Bringing Your Website Into Focus

What can you do when you’ve invested in Web initiatives and it looks like the investment isn’t paying off? For some industries, embracing the Web as a way to increase business has been a long, slow road. The good news is that every day, companies are pushing the envelope to create online tools and features that move their industry forward in search of the revenue-altering effect of a successful Web presence. Zyloware is one of those companies.

Founded in 1923, Zyloware is a family-owned-and-operated business that manufactures brand-name fashion eyewear frames. Recently the company made a significant investment in its website. They changed the site from an online catalog to a full e-commerce site so that eyecare professionals could keep their inventory full by ordering online. Zyloware is known as an innovator in the optical industry, and developing this functionality was an innovation over what their competitors are doing online. But are they ahead of their time?

While several Zyloware customers are using the new Zyloware.com website to place orders online, the adoption rates have grown more slowly than anticipated. Marketing manager for Zyloware, Jodie Hirsch, contacted us to see if a little makeover magic could help solve the problem. She suspected that the new capabilities available to users aren’t obvious and that is the prime reason why the system isn’t getting used as much as expected.

After looking over the site, I have to agree that much of the functionality is being hidden, but overall, the issues are much bigger. I’ve said before that sometimes you can take an existing site and make dramatic performance improvements without changing the overall design very much – this is not one of those cases. Zyloware’s existing home page could definitely benefit from a complete visual overhaul.

First, these guys work with some top-notch brands. That isn’t fully communicated on their home page. Next, the company’s business is producing frames, yet they don’t show more than one on the home page. Rule No. 1: If you are selling a product, feature that product as prominently as possible on your home page.

Zyloware only sells directly to eyecare professionals, so a secondary goal that Hirsch mentioned was to make Zyloware. com a consumer-friendly site and a valuable resource in selecting eyewear. They developed an advanced frame search engine so consumers could find eyewear products on the site and then purchase the products from the partner retail locations. The problem is that most consumers have never heard of Zyloware and with the existing home page, it’s not clear what the company does or why consumers should look any deeper into the site.

So our first order of business is to rework the navigation. Well-designed navigation does more than just help users find their way around on your site; it also communicates what the site has to offer and which areas are most important. The current site has most of the options hidden in drop-down menus. We pulled out the most important links and displayed them in a standard horizontal navigation. This will make it easy for users – both consumers and eyewear professionals – to see what the site offers and to get to those areas quickly.

Next, the original design shows one brand at a time and displays the rest in small text links below. We chose to prominently feature five of their nine brands front and center on the home page. This immediately exposes users to a good breadth of Zyloware’s eyewear offerings before they dig deeper into the site. With this type of setup, Zyloware could choose to feature its best-selling brands, its newest additions or just a good cross section of their full product line.

Our next step was to expose the frame search functionality. This is something that both consumers and eyecare professionals could use, so keeping it hidden in a drop-down menu was not giving it the attention it deserved. Also, we added some information about the company so that users who don’t have previous experience with Zyloware can learn a little bit about what they do.

Finally, we made the site wider. This is a nuance that is lost when the images are reproduced in print, but the original width of the site is about 810 pixels. That is a nonstandard size and it doesn’t really make any sense. Allow me to get technical for a bit here.

Website widths should be based on expected user screen resolutions. Users with screen resolutions of 800×600, which used to be the Web standard until about two years ago, can fit 770 pixels on their screen without having to scroll horizontally. The current Web standard is 1024×768, which can fit approximately 990 pixels before a horizontal scrollbar is introduced.

Because the site was 810 pixels wide, it was effectively too big for low-resolution users, but still too small for larger-resolution users. We increased the width to a size more suited for users with higher screen resolutions, which allowed us to expose more real estate to the site visitors.

In the end, a successful home page must communicate the value of your company to your users. It must also quickly and almost subconsciously educate them about what they can do on your site. Accomplish those goals and your users will reward you by visiting your site more and utilizing the tools you have created for them more frequently.

Would you like your website to be the topic of a future edition of By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He is the co-author of Web Analytics for Dummies and serves as CEO of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

The Desire to Acquire

The new geography features auction-based ad exchanges and conglomerated companies with divisions that buy, sell and distribute ads: something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

The emergence of these new entities with intertwined relationships has the potential to streamline the media marketplace and drive costs down and return on investment up. Consolidation will likely enable the biggest players to increase their market share while also growing the demand for independent agencies and networks that operate outside of their reach.

Fast and Furious

To recap: In a shorter span than is required to complete the NHL playoffs, Google gobbled up DoubleClick, Yahoo lassoed RightMedia, Microsoft acquired aQuantive, WPP Group won 24/7 Real Media and AOL absorbed Ad:Tech AG.

LinkShare, a subsidiary of Internet services company Rakuten, purchased lead generation company Traffic Strategies in June. Rival Commission Junction is owned by potential acquisition target ValueClick, and Performics is a property of Google’s DoubleClick.

The acquisition frenzy has made tracking industry relationships as challenging as keeping up with the latest Hollywood romances and legal tangles. For the first time the largest media companies own ad networks and/or agencies, one of the largest agencies owns a network, plus countless smaller players also work on both the buy and sell side. (To untangle the web, see page 49 of the July/August 2007 issue.)

Consolidation, shakeout, maturation of the market: Whatever you want to call it, investment banker John Doyle of Peachtree Media Advisors says there are precedents in TV and print industries for large media companies doing a “land grab” to acquire related businesses. “It’s like getting a bigger bucket to stand under a waterfall,” he says. Advertisers are expected to greatly increase their online spend during the next few years, so it is not surprising that the top media companies attempt to expand their reach by buying companies offering related services, he says. Doyle expects the consolidation to continue as it adds value for buyers, and more midsize companies will likely want to increase their heft by scooping up smaller competitors. However, after the biggest deals are done, the largest players are unlikely to buy smaller shops, as it “won’t move the needle” in increasing their market share, according to Doyle.

Questions of Perception

The distinction between interactive/ creative agencies, advertising networks and media companies began to dissolve through smaller acquisitions during the past few years, but now the potential for conflicts of interest are as clear as they are abundant. That agencies, ad networks and publishers are owned by a single organization has many in the industry uncomfortable. “Most of the rules of online advertising are broken …” says Russ Mann, CEO of search marketing company SEMDirector.

By comparison, how would investors feel if one entity ran the stock market and owned an analyst firm and a brokerage? Not too comfortable, most agree. Not surprisingly, in May, the Federal Trade Commission began an antitrust investigation of Google’s purchase of DoubleClick to identify aspects of the deal that could limit competition.

Publishers might be reticent to partner with companies owned by a competitor, according to Dana Ghavami, CEO of CheckM8, which sells software to manage rich media campaigns. For example, ad networks could prioritize placement based on the needs of their corporate family of publishers. “My worry – if I am a media company such as Viacom or Fox [which have used DoubleClick’s ad network] – is who is looking after my interest?” says Ghavami.

Interactive agencies with ties to networks and media companies have the most at risk as they are likely to undergo the most scrutiny to remove any doubts that they are putting clients first. Trusting agencies to buy “in-house” is akin to “asking students to grade their own tests,” according to John Ardis, vice president of corporate strategy at ad network ValueClick.

Advertisers looking to optimize the return on investment from their media buys will want assurances that purchasing decisions aren’t compromised by a need to unload excess inventory from a sister company, CheckM8’s Ghavami says. That’s not a comfortable discussion for those sitting on either side of the table. These “umbrella” companies will have to institute internal safeguards to prevent the possibility or even the appearance that their actions are being influenced by other divisions of the company.

Advertisers may be unwilling to place their confidential and sacrosanct data about campaign performance in the hands of companies with divisions that are their direct competitors. For example, a liquor company might hesitate before signing on with a network that is part of the same company as an agency that represents a competing brand (see BT story on page 52 of the July/August 2007 issue).

