Databasics 101

Most small business operators have dabbled with databases, but relatively few use them to their full advantage. So here’s a crash course call it Databasics 101 on why you need them, how they work and what they can do for you.

Businesses live and die on the information they collect and how they put it to use. For example, at my company, we send a reminder for unpaid ads on the day following their entry. This provides a timely reminder with an easy link to our payment page.

The key tool for storing, organizing and making sense of this information is a database. Many programs use a built-in database, such as an email reader, a calendar or a contact manager. These programs are already heavily used by individuals and businesses to manage their activities. However, these programs only perform specific functions.

If you want to send email to all of your clients who registered with you during a particular week last year, you are facing a long manual process with standard personal information management (PIM) tools. A database can provide such a list of addresses with ease. It also can track the performance of individual ads, determine your best customers, provide page-view history for affiliates and automate your billing process.

There are a number of excellent databases that run on desktop computers. Some examples include Access, dBase, FileMaker and 4th Dimension. There are also dozens of programming, scripting and report-generation tools for these databases.

On servers, popular databases include Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, Sybase, Informix, and the freeware MySQL and Postgres. Some of the advantages to having a server-hosted database include the ability to connect from different computers in your office, the option of using a wide variety of programming languages and the benefits of using an industry-standard structured query language (SQL). If you run a Web server for your business, it is relatively easy to connect the Web server to a database.

In my company, for example, we use server databases for both office and Web environments. In the office, we can do on-the-fly queries to find out information about a customer and to determine how much customers spent on each of our features. These queries can be run by anyone in the office, because we access the same common database.

You’re a Sales Machine

Pairing a database with a Web server allows your site to become a customer-driven sales machine. Of course, it will take a little programming to put your business practices online, but the key component is a robust database. With this combination, there are Web sites that support thousands of affiliates, providing customization for each one. The key parameters for each affiliate are stored in a database.

Databases store their data in files optimized for rapid access. You can’t view these files directly, but databases provide facilities for writing and reading information. It’s important that your database provide facilities for backing up this critical information, and that you back it up frequently.

Just about every database has graphical tools for creating, browsing and modifying database content, generally called tables. Desktop databases come bundled with these tools, but for server databases they are often separate products. These tools can help with the creation and casual browsing of database tables.

To take full advantage of a database, you need to look at its scripting or programming interface – a process that may sound harder than it really is. Server and some desktop databases provide a common language called SQL for manipulating their contents. For example, the SQL statement “select email from customer where area code = 310” would select all email addresses from your customer table whose area code is 310. This same statement could be used on any database that supports SQL.

Databases that provide an application programming interface, or API, open their power to third-party or even customer-written applications. One industry-standard API is called open database connectivity (ODBC). ODBC compliance allows third-party applications and programming languages to connect to and manipulate a database.

My company, for example, uses an ODBC interface to connect Java applications to a database. To find all unpaid ads from the prior day, a Java program connects to the database through the ODBC interface. It then issues an SQL request through that connection. The request is something like “select * from classified where starttime > yesterday and starttime < today and paid = 0.” (This is an SQL simplification, but it serves our purpose.) The “*” indicates we are selecting all data from the classified table that meets the criteria.

The classified table contains the classified ad contents as well as information about the ad owner, such as the email address. It’s then a simple matter for the Java program to send an email message reminding the ad owner that the ad still has an amount due. The message can be personalized, and it can include the ad contents of the ad.

This is just one example of how to use a database, but it shows the potential power of one of the most common tools available to small businesses. Doing this operation manually would be a very time-consuming process and would require personal attention every single day. Using a database allows you to automate the entire process, freeing you to focus on growing your business, not just maintaining it.

If the technology is a bit beyond your personal capabilities, don’t despair. Remember, there was a time not long ago when most people were intimidated by the idea of owning their own computer. There are plenty of people around who can help you, and finding them will be well worth your effort.

The best place to start your search for help is from friends who understand the technology. They probably won’t want to do the work for you, and you shouldn’t expect them to. But they can help you screen the person who will do the work.

