). Trusting a user’s reputation is vital to not only WikiAnswers but to all social sites where users provide information or indicate the value of information (such as through tagging, bookmarking or ranking).

Just like in off-line world, the value put on information depends on who is giving it, and for this reason, users’ profiles can be weighty and influential. If you are reading an article about JavaScript on Del.icio.us, you look to see what other articles a user has saved – it gives you an understanding of that person’s knowledge base. It is similar to looking at someone’s book or record collection – it lends credibility and perspective.

Trust Me

Techmeme.com is one of online marketing expert Jim Kukral’s favorite sites because it decides what news is important as opposed to a site that simply aggregates feeds. "Techmeme saves me time. There is no need to go to a ton of blogs to figure out what is going on. That’s power to me," he says.

Techmeme works differently than other news sites. GoogleNews, a news aggregator site, uses its own software to determine what stories to display, but the sources are selected by a team of editors. Similarly, SFGate.com, the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, also features stories decided on by editors. Techmeme creator Gabe Rivera explains that Techmeme uses a proprietary algorithm, which changes frequently, to analyze posts to determine what Web pages are being discussed or cited most often on the Web.

Blogger Robert Scoble (www.Scobleizer.com) explains that Rivera started by selecting 1,000 of the world’s top tech bloggers, put them in his server, studied their linking behavior and created a "fabric" that now includes thousands of blogs and websites. When Apple’s iPhone came out, high-profile bloggers in the fabric such as Michael Arrington (www.TechCrunch.com), Guy Kawasaki (http://blog.guykawasaki.com) and Scoble were all blogging about the new device. Because of this, the iPhone headline stayed up on Techmeme almost 24 hours a day over the summer. Scoble says he believes that information from a site like Techmeme is more valuable than information from Google because it’s more SEO-resistant – it is much more difficult for its links to be bought. For these top bloggers to link to each other, they must trust each other. "If I trust Arrington and he trusts Kawasaki and he trusts Joe Smith, then I am going to infer that I trust Joe Smith because my chain has trusted him. It would be very hard for a search engine optimizer to break into this chain," he says.

Dana Todd, president emeritus of SEMPO and SiteLab co-founder, says that she thinks it’s rather limited thinking to assume that all SEO is harmful and that SEO is the only market manipulation tactic on the Internet. "In any market, there are marketers – and they do exactly what marketers do. They attempt to find hype-holes in the system and exploit them." She notes that it took about 15 minutes for users of Digg to start manipulating the results. The findings of a September study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) warn that just because a news story is popular at a website (or within a certain community) does not mean that it is the most "important" story.

The PEJ study compared the headlines of user-driven news sites (including Digg and Reddit), and Yahoo News, which offers an editor-based news page and three lists of user-ranked news (most recommended, most viewed and most emailed), and compared these with the news agenda found in mainstream news outlets.

The study illustrates how the news looks different when audience members pick what story they want to read or recommend, as opposed to when a professional journalist makes the selection. The study found that the most popular stories on user-driven news are more fleeting and often draw on a controversial list of sources and reflect the interests of the participants in the community – stories on Digg and Del.icio.us tend to be more about technology, which is why they are popular among online marketers.

User-driven news isn’t new – in October the site Slashdot celebrated its 10-year anniversary as a site where users could scrutinize science, science fiction and technology- related news. It is credited for being one of the first sites to provide forum-style comments alongside user-submitted news stories. Just like Del.icio.us, you wouldn’t go to Slashdot to find out information on the latest U.S. billion-dollar defense policy bill.

In a post on his blog, Gaping Void, Web 2.0 writer/cartoonist Hugh MacLeod posits that if he were looking for a Vietnamese restaurant in Phoenix, he could Google "Vietnamese restaurant Phoenix" and possibly end up at a bad restaurant. Or as a blogger with a good-sized audience, he can ask about his dinner plans on Twitter or Facebook.com and get a couple of good recommendations within minutes. "Because I know these folks, or at least, they know me " there’s a certain amount of trust and bonhomie that comes with the recommendation," says MacLeod.