Similarly, a media giant may not want its top advertisers’ performance data to be in the hands of a competing company. “Everyone has seen what Google is capable of when they have too much control – they start setting the rules,” says Ghavami. Giving the enemy the intelligence used to form your battle plan isn’t a strategy for success.

The Upside of Acquisitions

While organizations that span multiple aspects of advertising increase concerns about conflicts of interest, they should be able to increase efficiency and lower the cost of buying and selling. In theory, agencies would be able to buy from sister networks without the need for the sometimes lengthy approval process that slows insertion orders. Also, ad networks and their subsidiaries could combine campaign performance data with real-time analytics from their publisher properties with an ease and granularity not possible today.

“Microsoft [as one example] would be able to create bundled solutions that are more cost-effective and provide more value at the same price,” says Dema Zlotin, vice president of strategic services at SEMDirector. Advertisers would save time by working with one-stop shops and could better adjust campaigns by getting real-time site-by-site performance to complement their networkwide data.

Agencies, however, may have to rethink their fee structure if the purchase is made from elsewhere within the company. Charging a hefty commission when buying from its own network and properties won’t fly with some advertisers. Agencies that are part of other entities will have to work harder now to prove that their intellectual capital is worth paying the premium, according to ValueClick’s Ardis.

Greg Stuart, the former CEO of the Internet Advertising Bureau and co-author of the book, What Sticks, says online advertising was ripe for change. The buying and selling of interactive ads is costly and inefficient, according to Stuart, and consolidation and greater transparency will benefit advertisers. “Shame on the industry for letting it go for so long,” he says. “I am appalled at some of the things that go on,” says Stuart, stating that the failure rate (47 percent) of ad campaigns reflects poor performance by agencies.

While data sharing between organizations can simplify more “routine” buys, advertisers will continue to work with agencies for more complex purchases. The potential for conflict of interest could prove a boon to independent agencies. Some advertisers might be inclined to work with smaller but experienced shops whose allegiance can’t be questioned.

Though purchases through a single company might be more efficient, advertisers happy with an agency could go with networks from competitors, according to SEMDirector’s Mann. “Online is still best-of-breed world,” he says, adding that the various divisions of a one-stop shop might not be the best choice individually.

Rise of the Ad Exchanges

In this consolidated online environment, advertising exchanges that use auction bidding to sell ads and directly connect advertisers and publishers will see increased interest because of their transparency. Exchanges enable advertisers (either companies or networks working on their behalf) to bid for type of ad and the demographic that they would like to reach. Publishers set a minimum price for accepting the ads, and the exchange automatically matches buyer and seller.

Ad exchanges recently changing hands include Right Media, which was acquired by Yahoo, which previously owned 20 percent of the company, and an exchange being developed by DoubleClick that will become part of Google. Microsoft is said to be developing its own exchange, and independent exchanges include AdECN; Turn, Inc.; and ContextWeb.

Bill Urschel, the CEO of AdECN, says exchanges are differentiated from advertising networks because of the auction pricing, the transparency, and because the exchanges guarantee payment to the publishers. “[Exchanges] are taken from the stock exchange model,” says Urschel. AdECN’s exchange has signed up 28 ad networks since it launched in March of this year.

This transparency will attract publishers concerned about intertwined relationships since the services are (at least in theory) neutral to the source of the ad. While publishers and advertisers who compete with Google, Yahoo, etc., may not want to hire their agencies or networks, the exchanges can provide access to their sites.

Because of the negotiations involved in securing media buys, many large publishers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post often have 20 percent of their ad inventory unsold, according to CheckM8’s Ghavami. “Remnant inventory will be marketplace-driven,” he says.

Once they gain experience in using an exchange, some publishers and advertisers may bypass the ad networks and trade directly through the exchanges themselves. Ghavami estimates that 70 percent or more of major publishers’ inventories could be sold directly by exchanges. Ad exchanges will most directly compete with remnant networks such as Blue Lithium and Traffic Marketplace.

Exchanges may accelerate the shakeout of the weaker advertising networks, but they are unlikely to dominate the larger networks. Exchanges make sense for large publishers who have considerable unsold inventory, but publishers are likely to continue to get their highest CPMs through traditional sales channels.

Just as online stock trading didn’t cause brokerages to become extinct, the automated selling advertising is unlikely to replace networks. “There is a sliver of people who will be comfortable with the auction model, so auctions will have a place,” says ValueClick’s Ardis, whose company does not participate in an ad exchange, “but they won’t set the industry on its ear.”

The New Landscape

The current wave of industry consolidation will likely continue, enabling larger companies to become more powerful while at the same time providing opportunity for third-party auditing companies.

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Time Warner and their affiliated companies will have their hands in each step of the marketing chain, enabling them to increase the revenue generated from each client. The potential promise for advertisers is that these companies will be able to better target customers and increase by matching demographic and target data with real-time campaign analytics.

“The move away from AdSense to networks that are better at interpreting content” and matching it with advertisers makes sense, according to author Stuart. Advertisers would have greater control in distributing content to their target audience, such as being able to launch a campaign that is instantly delivered to a specific demographic (e.g., males between 18 and 35).

Though many of the sizable agencies and networks have been swallowed, the consolidation will likely continue. Networks such as ValueClick and smaller competitors could also be acquired. But analytics firms such as Visual Sciences (formerly WebSideStory) and Omniture are likely to be at the top of the media moguls’ shopping lists because of the additional insight they provide in maximizing revenue, according to Stuart.

Media companies are also likely to continue acquiring search and mobile properties (such as the recent acquisitions of Third Screen Media by AOL and ScreenTonic by Microsoft) during this continued consolidation, according to AdECN’s Urschel.

Advertisers and publishers may pressure multiservice companies to allow third-party auditing and oversight to ensure that ad buying, selling and placement are all completed without prejudice. Independent auditing firms could verify transactions between related organizations, or advertisers could request that purchases be made from outside networks and publishers. Industry groups will likely establish voluntarily privacy rules or codes of conduct to limit potential conflicts.

Exactly how companies will adapt with new services and systems to increase the efficiency of online advertising is uncertain today. But we can be sure that now that the rules have been changed, there is no going back.

John Gartner is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift and is the Editor of Matter-mag.com.

The Web, Take Two

Like new confections spilling out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the brain trusts at Web companies big and small over the last three years or so have spun out a brand new Web. Like candy, this version of the Web is flashier, full of speed, comes in a cool wrapper, has good stuff inside and is highly addictive.

But unlike the dot-com crash of six years ago, it seems these new companies (and some old ones thinking in new ways) have figured out how to make the Web user king, keep the eyeballs and make money.

Think about what has happened since 2001: Google has put search front and center; online affiliate marketing was born; smaller computer programs on websites have made shopping and collaborating easier; and user-generated content has redefined entertainment and online marketing. With redefinitions come labels, and since 2004 these innovations in the Web experience have been called Web 2.0 – to mean a second generation of Web-based services and technologies.

Angel Djambazov, marketing and business development manager of affiliate management tool Popshops, says, “Web 2.0 lends itself to more interactivity between the user base and the site.”

Web 2.0 also has been called the “participatory Web” that involves consumer action, not just reaction to your website or message. Web 2.0 has been called the explosion of video – homemade and commercial video slathered freely and easily across the Web. Web 2.0 has also been called the rapid rise of blogs (highly personal websites), widgets, RSS feeds and the podcast.

Web 2.0 is really all these things. Tim O’Reilly – founder of O’Reilly Media, publisher of technology books – coined the term and in essence meant it as a perceived shift in the Internet as platform.

He has defined it this way: “Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform.”

Where 1.0 was HTML Web pages you read like a book, 2.0 is Ajax-coded pages where mini-programs are swirling away on your desktop telling you the weather, what to eat, showing you videos or – most important to marketers – reporting your traffic. YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, craigslist, Wikipedia, Digg, Photobucket and del.icio.us would all be considered Web 2.0 sites.