Professional help doesn’t have to break your budget. In most cases, you should be able to find a contractor for about the same price as a plumber, and often for less. But if you have a complex project in mind, you may want to seek bids from several computer consultants. n

EDWARD ARENBERG, vice president and CTO of EPage, created one of the first fully dynamic Web sites. He manages and develops for EP.com, EPage.com, and AdConnect.com.

Can You Relate?

Not all that long ago, we did almost all business with people face to face. Chances are, we knew them personally and had done business with them before. There was an established relationship.

Now, affiliates are doing business with people around the globe, and the chance of knowing them personally is pretty remote. But no matter where or how we do business, the need for a good relationship is still critical, perhaps even more so. People are not looking only for transactions; they’re looking for relationships. They’re looking for a positive experience, something that really enhances the trust and connection between the parties.

Several years ago, Jan Carlson, the former president of Scandinavian Airlines, wrote a best-selling book called Moments of Truth. Carlson’s belief was that every time someone had any dealings at all with a customer, it was a moment of truth. Whether it was a phone conversation or an actual one-on-one exchange, something happened. He knew that each time a customer had an encounter with his airline, it was going to either enhance or detract from the relationship itself, not just the value with the customer.

Marketing gurus recommend we be mindful of the lifetime value of a customer to look beyond the profit from an initial sale. It’s good advice, but I would take it a step further: Be mindful of the lifetime value of a relationship, not just a customer.

Relationships often go far beyond the customer. They extend to friends, family and acquaintances. How often have you done business with a company because your father, brother, friend or co-worker recommended them?

And it’s not only our relationships with customers that matter, it’s also with suppliers, coworkers, stakeholders, even competitors.

It’s a small world. And more and more people are checking you out before buying from you or partnering with you. Your reputation, which is largely established by how good you are at building and maintaining relationships, will determine someone’s willingness, or unwillingness, to enter into a business transaction with you.

And you never know how your relationship will evolve. I’m doing business with people today with whom I formed a relationship many years ago. We’re not in the same businesses, and in many cases we’re not even in the same industries. Our roles – customer, vendor, employee, employer are reversed. We’re able to do business now in our new roles because we had and have a good relationship.

In Mario Puzo’s screenplay “The Godfather,” a common expression was, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” I think business is personal, very personal. And the more personal we can make it, the better our relationship will be and the more business we’ll do.

Most business communications today are highly impersonal. When you communicate with someone, especially via email, you can get attention by making it more personal. A warm, friendly style can begin to build a rapport and a relationship that increases sales.

People like to do business with people they like and trust. It’s incumbent upon us to foster an atmosphere where all parties develop relationships of trust, respect and cooperation.

We need to realize that there’s really no such thing as business-to-business or business-to-consumer. It’s people-to-people that counts. Once we get that, we can start to look at ways we can improve upon those relationships.

And it’s actually pretty simple:

  • Treat people the way they – the way you – want to be treated;
  • Keep your agreements;
  • Do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it;
  • Under-promise and over-deliver;
  • Train your staff to go out of their way to please the customer;
  • Do it consistently;
  • Reward your customers and your employees when they communicate exceptionally well;
  • Tell the truth with compassion; and
  • Never lie. Never. Ever.

Show people you care. When people get that you care, you’ve got an excellent chance of building a solid relationship. Up until then, it’s just a transaction. Remember that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Our profits and our ability to compete effectively depend upon how well we cultivate and nurture all of our relationships. Being honest, playing win-win and treating people fairly aren’t just moral things to do. They are good business, now and in the future.

MICHAEL ANGIER is founder and president of Success Network (at SuccessNet.org), which coaches people on personal and professional success strategies.

Should I Promote This Merchant

There are thousands upon thousands of affiliate programs offered by various Internet merchants. Deciding what programs to promote can be a daunting task. Let’s explore the factors most successful affiliate marketers consider when faced with this decision.

