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).