Adapting for the 2.0 World

For online marketers, now is the best time to be in a Web 2.0 world. There are hundreds if not thousands of companies who claim their technology or service is Web 2.0-enabled. Pundits say it’s not just another bubble. Venture capitalists are expressing their confidence with their checkbooks, sending $844.4 million into Web 2.0 companies last year, according to Ernst & Young and Dow Jones VentureOne. Advertisers are also coming on board and they are predicted to spend $1.5 billion on online video alone by 2009, according to eMarketer.

Mike Moran, author of Search Engine Marketing, Inc., says there are three main changes for marketers and advertisers in a Web 2.0 world: You can now target even the smallest group; you can measure every single message’s effectiveness; and you must change your message in response to what customers say and do. Fortunately, he says, Web 2.0 helps you do all of these.

The most recent Web 2.0 lightning rod is the widget or Web widget. It is a kind of mini-program that can be embedded into a Web page and operates separately from your website. Widgets can contain anything from updated weather to interactive ads, videos and photo slide shows, to calendars, feeds to games and polls. Widgets are often Adobe Flash or JavaScript, which make them lightweight and easy to embed.

Because widgets are transportable – meaning a thousand folks can place the same widget with the same information on a thousand different websites – marketers are nervous of the threat to their business. “Widgets allow for individuals to take or use parts of the content from a marketer’s site and apply that content to their own Web page,” says Sam Harrelson of CostPerNews.com. “Of course, that can be threatening to a large segment of online marketers.

“For those marketers attempting to monetize their sites or programs with page view metrics, it should be threatening.” He says that YouTube did not become a major Web property and bring a billion-dollar price tag because it just had funny clips of people doing funny things.

“It provides a perfect example of how a company can grow quickly, in terms of numbers of users and advertising dollars, through the use of these democratized or decentralized ways of serving unique content.” Harrelson adds that marketers should be on the cutting edge anyway, looking for ways to measure what is going to happen on the Web, with or without widgets.

Currently there are thousands of widgets available – most of them free – on the Web and some that are embeddable media players come branded with advertising. Recently MySpace.com banned the use of most kinds of widgets that come with ads in them from being placed on MySpace profiles. Critics said the move was made so that MySpace could control the ad messages to its 90 million monthly visitors.

Making Technology Work (Well)

Another Web 2.0 technology in search of scale is the RSS feed. An RSS feed is a format that allows certain content to be pushed to your computer. Newsletters, favorite blogs or columnists and news sites use it when they have frequent publishing schedules. Users can subscribe to a feed and receive only that information they sign up for. Usually, Web users must install a feed reader to subscribe to the content. While use of feeds is popular, Feed aggregator FeedBurner also sees great potential for the ad market in feeds. “There are a lot of blog authors creating great content on a variety of topics, but advertisers are challenged to find flexible and scalable deployment of a blog ad campaign,” says Brent Hill, vice president of business development at Feed- Burner. While FeedBurner continues to extend its ad network for RSS feeds to include ads on blogs, Hill says that advertisers need to realize that quality sites, reach and effective placements of feeds will help drive advertisers to the well.

As companies are adapting their messages for the cell phone, so is Web 2.0. Mini-blog site Twitter, for example, is making it easier to use connected mobile devices to add to Twitter threads. Twitter basically only allows 140 characters to be posted at a time. This limitation seems well-suited to the legions of text-messagers already sending short notes to each other. In addition, Twitter now has a short code or abbreviated message system where the word “weather” and your ZIP code will get you back the information you seek.

This is just one example of the user-centric mobile Web experience that’s exploding. Companies such as Mobio, SoonR and Loopt all allow cell phone users to receive specific kinds of information directly to their mobile device, usually event or dining listings, physical locations of friends in your network or data pushed to your phone.

All these technologies are part of the greater social Web or social media; usually video, audio or other content that users can interact with. Web 2.0-styled social media applications can be found at sites such as Wikipedia, Second Life, Digg, MySpace. com and Flickr. The media can usually be shared, rated and oft times edited by visitors. This is also called user-generated content and is defined as content on the Web influenced but not necessarily created by visitors to those websites.

Consumers = Participants

The impact of user-generated content on marketers has been great. As Moran points out, Web 1.0 users were considered consumers by marketers; now with Web 2.0, they are participants. He says that now readers “comment on your blogs, change your wikis, create blogs of their own, create hate sites if they don’t like your products and produce ‘mashups’ of your content and functions.”

This sea change has given rise to the term “social media optimization”; what Rohit Bhargava, vice president for interactive marketing with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, calls “changes to optimize a site so that it is more easily linked to, more highly visible in social media searches on custom search engines and more frequently included in relevant posts on blogs, podcasts and .” He says that while that sounds a lot like search engine optimization, the difference is that Web 2.0 will make it easier to get your message out through tagging and bookmarking sites, widening your linkability, helping your content fit onto more niche websites and blogs and encouraging users to blend your message with other messages, or what is called the mashup.

On a participatory level, wikis are the exemplar of social networks that don’t require fancy technology. Wikipedia, for example, has taken the concept of building an online encyclopedia that every visitor can contribute to and made it very successful. Now there are wikis devoted to paleontology, linguistics, Swedish and Russian textbooks, law-student life, Star Trek, maps and collaborative novels, just to name a few.

While blogs and podcasts (downloadable audio shows) are also considered Web 2.0 innovations, the blog or Weblog technically has been around since just before the dot-com crash. Blogs and podcasts are beginning to be embraced by marketers also. Blog tracker Technorati reports that as many as 75,000 new blogs are created every day. While sites such as PayPerPost.com have made it easier for marketers to simply pay a third party to create a blog about their product, the effectiveness metrics are absent in that arrangement. Recent research has begun to balk at the reach of podcasts. Pew Research released a study that said only 12 percent of Internet users have downloaded a podcast and Forrester Research says that as few as 1 percent of all North Americans have downloaded a podcast.

A Web 2.0 spin on broadcasting information on the Internet is a company such as Userplane that enables webchats, webcasting and instant messaging. They sell themselves as a very Web 2.0 sort of company. Michael Jones, CEO, says that “Web 2.0 companies I come across all started as Web services companies. We saw an interesting need to have an online communication tool, and we started to say maybe there is an interesting way to turn on the lights in these rooms.” The company is beginning to host live webchat town halls with political candidates, which they hope will grow as the political season heats up.

Ad network MIVA also identifies itself as a very Web 2.0 company and has even outlined trends for 2007. Seb Bishop, president and CMO, has stated that mobile video sharing will offer an even greater level of immediacy than the Web, that mobile search will become localized – meaning mobile search will be less about browsing and more about fulfilling a need in real time and that advertising will become “democratized.”

Some critics have said that Web 2.0 is nothing but a marketing slogan itself. Russell Shaw, a columnist for ZDNet.com, has simply said that Web 2.0 “does not exist.” He says that things labeled Web 2.0 “are forward lurches of various standards and technologies; some compatible, some not, some revolutionary, some evolutionary, some impractical. Some are collaborative; others are highly competitive with each other.” He agrees with skeptics who say that the term is essentially meaningless and irrelevant.

CostPerNews’ Harrelson, however, perceives loads of relevancy in the new Web, especially as it relates to marketers. “Once marketers realize that the inventory available on publisher and affiliate sites is growing at near exponential rates, they will realize that metrics based on limited inventory such as CPA or CPC are increasingly inefficient,” he says. “That, more than anything, will lead to a re-examination of traditional marketing methods online and move the equation of metrics toward something more 2.0-ish.” He adds that “attention data is the new black. ” My practical advice to companies is to start developing attention metrics. That’s where the next black gold lies.”

The Art of Wooing Affiliates

“You spammed me,” I said with a smile to the affiliate network manager standing next to me as we posed for a picture together at the last Affiliate Summit. Her smile suddenly disappeared.

Kind, compassionate and understanding person that I am, I fervently hoped to hear an honest, if not apologetic reply that would give me the slightest reason to consider ever doing business with her network’s merchants.