First and foremost, you must consider your site visitors’ propensity to purchase the product or service or take the “desired action” (filling out a lead form, etc.). You should consider the attractiveness of the merchant’s site and offer, but you also need to consider your ability to properly pre-sell the product or service and your interest in doing so. After all, if you don’t refer a qualified buyer, and if the merchant’s site doesn’t convert your referrals, you won’t be successful with this offer.

Once you’re satisfied, both you and your customers will be interested in what a merchant has to offer, then consider the following six factors.

1. The Agreement Read the Terms and Conditions of the program, and be sure you understand and agree with all the points. If there is no such document, move on.

2. Compensation Terms How much a merchant is willing to pay you is surely important, but you must also consider the expected conversion rate. Look at the program’s earnings-per-click, or EPC. A program that pays you $5 per lead may be far more attractive than one offering an average commission of $25 per sale. Using this example, if 10 out of 100 of your referrals submit a lead form, you’ll earn $50, with an effective EPC of 50 cents. If just one in 100 of your referrals makes a purchase, you’ll earn $25 with an effective EPC of a quarter. You’ll also need to consider the volume of clickthroughs, which isn’t part of the EPC measurement. In other words, if very few of your site visitors click on the lead campaign and many more click on the per-sale campaign, you could end up earning more total commission on the per-sale campaign, even though it does not convert as well.

The average EPC is public knowledge for many programs. If it isn’t disclosed, I urge you to write to the program manager to ask about the average EPC. I suggest participating in programs with a minimum EPC of 10 cents (unless you expect very high volume).

3. Return Days and Lifetime Commissions “Return days” refers to the length of time a cookie is set on your referral’s computer to allow you to earn commissions even if the referral returns directly to the merchant’s site.

The importance of return days will depend on the length of time a customer typically takes to decide to purchase a particular product. As a general rule, I suggest you consider programs with a minimum of 30 return days.

Many merchants expect customers to make repeat purchases. It’s even built into many situations, like ongoing services. As an affiliate, you should be compensated for future purchases, so look for these types of programs to offer lifetime commissions. (Especially good are those tracked by a database, where your referred customer is “assigned” to you and your ongoing commissions aren’t dependent on cookie tracking.)

4. Leakage I define leakage as any time affiliates don’t get credit for commissions they rightfully earned (based on the program’s terms and conditions). Below are a couple examples of leakage. Again, don’t hesitate to ask the program managers how they minimize these issues for their affiliate partners.

Phone Orders: There are ways to credit affiliates with their phone orders. (Contact me at my company if you’d like more information.)

Participation of Parasite Affiliates: This critical issue is beyond the scope of this article, but clearly you want to avoid programs that have relationships with affiliates who will intercept your referrals and claim the commissions for themselves. There are many sites and discussion groups where you can find lists of affiliate programs that have parasites participating in their programs.

Even if you’ve earned commissions, there are unscrupulous merchants who may not pay as they have promised or are very slow payers. Again, check the affiliate discussion boards before you start promoting any merchant to see if other affiliates have registered complaints about them.

5. Program Management If you’ve gotten this far in your evaluation of an affiliate program opportunity, then I suggest you also look for information about the program’s management. Have you been provided with full contact information for an individual you can reach with your questions or comments? If so, chances are, you’re going to get the support and guidance you will need to promote this merchant. On the other hand, if you’re given a generic email address (affiliates@companyxyz.com) that you find is unresponsive to your inquiries, this should be a red flag. I also suggest you avoid programs that use “customer service” to handle all kinds of affiliate matters.

A productive affiliate should be viewed as a true business partner or an in-house salesperson. Therefore, look at the quality of the sales promotion support. For example, does the program go “beyond the banner” and provide affiliates with good content in the form of articles you can publish and/or emails you can send to your subscribers? Do you have access to individual product links or a product data feed? Has it provided you with a list of its most important keywords and keyword phrases? Does the program manager keep affiliate partners informed of the hottest-selling products and most successful promotions? Are you provided with coupon/promotion codes or other special deals that you can offer your customers?