Social networking site Facebook has received lots of buzz and high financial valuation because of the "social graph" – a reference to graph theory that models the connections between things. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is not a social network but a tool that facilitates the information flow between users and their connections. It is the ability for users to get more out of their connections that people find compelling.

The Power of the People

According to Scoble, Facebook, Techmeme and Mahalo – a human-powered search engine that creates comprehensive and spam-free results for the most popular search terms – will kill Google in the next four years because users will get their information from these types of sites where trust is more than what algorithmic search results provide.

In October, Facebook added Facebook Flyers, which offers two different advertising options to the social network. Flyers Basic enables marketers to run ads on a $2 CPM with targeting based on age, gender and network. Flyers Pro lets marketers use pay per click with a minimum of 1 cent per click. As with other PPC ad buys, a higher max price per click increases the chance your ad will be shown. Online expert Kukral says Facebook Flyers "is basically Google AdWords within Facebook." He says that as an online marketer in Cleveland, this gives him the ability to do things like drill down to specific demographics with Facebook and target those users for a local "event."

"I can create an event in Facebook and then look at all the people on Facebook that are in the area and maybe have certain political or religious beliefs [based on their Facebook profiles] and then invite them to participate in an offer or event," Kukral says. "That is powerful and it could be the next big thing."

Part of trusting someone’s advice or being receptive to marketing messages is awareness of users’ tastes. David Rodnitzky, vice president of advertising at Mercantila – a collection of hundreds of online specialty stores selling to U.S. and Canadian consumers – says StumbleUpon and movie site Flixster.com are popular because they leverage collaborative filtering.

Here’s an example of how collaborative filtering works, according to Rodnitzky: Two users rate 200 movies on Flixster, and 90 percent of the time the ratings of the same movie are consistent (user A gives "Star Wars" a 10, user B gives it a 10). So if user A wants to see a Chinese-language movie but has never seen one before, and user B has seen five of them, the odds are good that whichever Chinese-language movie user B ranked a 10 will also be a movie that user A likes. When user B types in "best Chinese movies," the results are tailored to his specific likes and dislikes.

"Over time, if a collaborative filtering engine gains enough information about an individual user, it’s possible for the results to be very powerful – and far more accurate than what you get by just doing a search on a search engine," Rodnitzky says. However, the collaborative filtering engine first needs to have enough users to make those ratings viable.

Wikipedia.com is a popular search alternative that has garnered enough users to make it worthwhile. It reached 2 million answers in the English-language version in September 2007. Since starting in 2001, more than 100,000 registered users have made at least 10 edits each to Wikipedia articles. It is in the search toolbar in the Firefox browser and the sixth-most-visited network of websites worldwide. Internet marketer Cumbrowski claims Wikipedia is exceptional because it lists references – users can find out what experts think are the best resources for a topic – which obviates the need to research a topic any further.

Specialization

Finding the best information from the most informed user base is driving the growth in specialized communities and vertical search engines. Cumbrowski says there will be more specialization. As good examples of that, he points to BUMPZee.com for the affiliate community and Danny Sullivan’s Sphinn.com community for search information.

The explosion of content available on the Internet is fueling this specialization. Although Web 2.0 has made creating connections easier, it has made searching for information more difficult than ever. Because users’ queries are usually ambiguous, Google cannot serve the needs of every user. In turn, that has brought about an increase in the number of vertical properties, which restrict the scope of a search (see sidebar, Page 46).

Stephanie Agresta, a founder of the Conversation Group, says social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter fill in the gaps. They allow individuals to tap in to different levels of networks of people to get information from someone who knows about a particular subject. Sites such as Mahalo and Squidoo.com enable users to view information through a specific user’s lens – the movement now seems to be toward a custom feed based on an individual’s friends and context, and away from algorithms.

But SEMPO’s Todd says it took only about 20 minutes for her to get bored with Facebook "because of all the ridiculous plug-ins and faux human interactions." She says that search engine optimization is not really the issue here. Google dominates that area because it caters to the very lowest common needs of users, and does so very elegantly. "It’s a tool, not a destination."