Despite tripping over herself with admissions of having been “horrified” when she realized that she’d spammed me, she left me in the dark as to why she would try to solicit my attention through the email address that I use only for domain registrations.

Here’s a tip for affiliates: Creating a unique email address for individual functions such as domain registrations is an effective way to ferret out spammers. Filter email sent to that address into a separate folder and check it occasionally to see who is operating on the dark side. Delete the address to which the spam was sent and make a note never to do business with that company.

OK, it should be fairly obvious that I have almost no compassion for spammers. I was simply curious to see what excuse she could come up with on the fly. However, there was no excuse because there simply is no excuse.

First of all, spamming is illegal, which makes it a lousy way to try and recruit super-affiliates for anyone who cares about their reputation as a trustworthy business partner.

Secondly, I am hardly an under-the-radar affiliate. My contact information is almost too easy to find. Google my name with or without quotes and my affiliate marketing “how-to” site floats to the top of the natural search results. In the upper right-hand corner of every page on that site there is a link to my Support Desk, at which my virtual assistant, Joel, is eagerly standing by to field questions from affiliates, managers and merchants alike. Our Support Desk is open to anyone and everyone. No proof of purchase is necessary and the only skill required is the ability to correctly enter an email address.

If a not-so-savvy surfer somehow misses the listing for that site in the search results, the vast majority of the other 999 results which Google serves on a query for my name are affiliates who link to another of my sites, which also includes a clearly labeled link to my Support Desk.

Regardless of how one chooses to get to the Support Desk, the manner in which a solicitation is worded determines the response (or lack thereof) that it receives.

Authors of generic blasts that do not include my name or are addressed to some variation of “Dear Affiliate” or “Future JV Partner” are sent a canned but friendly TYBNTY (Thank-You-But-NO-Thank-You) note. And they should consider themselves lucky that we take the time to do them the courtesy of a reply.

Those who address their request appropriately but then hype the offer receive the same note, as do merchants and managers who provide insufficient or incomplete details.

The number of correspondents that fail to show basic courtesy by including their real name and full contact details is staggering. I used to try making the point by addressing replies to “Dear ___” or “Dear Your Affiliate Team,” but I am not in the business of teaching basic email etiquette, so they too now get a canned TYBNTY.

I’m also not in business to research offers that are not only unsolicited, but which are also apparently a secret. I don’t really care if you have a “ground-breaking opportunity which will make affiliates a lot of money.” So does every other merchant, and Sherlock Holmes I am not.

Tell me what the product is, and include a link to the specific offer’s sales page. Also, if the offer is restricted to a U.S. audience, please provide a link that does not redirect my Canadian IP address to Classmates.com. Please apply the same technology within your network interface so that non-U.S. affiliates can view all merchant landing pages. I asked for that feature at MaxBounty and they were only too happy to oblige, so we know it’s doable.

Then there are those pitches for products that are completely irrelevant to my audience. If I find those before Joel has a chance to send a TYBNTY reply, they are summarily deleted. Seriously, why waste your time trying to get me to promote George Foreman grills on my dating service review site?

Do your homework and check out my sites before you contact me with your offer. Find the page on my site where your offer should be placed for the greatest impact and don’t bother to suggest that it should be placed on my home page.

Answer the question, “What’s in it for Ros?” If the offer is available on several other networks or directly through the merchant’s own affiliate program, the commission rate you offer has to beat them all, or any chance of further discussion will stop right there. Furthermore, be specific about how much more you can offer than each of the other guys.

Better yet, if the product is an online service or piece of software, kindly provide me with a username and password so that I can assess the product for review purposes. Doing so costs next to nothing, and if I really like the product and continue to use it, your product will receive a stellar review and subsequently many more sales. On the other hand, you could provide me with time-limited access, but then there is no guarantee that I will make time to review the product by your deadline.

Best of all, if you have a real product and are inclined to send samples, hit me up for my mailing address. It’s unlikely that such a request will be denied. You can be sure that affiliate Colin Mc- Dougall promoted the heck out of the inflatable boat that he was paddling around Vaseux Lake last summer.

We super-affiliates also work harder for merchants and managers who go the extra mile to get to know their affiliates. For example, while attending a conference in Los Angeles, two of my Australian- based merchants went 1,568 miles out of their way just to take me out for dinner. By result, I have been promoting their product for almost nine years and don’t intend to stop anytime soon.

If you’re not inclined to visit Beautiful British Columbia, then chat me up at a conference. Make it your job to learn that the super-affiliate you wish to recruit prefers beer over wine and dark beer over light. Super-affiliates eat too; so an invitation to lunch is always a good segue to doing business.

Having shared a belly laugh or two over lunch, you by now have my business card and telephone number. Do a follow-up call. Propose your best offer and have the name or number handy of the offer that you want me to look at.

Next, follow the call up with an email (yes, by now you also have my private email address) and include a link to the offer along with a list of keyword suggestions. Consider sending unique copy targeted to my audience and which I am allowed to edit. Barring long copy, a bullet list of product benefits and features is also very much appreciated. At this point, your job is done. Now just sit back, relax and watch for the sales spike.

There are many ways to get my attention and me working for you as a super-affiliate. Plaguing me with spam, however, is not one of them – especially when I’m already affiliated with your network!

Rosalind Gardner is a super-affiliate who’s been in the business since 1998. She’s also the author of The Super Affiliate Handbook: How I Made $436,797 in One Year Selling Other People’s Stuff Online. Her best-selling book is available on Amazon and www.SuperAffiliateHandbook.com.

Question Then Convert

I talk to website owners all the time who are looking to design or redesign their websites. Most tell me what colors they like and what other websites appeal to them. Next they discuss features like animation or video. Some will go so far as to send long, prepared documents that include detailed color choices, font selections and so on. The concept of Web design is still largely looked at as a visual beautification of their website.

What I rarely find are website owners who have looked at their design in the context of Internet business. Once you’ve decided to redesign, there is a certain process you must go through to ensure your new website offers more than just a pretty face. You need the right information to provide a context for the redesign process.

This is why most of the website templates that are available for purchase do not help online businesses. They often look very nice, but force you to tailor your information to the design. Successful conversion design depends on a design that is specifically created for your information.

Please don’t confuse information with content. You don’t need to have every article and tagline written before starting the design process. However, you do need to have a very clear understanding of the message you want to convey to users and what goals you want to reach.

I encourage all website owners to answer the following questions before starting a redesign.

What type of website do you need?

Almost all websites can be grouped into a handful of categories: informational, lead generation, e-commerce and support. The type of website required for each is very different. To determine what type of website you need, you first just need to answer the question, how does your site make money?

If your business makes money by selling advertising or sponsorships it probably falls into the category of informational websites. Informational sites want to attract lots of visitors and get those users to come back regularly. The more pages users visit, the better it is for business. Examples of information websites include news portals, most blogs and many community-based sites.

If your site drives revenue by generating leads which are later converted to sales or sold to another organization – you need a lead generation site. Lead generation sites need to convert users to leads as effectively as possible. Lead generation sites can take many forms but some examples include service companies, mortgage comparison companies, etc.

E-commerce sites make their money by selling products. They need to establish trust because customers usually need to enter a credit card to complete the transaction.

Support sites help their owners by helping users find answers themselves, thereby reducing the need for support staff. These sites succeed when they make it very easy for users to find specific information.

Because the goals of these websites are very different, the design needs to be different. A one-size-fits-all approach will limit the success of the site.

What do you want to say to your users?

Every company has a voice. Is your business fun and quirky or staid and serious? Established off-line businesses often have a brand manager who helps to define this voice. The idea is to convey a consistent message to people exposed to the brand. Many website owners neglect this vital part of business. At the very least, your site needs to communicate the following points:

  • What makes your company different from the competition?
  • Why should users trust you?

Think of your website as an extended sales team. Great salespeople have to say the right words at the right time to help customers realize how great your products and services are. Your website needs to do the same thing.

Who are your users?