6. Reporting Most well-run programs will allow you to log in to your account 24/7 so that you can view your performance in real time.

While there are no guarantees, following these guidelines should help you to partner with those merchants who offer you the greatest chance of success. Above all, remember to work smart, run your affiliate activities professionally and be aware of red flags.

JIM GRIBBLE is managing director of LinkProfits.com, which he founded in 1999 to manage partnership programs. He also runs LinkProfit.net, an exclusive business development network, and PartnerIndustry.com, a resource for merchants and affiliates.

Bringing E-commerce Back Home

Jeannie Otero wanted to change her life. A single mom with two young daughters, she hated the three-hour round-trip commute to her job in Miami, time she would rather spend with her girls. She dreamed about starting her own business, thought about investing in real estate. But she had the age-old problem: You have to have money to make money.

Then, she heard that a good way to make money was to build a Web site that connected shoppers with online merchants. “I put up this funky little site called PartyClowns.com,” Otero laughed. “I didn’t know what I was doing at all. It had a bunch of links to coupons, and it didn’t actually have anything about party clowns.” But it was the first step in her road back home.

Otero had entered the world of affiliate marketing, a sort of parallel economy in which anyone at all can become an online retailer with almost no investment or experience. Two years later, she’s generating a good supplemental income and looking forward to quitting her day job. She’s discovered that all an affiliate needs is a combination of some smarts, some personality, some common sense and a ton of ambition.

Affiliate marketing has quietly become a booming industry, involving thousands of U.S. corporations, millions of affiliates and hundreds of millions of dollars in transactions. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s the deal: You sign on as a commission-only salesperson for an Internet retailer. You use all the creativity, intelligence and perspiration you can muster to get customers for that merchant – customers it might not find on its own. For every customer you refer to the merchant, whether it’s for a paid purchase, a new subscription or a name for its email-marketing list, you get a commission. Because merchants pay only for results, they consider affiliate programs a form of advertising called pay-for-performance.

Affiliates have the whole world of commerce at their fingertips. They can put together an array of products from global selection of retailers and offer them to their own customers. They typically build one or more Web sites that mix content with links to products on merchants’ e-commerce sites, and sometimes feature products in email newsletters or place ads on others’ sites. They never see or touch the merchandise themselves; the merchant handles all aspects of payment, warehousing and shipping. They get paid once a month, or whenever their commissions reach a pre-determined threshold.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. While just about anyone can sign up for an affiliate program and put up a site, earning those nice commission checks is another story. While figures are sparse, the Internet Affiliate Marketing Association estimates that fewer than 5 percent of Internet affiliates have revenue of over $100 a month. That’s because affiliates face some of the same challenges as any other entrepreneur. Inexperience and a lack of basic business skills short-circuit some people’s attempts. Others don’t have the drive to persevere without a boss standing over them.

According to AffTrack, a service provider that aggregates statistics about the industry, 2 percent of affiliates make 98 percent of the commissions. “Affiliation is so easy to get into, that you might only have 10 percent of people who sign up actively promoting merchants, and a smaller amount still might be making any real money,” said AffTrack CEO Scott McNulty.

Like any other frontier, the affiliate world is rambunctious and confusing. There’s more than a whiff of the old envelope-stuffing scam to this industry, where you’ll find site after site promising that you can earn thousands of dollars working at home a few hours a day. It’s also gotten a bad rap from unethical affiliates, who bear some guilt for contributing to the spam deluge. When evaluating affiliate programs, don’t forget to apply the rule that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

Retailers know affiliates can drive sales and keep customers coming back, but they give most of their attention to the top producers. “Retailers have begun to think about the way affiliate programs will work for them in a more efficient way in terms of driving quality traffic and repeat traffic,” said Carrie Johnson, senior analyst with Forrester Research.

This doesn’t mean that there’s less opportunity for you as an affiliate. But it does mean that you’ll have to work smarter and better to be part of that successful 2 percent. Like everyone else in this tight-fisted era, online retailers expect more for their money.