Moving forward, more of these types of sites are expected to pop up. Mixx, a new social news site – a cross between LinkedIn, Reddit and MyYahoo – is a social network that lets users find and share news based on their interests and location.

Another social network service is Ning, an online platform for creating social websites and social networks. Ning helps Web publishers create social networks around their content – more than 100,000 sites have used Ning’s tools to add their own networks. The sites range from a network of family members sharing content and photos to large networks such as Indiepublic, a social network for independent designers and artists.

Social sites are limited to certain topics, as several industries don’t have enough people using them yet and it’s tough to find any long-tail information on social sites, according to Web strategy consultant Cameron Olthuis. He expects that search engines and "alternative sites" will be completely necessary for people to continue to find information.

Search Wars

Even though Google would prefer not to be a verb, the search giant is just that and more. To Google is to search for products, maps, healthcare plans, cars for sale, images of Britney Spears, coupon sites, new mobile phones, the population of Moscow, blogs on gardening – the world really. And more so now.

As of last May, Google changed the way it serves results pages. It isn’t one of the ongoing tweakings to its famed algorithm to help you find what you are really looking for, but a much more significant change.

Search results pages are no longer sectioned off into categories for more targeted searches – its tabs for news, video, blogs and maps are still there but its main search results now pull all of those categories together into one results display. This is called Google Universal Search.

Google wants to provide more relevant search results by offering not more choices but better choices in the possible niches a user may be searching for. If you type “healthcare” into Google, you don’t just get providers of healthcare, but also blogs on healthcare and even local providers by ZIP code. Universal Search is supposed to make it easier to find what you want – a mandate that is the heart of Google’s mission.

“With universal search, we’re attempting to break down the walls that traditionally separated our various search properties and integrate the vast amounts of information available into one simple set of search results,” writes Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience of Google on the company’s blog.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said in the press that Universal Search is the first major revamp of the site and its underlying architecture in several years. He said the work began more than two years ago and that more than half of the company’s “search efforts” developed it. He said the changes will give people more exposure to “underutilized” Google services such as Book Search and Video Search, and that they will help raise Google’s market share. Brin finished off by saying that “our data says we not only are the best [search engine] but we’re widening the gap.”

In Google’s Shadow

The myriad of niche search engines on the Web, however, take issue with this new feature. Marketers and custom search engine companies believe this reform to the results pages will cut into their business. “There is a lot of money being thrown at the category, and so many players, they are not supportable in the long run,” says Chase Norlin, CEO of Pixsy, which hosts custom image search engines for other sites. Marketers are simply afraid that all their SEO efforts will have to change dramatically to retain their hard-won rankings, being pushed lower by popular blogs and YouTube.com videos of cats. Currently, Pixsy gets 60 percent of its traffic through Google.

“I don’t think it changes a thing for the top search marketers,” says Matt McGee, SEO manager for Marchex at SearchEngineWatch.com. “The best have already been using all these verticals to drive traffic – video optimization, local search, blogs, news and press releases, and so forth. Search marketers who’ve been sticking to the basics like on-page optimization and simple link building have some catching up to do. I’d say they already had some catching up to do even before the Universal Search announcement.”

John Tawadros, COO of iProspect, suggests marketers relax and focus on the opportunity Universal Search presents – a call to diversify your digital content to include more additional media types, adding that a truly good search strategy goes beyond just changing your ways to suit the engines. Kris Jones, CEO of PepperJam, supports that view. “I have watched advertisers double their sales volume via search by focusing on marketing initiatives outside of search. Conversely, I have seen advertisers in just about every vertical space leaving massive dollars on the table by refusing to see the big picture,” he says on his blog.

“The moral for search marketers is,” says David Berkowitz, director of emerging media at 360i, “they need to take a holistic view of search. For those who get it, this gives them an unprecedented chance to dominate entire search engine results pages and gain sizable competitive advantages. Marketers need to consider every digital asset of theirs as an opportunity to gain more visibility in Google, whether it’s an image, video, press release, store listing, blog post or anything else.”