Defining a target market is business 101. One of your first steps should be to settle on the basics of who your customers are with metrics like age range, gender and income. Once the basics are defined, your next step is to identify any niche markets that would fit well with your service or product. Being able to cater parts of your website to specific niche markets can present huge opportunities for growth.

Another important step in understanding your audience is to determine how they are finding your site. Is your traffic coming from natural search engine listings, pay-per-click listings or word of mouth? Hopefully you’re attracting users from all three, in which case you need to think about what each type of user is looking to get from your site. Different traffic sources often indicate that users are at different stages in the buying cycle; for example, word-of-mouth traffic may only be interested in checking out the site, whereas pay-per-click visitors may already have their wallet out ready to make a purchase.

Having a thorough understanding of who visits your site and where they are coming from is the only way to create experiences that are appropriate for your audience.

So before you start shopping around for Web designers and writing content for your site, make sure you’ve given thought to the three major questions in this article. Design is more than just making your site look good – it’s about creating a website that accomplishes solid business goals that add to the bottom line.

Would you like your website to be the topic of a future edition of By Design Makeover? Send your name, company name, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He is the co-author of Web Analytics for Dummies and serves as CEO of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.sostreassoc.com to learn more.

The Ingredients That Go Into Spam

“Never watch sausage being made,” folks say, lest you would find the process so unappetizing that you’d never eat it again. Regardless of how you feel about Spam®, the venerable luncheon meat, all search marketers must understand the ingredients that comprise search spam.

In our last column, we explored the dangers of spam, which include bad publicity and getting banned from the search engines. We also looked at a spam technique called cloaking, in which spammers feed a different page to the search spider than what they show to real people.

This time around, let’s look at stupid content tricks. The goal isn’t to teach you how to use spam techniques, but rather to help you spot them on your site (oh no!) or on your competitors’ (so you can report them). Content spammers generally employ two kinds of tricks: page stuffing and doorway pages. Let’s look at each one in turn.

Page Stuffing

Content spammers treat their Web pages like a Thanksgiving turkey. They stuff as much extra content into each page as possible, hoping they’ll include something that search engines like. Let’s look at the three major types of content spamming tricks:

Hidden text

Don’t use tricky techniques to show the search spider text that is not seen when a reader looks at your page. In the old days (two years ago), content spammers tried displaying text with the same font color as the background color. Today the trendy spammer uses style sheets to write keywords on the page that are then overlaid by graphics or other page elements. Whatever the technique, if the search spider sees your words but people never do, that’s spam. The only exception to that rule is HTML comments, which are ignored by both the spider and the browser.

Duplicate tags

In times past, the use of multiple title tags (and other meta tags) was rumored to boost rankings. Although few search engines fall for that trick nowadays, spammers have adjusted. The same style sheet approach that can hide text can also overlay text on top of itself, so it is shown once on the screen but listed multiple times in the HTML file, adding emphasis for the repeated keywords.

Keyword stuffing

Also known as keyword loading, this technique is really just an overuse of sound content optimization practices. Do emphasize your target keywords on your search landing pages, but don’t overuse them. Dumping out-of-context keywords into an <img> tag’s alternate text attribute, or into <noscript> or <noframes> tags, are variations of this same unethical technique.

Search engines have gotten much better at detecting page stuffing in recent years, but the cat-and-mouse game continues. Each year, spammers develop new content tricks and search engines try to catch them.

Some extremely clever and hardworking people really can fool the search engines with advanced versions of these tricks. Most of the time, however, spam techniques are like stock tips: Once you hear the tip, it is probably too late; the stock price has already gone up and the search engines are already implementing countermeasures.

What should you do instead of page stuffing? Write your pages for your readers. Yes, use the popular keywords on your pages, but don’t repeat them endlessly like mindless drivel. Write engaging and informative pages that use the right keywords and you’ll attract the search engines. Moreover, when a reader gets to the page, your copy will persuade them to take the next step and buy something.

Doorway Pages

A few years ago, doorway pages were all the rage. Every search marketing “expert” was explaining how to create pages whose sole purpose is to appeal to search engines. The idea was that searchers came from the search engine to your site through a “doorway.” Some called them entry pages, others gateway pages, but the idea was the same. If your page exists only to get search rankings, it’s probably a doorway page.

In a sense, doorway pages are doors that only open “in” because they are not part of the mainstream navigation of your website. Doorway pages link to other pages within your website, but none of your other pages link to them.

Spammers use various techniques to get high search rankings for doorway pages, such as cloaking (which we discussed in our last column), page stuffing, and link spam (which we’ll tackle in our next column). Search engines have tightened up their detection mechanisms to avoid high rankings for doorway pages, but a smart spammer can still slip them through.

What should you do instead of doorway pages? Create search landing pages that are optimized for both search engines and people. Like doorway pages, search landing pages are designed to be the first page a searcher sees on your site when coming from a search engine. Unlike doorway pages, search landing pages are legitimate pages intrinsic to your navigation that are linked both to and from many other pages on your site. In fact, they are designed for people first and for search engines second.

Some paid search landing pages can be legitimately designed to be closer to doorway pages. Because you may want to target many more keywords for paid search than you can optimize for organic search, you can create paid-placement landing pages that are not part of the mainline site navigation – with links leading into the site only. The difference between these pages and doorway pages is they are not being used for organic search at all. (In fact, you should use a robots tag or robots .txt file to block them from organic search.) Because you are not fooling the organic engines with these pages, they are not spam.

For any pages that you want to optimize for organic search, just make sure they are heavily linked into the main navigation path of your site. That will ensure that the search engines treat them as landing pages rather than doorway pages.

Comedian Buddy Hackett joked that his mother’s menu consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it. The search engines’ terms of service (their rules for you to follow) are similar. Search engines decide which techniques are spam and there’s no higher court for an appeal.

Those who engage in content spam run a grave risk of having their sites banned by the search engines. So don’t be reckless. Stick to writing for readers and you won’t go wrong.

That’s it for content spam. In the last part of the three-part series, you’ll bone up on link spam, so that you’ll recognize the tricky link techniques that might fool the search engines.

Mike Moran is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and product manager for IBM’s OmniFind search product. His books (Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and Do It Wrong Quickly) and his Biznology blog are found at MikeMoran.com.

Do Your Metrics Measure Up?

Steve DiPietro is amazed at how frequently he listens to prospective clients parroting clickthrough percentages, Web traffic statistics and conversion ratios with great enthusiasm but little-to-no understanding of their value to their organizations. Increasing a conversion rate from 12 to 15 percent can become a goal unto itself as marketers immersed in number crunching can lose sight of the fact that sales aren’t also growing.

Making Sense of Metrics

ALGORITHM: A set of mathematical equations or rules that a search engine uses to rank the content contained within its index in response to a particular search query.

ANALYTICS: Technology that helps analyze the performance of a website or online marketing campaign.

BENCHMARK REPORT: A report used to market where a website falls on a search engine’s results page for a list of keywords. Subsequent search engine position reports are compared with that.

CHARGEBACK:An incomplete sales transaction that results in an affiliate commission deduction. For example: merchandise is purchased and then returned.

CLICK & BYE: The process in which an affiliate loses a visitor to the merchant’s site once they click on a merchant’s banner or text link.

CLICKTHROUGH: The process of activating a link, usually on an online advertisement connecting to the advertiser’s website or landing page.

CLICKTHROUGH RATE (CTR): The percentage of those clicking on links out of the total number who see the links. For example: If 20 people do a Web search and 10 of those 20 people all choose one particular link, that link has a 50 percent clickthrough rate.

CONVERSION RATE: The percentage of clicks that result in a commissionable activity such as a sale or lead.

CONVERSION REPORTING: A measurement for tracking conversions and lead generation from search engine queries. It identifies the originating search engine, keywords, specific landing pages entered and the related conversion for each.

HIT: Request from a Web server for a graphic or other element to be displayed on a Web page.

IMPRESSION: An advertising metric that indicates how many times an advertising link is displayed.