While there’s more competition, there is still plenty of opportunity. Affiliate marketing is the second wave of transformation in the global marketplace. The first wave, the rise of the commercial Internet, put the power of information in the hands of consumers, letting them compare prices among merchants anywhere in the world. This second wave has leveled the playing field between huge conglomerates and individuals who represent online merchants.

Raison d’Etre

Sending traffic to merchants’ sites is the affiliate’s major goal. While you’ll find plenty of affiliate sites that are just lists of links, many experts say that it’s unique content that draws visitors and keeps them there long enough to get interested in your merchant’s offerings. “Your site has to have a reason to exist,” said Brad Waller, vice president of affiliate and business development for EPage, a content syndicator. “It’s rare that someone can create a site and make money from affiliation without doing anything himself. No one will look at it because it’s not original.”

This doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional Web designer or an experienced writer. Most affiliate sites are highly personal; like Otero’s, they’re often sparked by a personal interest in a particular subject.

“The personal touch makes a big difference,” Otero said. For example, she created a special Web page with a rave review of one baby item, just because she thought it was so neat. “I had eight visitors and made $20,” she said. Now, she writes introductions and personal notes for most of her Web pages and plans to write a personal review for the best product in each category for her BabyShoppingGuide.com site.

A smart way to decide what your first site should be about is to choose an audience, according to Robert Bennett, an affiliate with eight years’ experience who also runs affiliate programs for several ISPs owned by his company, Archieboy Holdings. “Do you have any connections in any industry, or any opportunity to market to a certain group that other individuals don’t?” he asked. “Identify the market you’ll target, then figure out what products they might be interested in.” For example, if you lead a youth organization, you could look for products related to school or sports, then build your site content around those products. Ideally, the products become part of the content.

Creating your site is a lot like merchandising a store. You could go broad or deep. For example, you might spend time finding absolutely everything anyone could ever want for camping and put it all in one place. From freeze-dried food to sleeping bags to flashlights to first aid kits, you’ve got links to it. On the other hand, like Jeannie Otero did, you could identify a niche, and then scour the Web for every baby Halloween costume available. In either case, the work you do to find and maintain fresh, working links and to gather or create interesting content is the value you add – and the way you make money.

It’s easy to find affiliate programs:

Just search for the merchant’s name plus “affiliate.” Many programs are completely automatic. “Just grab any banner, fill out the form, add the code to your

Web site, and you’re done!” one vitamin retailer promises.

If you’re working with many different merchants, maintaining one-to-one relationships with them all could get hairy. You’ll need to check that the merchandise you feature is still available, and then keep track of what they owe you and when they pay. While most merchants are honest, the message boards are rife with complaints and feuds about payments and other problems.

For more hand-holding and help, you could join an affiliate network. Networks are services that help affiliates and merchants find each other. Then, what’s more important, they manage the process of keeping track of commissions and paying the affiliate. There are several advantages to joining a network:

  • You can get organized and comparative information about a number of merchants without having to search through individual e-commerce sites;
  • In some cases, the network will act as a matchmaker, suggesting partnerships or products that make sense;
  • Some offer support, productivity tools and forums to help newbies learn;
  • They may offer reporting tools that let you analyze your various relationships and see how much income they produce; and
  • They back up your bookkeeping. Instead of keeping track of commissions and payments from multiple merchants, you get a single check each month from the network.

There are many different networks, and affiliates tend to choose them based on the merchants in the network; many work with multiple networks in order to get the range of products they want. Despite the growing interest in the

business and concomitant number of affiliates, “Good affiliates are always in demand,” said Hayley Silver, director of affiliate development for LinkShare, a network that offers tools and services for merchants and affiliates. “[For merchants], they’re your salespeople. No one is ever going to turn down a strong salesperson.”