Norlin points out that since Pixsy has a large business-to-business component, Universal Search does not largely have an impact on those current customers. In fact, there is a healthy amount of vertical search in the business-to-business space. Research firm Outsell recently stated that the business-to-business vertical search market would probably top $1 billion in revenue by 2009. Also, vertical search engines that use different “contextual crawling methods” or integrate specialized databases that are not routinely interpreted by a Web search crawler may be unaffected by Universal Search.

Finding a Niche

Wil Reynolds, associate at SEER Interactive, thinks niche search engines still have a place and are not going to be crushed by Google. “We don’t need to be the biggest SEO company out there, for example. We only need a piece of the pie. [Search companies] go out there fighting for a third of a percent and that can be profitable for them.” Mike Solomon, vice president of Search123, says that they do well because “we know who we are and what we do well. We see business that Google and Yahoo have left behind in the second-tier clients. ” We are not saying one size fits all. Google says ‘this is one size fits all and if not, too bad.'”

Image search engine sites such as Like.com, Picsearch.com and Pixsy will probably never catch Google, but they may not need to. “We don’t really compete with Google right now,” Norlin says. “Universal Search isn’t really a big deal.” He says that Google is too concerned with having a negative impact on their revenue to change results that dramatically. “They have too much to lose. That’s what happens when you are up.” He adds that an engine like Ask.com has nothing to lose and, therefore, is the most innovative in terms of universal search, Norlin believes.

Search sites such as Ask.com and Snap.com are trying to appeal to the Google masses by displaying search results in an interesting way. Ask.com has incorporated a preview in which thumbnails of the home page of a site pop up when the cursor slides across the result listing. Snap.com’s preview has a bigger pane that slides to reveal the home page without having to click through at all. Ask.com also combines search results à la Google Universal Search but presents the results in three ways – as Web links; as news items, pictures, video clips, weather reports and local results; and finally, a pane to help you refine your search. Snap CEO Tom McGovern says, “We’re not delirious in thinking that we are going to displace Google. We want to be the secondary search engine of choice.”

Since Universal Search’s launch, there has been a change in traffic patterns on the Web. According to Hitwise, Google Maps saw visits rise by 20.34 percent from May 12 to June 2. Google’s video results meant YouTube got 8.26 percent more visits in the same period and Google Video was up 1.41 percent. The Google Image Search and Google News areas actually lost traffic by 7.22 percent and 7.84 percent respectively. As of June 2007, Google still gets 52.7 percent of all searches, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

SEER’s Reynolds believes that Universal Search is just an outgrowth of a really innovative company. “At Google,” he notes, “they really allow you to invent there. They encourage their employees to try new things. The result is Google has built an engine of ideas.” He says that Google Maps was a side project of certain Google teams and “now look at it.”

The Size vs. Substance Issue

Some experts think the one-size-fits-all model can actually help vertical search firms. Products that never ranked high can now see better traffic and buyers from placement in a Universal Search result. It means the broadening of SEO efforts instead of the daily micromanaging some businesses still do to their sites. It will force marketers to unify their different channels so that everything ranks equally. Some pundits think this was a long time in coming. Finally, the most obvious benefit to Universal Search is that with more personalized results comes better traffic for everyone. Norlin says that there are “only so many kinds of destination sites. These are the early days of Universal Search. Personalization of search and automation of that is the next trend.”

The innovative ways Ask.com and Snap.com have used Web 2.0 technology to craft interesting user experiences, experts agree, is a trend, and could chip away at Google’s business. FlickrStorm, for example, allows you to search Flickr image tags and displays thumbnails of all the pictures with that tag. You can then choose to view the full-size image at Flickr or add to your personal slideshow. FundooWeb.com presents search results from Yahoo, Yahoo News, Yahoo Answers, Yahoo Maps, Amazon and Flickr. If you search from all sources, the results are paned as collapsible headlines and a Flickr photo strip.