KEYWORD: The word(s) a searcher enters into a search engine’s search box. Also the term that the marketer hopes users will search on to find a particular page.

PAGE VIEW: This occurs each time a visitor views a Web page, irrespective of how many hits are generated. Page views are comprised of files.

RANK: How well a particular Web page or website is listed in a search engine’s results.

UNIQUE VISITORS: Individuals who visited a site during the report period – usually 30 days. If someone visits more than once, they are counted only the first time they visit.

“It’s sad and somewhat surprising that after all this time there is a pervasive lack of understanding … of how these numbers correlate with how to make money,” says DiPietro,who works with clients large and small as the president of the Marlton,N.J.-based DiPietro Marketing Group.

Many marketers continue to rely on basic campaign performance data as the primary or even sole metric for measuring success, according to DiPietro. People often get caught up in the measurability of online campaigns and miss the ultimate corporative objective of a marketing campaign – to increase profitability.

Despite many marketers’ incomplete understanding of how buying keywords affects the bottom line, search marketing spending continues to grow rapidly. According to a survey conducted by the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), advertisers in the U.S. and Canada spent $5.75 billion on search engine marketing in 2005, up 44 percent from 2005. Search engine marketing spending in North America is projected to reach $11 billion per year by 2010.

Some marketers whose careers started in the brick-and-mortar world have seemingly become spellbound by the top-level data for measuring marketing campaigns and forget their “old-school” fundamental tenets about increasing sales and stockholder value, according to DiPietro. Finding methods of doubling the conversion rate of a keyword campaign is admirable, but who cares if sales don’t grow? Estimating the value of a keyword purchase by focusing on clickthrough rates or increasing traffic to the website is an easy way to justify spending, but may be totally meaningless, DiPietro says.

The clickthrough ratio is analogous to the batting average in baseball – it is easy to compute and understand, and therefore is the most relied-upon statistic. However, during the past few decades, baseball executives such as the Oakland A’s Billy Beane, who probe deeper into statistics, have learned that other metrics – such as on-base percentage – are more directly related to achieving the objective (scoring more runs). The A’s have managed to succeed while spending considerably less than competitors, and many fellow baseball executives now are looking beyond the batting average. Similarly, marketers who identify the metrics that more closely correlate to their specific goals can increase their success.

MATCHING GOALS

Getting customers to your website is an important first step in increasing revenue, but determining the return on the investment requires analyzing what happens after they arrive at your doorstep. “You must have an action attached to [increasing traffic] or the campaign is useless,” says Douglas Brooks, vice president of consulting firm Marketing Management Analytics.

Before embarking on a campaign, marketers must define the objective – be it increasing leads, sales or brand recognition – and apply the appropriate metric, according to Brooks. The most appropriate metric may depend on whether the company is focused on e-commerce sales or if sales staff is usually involved in any transaction. Different yardsticks are appropriate for companies that use their website as a direct sales channel than for companies who are focused on generating leads that are converted off-line, he says.

Companies that rely on sales personnel should look at the volume of leads a campaign generates, according to Jerry Moyer, manager of analytics at interactive agency Refinery. Moyer says he tells his media clients – many of whom continue to focus on clickthrough rates – that tracking leads is a more effective barometer of campaign performance.

Campaigns that drive traffic to a website that cannot identify where visitors came from may be over- or underestimating their effectiveness, according to Moyer. By using first-party cookies and analyzing all of the activities that occur over time, advertisers can better understand the value of the leads generated.

Using cookies enables marketers to identify the unique visitors, according to Andrew Hanlon, who owns advertising agency Hanlon Creative. Cookies enable companies to track how many times a visitor was exposed to messaging during an entire campaign, as well as counting the total number of interactions on a website before visitors enter personal information and become a lead. “Unique visitors is the most raw level of success; you have to consider how many [leads resulted],” Hanlon says.

For example, Designer Linens Outlet implemented first-party cookies and saw revenue from returning customers increase by 45 percent and shopping cart conversions increase by 20 percent, according to Web analytics firm WebTrends, which managed the campaign.

Measuring the quality of leads is as important as the clickthrough ratios or total Web traffic generated by a campaign, according to Hanlon. He says many of his Hatboro, Pa., agency’s clients ($20 million to $1 billion in sales) “rarely know what they are asking for” when trying to gauge the impact of campaigns on sales.

He stresses to clients the importance of tracking leads throughout the entire sales process. “The client has to be able to act on the data – what happens with the lead after it is collected,” he says. The ability of keywords to generate leads varies widely, says Hanlon. Marketers should use metrics that create quality leads versus those that merely drive traffic.

If branding is the goal, then measuring increases in traffic can be appropriate since many keywords generate low-quality leads, Hanlon says. Companies looking to reinforce messaging through multiple media should consider several online metrics, according to Jason Palmer, vice president of product strategy at WebTrends.

LANDING CLIENTS

Some campaigns are incorrectly viewed as ineffective because of low conversion rates, according to consultant Hanlon. Landing pages that were not designed to entice visitors to delve deeper into a website could turn away potential leads, so their effectiveness must also be evaluated. Landing pages should have interesting content such as blogs or unique offers to encourage clickthroughs, says Hanlon. Companies should measure conversion ratios after visitors hit a landing page, and if they are shown to be “dead ends,” they should revise the landing pages to add more content, he says.

Software companies including WebTrends and Salesforce.com are developing applications that zero in on landing-page performance. For example, Webtrends Dynamic Search evaluates the effectiveness of the landing page and keyword in matching specific company objectives.

Tweaking the content of a landing page can increase the percentage of clicks converted to leads by as much as a factor of 10, according to Kraig Swensrud, senior director of product marketing at Salesforce.com. Tracking and improving landing-page conversions is equivalent to increasing money spent on Google AdWords, he says. “Everything is interconnected – as soon as you have visibility on [landing-page] conversion rate, you can impact change,” says Swensrud.

FROM CLICKS TO SALES

The best metrics link gains in Web traffic or clickthrough percentage to the overall business objectives – increasing sales, profitability and effect on the stock price. Consultant DiPietro recommends the break-even sales analysis is applied to off-line marketing should be applied online. Companies should calculate how many sales – based on the profit margin per average sale – would have to be generated to determine whether or not a campaign is a good investment.

“Whether it’s participating in a trade show, setting up an affiliate program or a PPC campaign, work it back to break-even sales,” DiPietro says.

Connecting the dots between Web analytics and sales data has been largely a manual process for DiPietro, who spends more hours than he would like handcrafting spreadsheets to complete his analysis.

Web analytics firms such as WebTrends, Omniture and WebSideStory are addressing this software void with applications and services that can link Web and sales data to simplify calculating the return on investment. These applications can incorporate Web data such as traffic analysis, email marketing and search marketing performance with customer relationship management sales data.

Accurately gauging the value of a campaign to a company’s bottom line, tracking a visit as it becomes a lead and until the sales cycle is completed is what should be measured, according to WebTrends’ Corey Gault. Web data should be combined with higher-level key performance indicators (KPIs) such as cost per visit, cost per lead and cost per sale, he says. “KPIs can also be combinations of various metrics, such as revenue dollar per marketing dollar spent, or percent of orders from repeat purchasers,” says Gault.

Measuring the lifetime value of online branding campaigns is challenging for companies that also sell off-line, as the ability to automate the process ends at the desktop. Refinery’s Moyer says customer surveys are an efficient method to link online with offline impressions. The surveys incorporate data collected by contacting customers about their behaviors before and after campaigns, and factor in both online and off-line (broadcast, print, outdoor) impressions. This enables companies to calculate how the campaign contributed to the overall sales effort, he says.

Metrics should factor in all of the times a company interacts with the customer, not only the most recent, which can skew performance data, according WebTrend’s Gault. “Many marketing analytics solutions credit the conversion to the last campaign touched, effectively undervaluing all the programs that initiated awareness and consideration.”

Vendors are also re-engineering their products so that sales data can automatically be integrated with Web analytics to complete the campaign-to-revenue analysis.