Content Connection

Once you have an array of products and services to sell and an audience to address, it’s time to flesh out your Web site to make it a true destination. While everything on your site could be considered content, most of it will be in the form of text. That includes your original writing, articles that you reprint, classified ads and user-generated content in the way of forums and message boards. You can arrange to receive automatic updates of syndicated articles and news feeds, either free or for a charge. There are even content sites that offer affiliate programs. They provide free content and, if a visitor to your site clicks back to their site and pays to subscribe or read premium content, you get a little lagniappe.

According to affiliate marketing guru Ken Evoy, your site must satisfy the needs of visitors, the search engines and the merchants; if you serve visitors well, you’ll go a long way toward satisfying the other two players. Site visitors want outstanding information and interesting, highly relevant links. Lots of fresh, relevant content encourages visitors to bookmark the site, come back, and tell their friends.

After all, people who want a book on a particular subject or a recipe could go directly to an online bookseller and search its inventory. They also could plow through literally thousands of entries returned by a search engine. “If someone was searching for information and finds your editorial [content], that person feels smart for having found you, and you become a trusted source of reference,” said Evoy. “By the time that person arrives at the site of a merchant you recommend, she is presold.”

That doesn’t mean your content should consist of plugs for products. Quite the contrary. If your content simply hypes products, your readers won’t trust you. If you write a book review, for example, tell your readers what you really think of the book – good or bad. You’ll earn their respect with your honesty. Then they can decide whether to click on the link you provide to an online bookseller. If all your reviews are positive, your visitors will probably end up looking for a more objective Web site.

High-Traffic Destination

The most authoritative site on the Web is wasted if no one sees it. So, your next task is to lure visitors. If you’ve started with a pre-existing audience or circle of influence, provide them with valuable information and your traffic will grow by word of mouth. Others will find you through search engines.

There are two approaches to increasing your site traffic via search. Some people focus on optimizing pages for the different search engines, while others approach their Web sites as writers and editors, assuming that if the site seems relevant, search engines will find it without extra effort.

Optimizers geek out over page statistics and the workings of various search engines. They analyze how many times key words appear in each page and use them over and over to get a higher ranking for the page. They religiously check how high their pages rank in searches, then tweak pages in order to get them higher still. There are lots of software applications that help automate this process. Optimizers often engage in arcane practices such as “cloaking” or coding phantom pages that exist only to fool search engines. In order to play these games well, you’ll need to know HTML and even some programming languages like PERL.

Experts, on the other hand, focus on becoming the go-to resource for people interested in something specific. This approach requires a passion for the topic; a smidgen of previous experience won’t hurt, either. Instead of trying to trick the search engines, they create focused pages and pack them with information that “appeals to humans, not search engines,” as Evoy said. Because search engines are designed to help people find what they’re looking for, this method can create pages that rank high in search results with much less work.

But successful affiliates say you should never sit back and wait for traffic to find you. Be prepared to constantly expand your customer base with shrewd marketing. “There are lots of different tactics and techniques,” said Hollis Thomases, president of Internet marketing services company WebAdvantage. Affiliates can place banner ads on other Web sites, buy keywords on search sites, exchange links with appropriate sites, send emails to existing customers or contact the media and try to get press. Some affiliates spread their content around the Web by writing articles for other Web sites, making sure to include a link to their own sites. “All publishers tend to try all of them at one time or another, refining and tweaking to see what works best,” Thomases said. “That’s where the art comes in.”

Now, can you sit back and watch the checks roll in? Uh uh. Prepare for steady work to make your site better. Whether you go the optimization route and spend your work time fiddling with keywords and links to improve your ranking in the search engines or take the expert approach and create a series of new pages, treat your Web site as a living thing. Nurture it and the fruit of your labor will be financial success and the pride of owning your own thriving business. And, maybe, spending more time with your kids.

Susan Kuchinskas, managing editor of Revenue, has covered online marketing and e-commerce for more than a decade. She is also the co-author of Going Mobile: Building the Real-time Enterprise with Mobile Applications that Work.