Other vertical search engines using Web 2.0 include Whonu, which pulls from more than 300 search sources and an interface that contextualizes what you enter. For example, type in a ZIP code and you get a set of links to maps, weather maps and even public events in Google Calendar. KwMap calls itself a “keyword map for the whole Internet.” Type in a keyword or phrase and an interface lists related key phrases with a graph that shows related terms. Clicking on a term reveals another layer of related terms. Like.com is a “visual shopping” engine that displays images of products or people. Click on an image and the engine shows related products by analyzing the image and not text tags. The interface lets you focus on areas of an image to find similar products by shape or color. Blinkx TV is a search engine that searches audio, video and podcasts using keywords and phrases but also content from inside the clip that you’re looking for – be it a phrase sung in a song or a product name mentioned in a podcast.>

While marketers will probably have to learn new methods to keep their results high in Universal Search, it seems clear that niche search engines can offer unique ways to appeal to everyday searchers, too. SEER Interactive’s Reynolds trusts the Web audience is a savvy one. “When you get to very specific niche engines, the consumer is very knowledgeable. They are more likely to convert. ” Google got people hooked for years before they started serving ads.”

Search Marketing Is Direct Marketing

When I say the word “marketing,” what do you think of? Probably some kind of advertising – maybe a TV commercial for Coke. That’s brand marketing, and it’s gotten the lion’s share of attention from marketers for decades.

Far fewer people are direct marketers – the folks behind the catalogs and mail solicitations that fill our mailboxes. If you know any direct marketers, you may want to hire them to run your search marketing campaigns. Let’s look at the basics of direct marketing to find out why.

The Name of the Game Is Response

Direct marketing is truly measurable marketing. Unlike most TV commercials, every direct marketing message is designed to evoke a response, such as “call this number now” or “mail your order form today.” The return on direct marketing investment is based on how many customers respond to those messages. A very successful direct marketing campaign might sport a 4 percent response rate; a failure, less than one-half of 1 percent. Direct marketers make their money by increasing response rates.

Think about it. It doesn’t cost any more to mail a catalog that drives 4 percent response as one that drives 2 percent. The creative costs, paper costs, printing costs and mailing costs are about the same for each mailing, so smart direct marketers focus on raising response to bring more return from the same investment. Direct marketers spend their time figuring out just what causes more people to respond. A different offer on the outside of the envelope might get more people to open it. A different picture and product description in a catalog might cause more people to order. A yellow sticky that says, “Before you pass on our offer, read this” might cause a few people to do just that.

But how do direct marketers know what worked? They measure the response. They measure changes in response to every small variant of their sales pitch. And they keep the changes that work and throw the rest away.

When credit card marketers send out a million pieces of mail to sign up new customers, they don’t just write a letter and mail it out. Instead they write 10 or 20 different letters and mail them to 1,000 people each. Then they mail the version of the letter that generated the best response to the rest of that million-person list.

Direct marketers constantly tweak their messages to become more persuasive. They continuously experiment with new ideas. It may seem picayune to focus on raising response rates from 2.2 percent to 2.6 percent, but just such increases mark breakthrough direct marketing campaigns.

Another way to increase return is to cull your mailing list. If you know that certain customers never seem to buy, you can eliminate those addresses from the list and add new ones that might prove more profitable. Your mailing costs are the same, but your responses will go up.

You can see that the basics of direct marketing revolve around experimenting with your messages and your mailing list to drive more and more sales for the same cost. You can apply those basics to Web marketing, too.

Web marketing, done well, is the biggest direct marketing opportunity ever, because the Web is infinitely more measurable than off-line direct marketing. Off-line direct marketers can measure only the final response – the mail order or the phone call, for example. They can’t tell the difference between those who threw the envelope away without opening it and those who read the entire message but still did not respond. If they could, they’d know whether to change the message on the outside of the envelope or change the letter itself.

The kind of measurement the Web offers is the stuff of direct marketers’ dreams.