“The ability to tie marketing metrics with sales metrics is one of the biggest problems that customers have,” according to Salesforce.com’s Swensrud. To address the difficulty in understanding the impact of keyword purchases on sales, the company introduced Salesforce for Google Adwords late in 2006. The software, which is sold as a service, traces the leads generated by keyword purchases and follows them through the sales process to determine their return on investment.

COMPARING OPTIONS

Although comparing current campaign- to-revenue performance with historical data is informative, marketers should create a baseline of return on investment so that they understand the relative value of each type of online campaign.

The cost per thousand of a keyword campaign may seem relatively low when compared with cost of an email marketing campaign. However, determining the return on investment of each can justify what appear to be higher costs per customer contact, according to Marketing Management Analytics’ Brooks. He says calculating the individual return on investment for each type of online campaign enables an apples-to-apples comparison.

For example, the lifetime value of a customer acquired through keyword buys might be a fraction of that of someone originally contacted via email. After factoring in revenue, marketers can better decide the best marketing mix for their collective media expenditures.

The volume of statistics contained in monthly Web analytics reports can make it a challenge to interpret the metrics that matter most. The bottom line: Don’t forget about the bottom line.

JOHN GARTNER is a Portland, Ore.- based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift, and is the editor of Matter-mag.com.

Spiders Don’t Eat Spam

It’s the headline any search marketer would dread: “Google Bans BMW for Search Spamming.” For well-known companies, such bad publicity is reason enough to stay away from deceptive search practices. BMW’s plight was published in leading newspapers worldwide. But even small companies have reputations to uphold, because the blogosphere can trash a carefully cultivated image for ethics in a heartbeat.

On top of the public relations headaches, getting banned from search engines hurts your bottom line. Perhaps large companies can say their “mea culpas” and get reinstated quickly, but small companies may wait months to get back in Google’s good graces. What if your search traffic suddenly stopped?

Whatever the consequences, you must understand the terms of service of the major search engines. Google’s guidelines are located at www.google.com/webmasters/ guidelines.html (and other search engines have similar rules). Sure, a few people make a living fooling Google, but you’re not likely to be one of them.

Even if you think you can fool the search engines now, they increase their vigilance each day. Moreover, tricky techniques leave you vulnerable to being reported to the search engines by your competitors, causing an investigation. It’s safer and less work to know the rules of the road and abide by them.

Is Your Site Banned?

If your site’s pages are highly ranked in one search engine, but missing in action from another, your site may have been banned, or at least highly penalized. When search engines detect your use of spam techniques, they may ban your site (completely remove its pages from the search index) or penalize your site (remove some pages from the index, or lower your rankings from normal levels).

You should suspect a ban or penalty when:

  • Your home page can be found only by a direct search on the URL – queries for words on the page don’t work anymore.
  • The number of your site’s pages included in the search index rapidly decreases. To check, do a search for site:www.yourdomain.com to check.
  • The search engine shows fewer and fewer links to your site each month, maybe decreasing to zero. Search for link:www.yourdomain.com to find out.
  • Your site’s search engine referrals have dropped drastically in a short period of time. Use your Web metrics software to detect this situation.

If you suspect a problem, you first need to diagnose the cause. Let’s look at the technique that tripped up BMW. We’ll explore others in columns to come.

The Old Bait and Switch

BMW was caught using a spamming technique called cloaking. Cloakers employ tricks to show the search spider one version of their page and show searchers another, in a high tech version of the old “bait and switch” scam.

In BMW’s case, they coded a JavaScript that showed their normal Web pages when people looked at them with their Web browsers, but the script delivered highly optimized pages full of search keywords when spiders came to call. Google detected BMW’s use of JavaScript cloaking, but more clever methods of cloaking are harder to spot.

Some cloakers use a sophisticated technique called IP delivery, in which the spider’s name (called the user-agent name) and its IP address (the unique identification of a computer’s location on the Internet) are used to switch the page. The cloaker creates a program to dynamically serve a Web page, but that program checks the user-agent name and the IP address to decide which version of the page to show.

IP delivery is a bit more difficult to detect than JavaScript cloaking, but one clue shows up in the “cache” link in the Google results. That link shows the page as Google actually crawled it. If the cached crawled page looks significantly different than the actual page, you may be seeing a cloaker. Clever cloakers code their page as “nocache” so that Google does not show the “cache” link, but “nocache” could be a sign of funny business.

It’s sometimes acceptable to use cloaking techniques, as long as the effect is not to show one page to visitors and another to search engines. One ethical use is to deliver pages to spiders that require cookies (which spiders choke on). If you use IP delivery, make sure you present essentially the same content both to spiders and people.

My SEO Made Me Do It

BMW didn’t blame its incident on a rogue search engine optimization consultant, but many spam violations are indeed caused by unethical consultants. Understand that the search engines hold you responsible for your site’s spamming regardless of how it happened. If you want to stay out of Google jail, ask yourself some questions about any firm you are considering hiring:

  • Do they guarantee top rankings? Reputable firms don’t. Expect ironclad guarantees to be fueled by cheating, and expect those ill-gotten results to be fleeting.
  • Do they promise that you won’t have to make big changes to your site? Be suspicious of link spam if the only changes needed are weird links to other sites hidden on your pages. Those other sites are your consultant’s other clients, whom they also coerce to link to you. If it seems fishy, well, it is.
  • Do they talk about special techniques that give you an edge? Pay attention to the old bait and switch, or suffer BMW’s fate.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be working with a spammer. One way to trick the trickster is to pretend that you really want to hire a firm that does spamming. See if they promise they will. Ethical companies will try to talk you out of spamming instead.

What if you catch competitors spamming? Turn them in to the search engines. Google and the other search engines investigate each spam report and take action when warranted. When you report a spam violation, make sure you include the search term you used, the shady URL from the search results, the exact spam technique you suspect (with whatever evidence you have) and why it’s bad for searchers for this violation to continue unchecked.

We looked at cloaking today, but many spam techniques are in use that you need to be aware of. In my next column, we’ll examine content spam techniques, and finish up our three-part look at the dark side of link spam. Whatever the technique, spam leaves you vulnerable to negative publicity and outright ban by search engines, so steer clear.

MIKE MORAN is an IBM Distinguished Engineer and product manager for IBM’s OmniFind search product. Mike is also the co-author of the book Search Engine Marketing, Inc. and can be reached through his website MikeMoran.com.

Improving Conversions

Kimberly Griffiths knows all too well what it feels like to be drowning in a sea of debt. Like many Americans, she’s faced credit card charges totaling tens of thousands of dollars. The difference between Griffiths and the average credit-card-toting American is that she conquered the interest-accruing beasts.

Now Griffiths is passionate about helping others conquer it too. She figures she’s got plenty of work to do, with over $1 trillion of consumer debt in America alone. That’s why she invested her time and money into building a system designed to set others free from the bondage of minimum monthly payments that never seem to make a dent in the grand total. She dubbed her online reduction strategy “One Paycheck at a Time.” It includes a book and online tools to help consumers reduce their debt, well, one paycheck at a time.

A debt-free Griffiths, though, still has one problem. Her own need to earn weekly paychecks to remain in the black keeps her from pursuing her passion to help others on a full-time basis. Her goal is to transform the lackluster OnePayCheckAtATime.com site into a revenue-generating machine that will allow her to quit her day job and focus all of her efforts on helping the millions of Americans who are stressed out over swelling credit card bills.

Meeting that goal means making some changes to her site. It seems despite her best efforts over the past 12 months to optimize her landing page, Griffiths still isn’t getting a high rate of sales. She’s tried just about everything she knows to do, from paying search engines for traffic to working with affiliates to arranging link agreements with partner sites. She has succeeded on one note – the traffic is fairly healthy. Unfortunately the conversion rate has never climbed above 1 percent. A frustrated Griffiths is left wondering what she is doing wrong. At first glance the site is pretty enough. The colors are eye-pleasing and the design is clean and up to date. Of course, anyone reading this column for any length of time knows that a pretty site with nice colors isn’t what we’re all about.