Affiliates, Start Your Engines

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last year or so, you probably realize by now that in order to get customers to your affiliate site you have to market it on search engines. Even if you haven’t realized this, your competitors certainly have, and if you don’t take advantage of what the search engines have to offer, your Web site is likely to go the way of many other dot-com dodos.

Over the last few years search engines have emerged as the most viable option for reaching many users on the Web. As an Internet marketer, your success online may be determined by how well you learn how to play the search engine marketing game.

In recent studies, search engines emerged as the number one way people find products or services on the Web, with about half of all Internet users utilizing search engines to find you.

Searching for what you need using search engines has become so ingrained in the Internet psyche that people even go to a particular engine like Overture, and type searches like www.Yahoo.com in the search box, instead of typing that URL into the address bar. Some of the top searches on many of the search engines come from people using the search engine to find other search engines.

As you may also have noticed, search engines are in the news lately. Google is always grabbing headlines, and the industry has consolidated, with many of the larger companies gobbling up the smaller folks in a race for Internet dominance. First, Overture bought Alta Vista, Fast and AlltheWeb; FindWhat merged with Espotting; and now Overture is hand-in-hand with Yahoo, which already purchased Inktomi.

MSN is beefing up its own search services in order to compete, and is rumored to be eyeing Looksmart and Ask Jeeves as potential purchases. So a realistic scenario in the next few years will be that three major engines will control over 80 percent of all U.S. searches on the Web, and the balance of searches will be performed between hundreds of smaller engines.

How can affiliates take advantage of that information?

Think of some keywords that represent your business. There are hundreds of Web sites competing with you for placement in millions of searches per month. Competition will only get worse as more businesses start to get their Internet act together. You can’t ignore search engines in your marketing efforts if you want to succeed. And, after all, search engines do have many advantages:

Affordability: The cost of a lead gained from a search engine marketing campaign is currently averaging about 29 cents. That’s a significant savings from the next least expensive Internet marketing vehicle, which is email at 50 cents per lead, according to a study conducted by Jack Myers LLC and presented at a Direct Marketing Association conference last March.

Equality: The Internet is still the great equalizer when it comes to marketing. Any affiliate marketer or small business with a Web site can utilize smart search engine marketing practices and to compete with their larger and better-known competitors. Even though you may not have the money to launch a large search engine marketing campaign, with a little knowledge, you can do most of the work yourself and still compete with the big boys. Many small businesses have built a decent living just using the power of search.

Flexibility: There are very few other venues where you can control so many aspects of the marketing campaign and stick a toe in the water for very little money. Search engine marketing allows you to test copy, placement, budget, messages and offers, on the fly, in real time. You don’t have to commit to a long-term contract or a minimum buy. You control the amount you spend, the cost per lead and the duration of the campaign.

Accountability: If you set up your tracking correctly, you can easily and quickly establish the return on investment (ROI) for your campaign. This will allow you to correct as you go, redesign your Web site, change your product offering and make adjustments based on your profit margin. Never start a search engine marketing campaign without the proper tracking in place. You can learn so much from the insight you receive that you may have to rethink your whole business model.

Accessibility: You can reach more targeted users utilizing search engine marketing than with any other marketing vehicle. You can target your campaign locally if your business is constricted by geography, or internationally if the world is your marketplace. Either way, Internet use is only going to grow in the next few years, so don’t let this opportunity pass you by.

In light of all this, it seems obvious that the more you can learn about search engine marketing, the more successful your Internet business will be. You don’t have to do it all yourself, but you should certainly know how it’s done. That way you can decide whether to keep search engine marketing in-house or hire someone else to do it. Either approach will yield good results.

In future columns I’ll discuss the different forms of search engine marketing and provide you with plenty of tips and tricks to ensure that you get your fair share of Internet customers. We’ll delve into all those acronyms you may have heard bandied about but never knew the definition of. Yes – the joys of SEO, WSO, PPC, CPC, SEM, PI and others, lie ahead. (Somebody stop me!)

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