By Design Makeover - Before and After Going Beyond Pretty

Despite passing the “pretty” test, I identified a major problem before even completing the second glance. I couldn’t figure out what the site was selling. I understood the idea. It’s spelled out in the main image: “Create the life you want by becoming debt free.” Great! I’m all for that. But how, exactly, does this site help me to become debt free? Moving on, I look to the tagline for some clarification. Apparently the site offers “a no-nonsense strategy for becoming debt free.” Okay, so I am buying a strategy. But what does that mean exactly? I’m not sure.

Next I see a long form that’s asking for all sorts of information – including my credit card number. Now I’m really getting uncomfortable. I’d like to know exactly what it is I’m buying before handing over this sensitive information. And on top of that, I don’t even know how much this vaguely defined “strategy” is going to cost me. Finally my brain moves to all those words in the middle of the page – the “benefits” list. But like most users I’m just not going to take the time to read all those words. At this point, I would rather just click the “back” button on my browser and find another quick fix to my debt problem.

Here’s my point. This site fails to answer a fundamental question: What is it selling? Also, since it’s asking for credit card information: How much does it cost? The good news is that these two questions can be answered with some design tweaks, as opposed to a full visual overhaul. So let’s get to work.

To more clearly illustrate what the site is selling, I took three steps. First I changed the message in the main graphic. I wanted to incorporate the words “online system” so that people could immediately see what the site is selling. Next I updated the tagline to read: “The online budgeting system for becoming debt free.” Last I moved the screenshots above the fold so users would see them without having to scroll down, and added “View Larger” links so users could easily preview the interface for these tools without squinting.

I then brought in a highly targeted focus group to see if I had accomplished my goal. Enter Anthony Sostre, my 10-year-old son. I believe a good website should communicate its most basic message so plainly that even a preteen can figure it out. I showed him the original site and asked the million-dollar question: What is this site selling? After about 10 seconds of ums and uhs, he responded with an unsure, “Something about debt?” Next I showed him the redesigned site and asked the same question. Before I have time to start counting down the seconds, he boldly declared, “An online system for debt” and walked away. (Apparently I had used up enough of his short attention span.) The new design had passed the test. The new message is the main focal point and people should know immediately what the site sells.

Now to address the pricing issue” I have a theory: If you can avoid a problem, you should by all means do so. So in this case, I recommended that we shorten the form and not ask for credit card info right on the home page. Instead we made signing up for the program a two-step process and ask for payment in the second step. Additionally I added “Pricing” as a main navigation item so that anyone who’s interested can find it easily. No last-minute surprises.

On a macro level, I took out all that text that no one reads. (We can save lengthy text for the “About” page or some other lower-level page.) This made the landing page much shorter. I also made the form a little wider. The idea was to clear out a little more real estate on the page to allow the form more prominent positioning. I also highlighted the free bonus materials, which were always there but nearly impossible to see in the original design. Oh, and I also put a photo of Griffiths at the bottom of the page with a link to her full story so those who are struggling with debt would know that Griffiths knows what she’s talking about. She’s been there. This adds the personal touch that will make a certain percentage of users more comfortable with the product. At the end of the day, Griffiths will increase her sales one conversion at a time, and with a redesigned home page, she is well-positioned to help many consumers understand how she can help them get out of debt.

Would you like your website to be the focus of a future edition of a By Design Makeover? Send your name, company, contact information (phone, email, etc.), a brief description of your business and its goals, and, of course, your URL to bydesign@sostreassoc.com. Please put “Revenue’s By Design Makeover” in the subject line.

PEDRO SOSTRE is pioneering Conversion Design and its ability to turn online shoppers into online buyers. He serves as president of Sostre & Associates, an Internet consulting, design and development firm, which also promotes affiliate programs on its network of websites. Visit www.SostreAssoc.com to learn more.

Online Is Sweet

Food has recently been called everything from the new theater to the new porn. Regardless of how you think about food, you certainly can’t avoid it.

Food has become America’s No. 1 obsession and food companies – from providers of high-end gourmet goodies to those feeding the fast-food nation – are battling to get on the dinner plates of today’s consumers.

And because everybody has to eat, the opportunities are enormous. Consider this: Americans spend 10 percent of their disposable income on food. The typical American household spent an average of $2,434 on food purchases away from home.

The channels for reaching this lucrative marketplace are just as vast. Recent buzz suggests that food companies are spending or planning to spend less of their advertising budget on traditional forms of media in favor of the Internet. But just how much of food companies’ advertising budget will be allocated to online initiatives and how quickly that will take place varies depending on the brand, the brand’s audience and who’s responding to the question.

Tom Vierhile, executive editor of Datamonitor’s Productscan Online, which covers the release of new merchandise, thinks that the CPG (consumer product goods) industry, which includes food, is getting away from traditional advertising because of rampant media fragmentation, something it considers to be a major problem.

Gene Dillard, president of FoodWise, a marketing communications agency that has worked with clients such as Borden Milk and Tyson Foods, agrees that traditional forms of advertising like print are declining because “there are too many different publications that have divided the market so much.” He says advertisers are using the Web because it is more targeted and cost efficient and says there is a trend of moving more ad dollars online. He recommends his clients should “spend 15 percent of their budget online at the minimum.”

Joseph Jaffe, creator of the popular new marketing blog, Jaffe Juice, and previous director of interactive media at TBWA/Chiat/Day, says that food companies are using the Internet more but not leveraging it to its full potential.

“Food companies and CPGs have always prided themselves on their analytical marketing mix modeling and want to be able to look to what has worked for them in the past and repeat it,” Jaffe says. “But this will not work anymore because the industry is changing so quickly and exponentially and there is much that is not predicable.”

New Recipe For Success

Although food companies lag a bit behind other industries, Jaffe says he believes they are increasing their online advertising spending based on two main reasons. One is that Internet display advertising rose 18.9 percent for the first half of 2006 over the first half of 2005 according to TNS Media Intelligence (this does not include paid search advertising.) Jaffe says he believes that spending by food companies accounts for part of this substantial increase.

Reason number two: Many food companies have increased their overall advertising budgets in the last year and Jaffe believes this includes online spending. October’s Advertising Age’s Top 200 Brands found that for the first half of 2006, Campbell’s advertising spending was up 63.8 percent, Kellogg’s increased by 17.8 percent and M&M’s spent 11 percent more than in 2005.

Lisa Phillips, an analyst who covers the CPG space for eMarketer, says food companies are spending more online recently but not at the same pace as other industries such as cosmetics or pharmaceuticals.

“When it comes to product launches for food, companies are still using television.” For example, according to Nielsen//NetRatings AdRelevance AdAcross, for the period of August 2005 to July 2006, Sara Lee spent 52.3 percent of its advertising budget on network and cable television (see chart below).

Nielsen//NetRatings AdRelevance found that large food companies spent relatively small percentages on Internet display advertising (in this case, image-based impressions, which include popups, banners that scroll by, etc., but do not include sponsored search link ads or other types of Internet marketing). Altria, the parent company of Kraft, allocated 1.1 percent; Sara Lee spent 1.5 percent; while Heinz’s ketchup allocated 2.2 percent and McDonald’s spent 22.7 percent.

It’s hard to get specific numbers as analysts don’t break out food advertising separately from CPG advertising. JupiterResearch defines CPGs as food, beverages, alcohol, household products, cosmetics and beauty aids, and personal care products. Analyst Emily Riley of JupiterResearch says “CPG spending makes up only 5 percent of total online spending. Currently about 90 percent of it is display advertising such as banners, sweepstakes and sponsorships.”

However, JupiterResearch predicts that CPG spending will increase substantially in the next three years and that compound annual growth will be at 10.5 percent between 2005 and 2010 for display advertising, from $385 million to $632 million.

Aside from display advertising, what else are food-related companies doing online? Phillips says, “Food companies are still figuring out how to use the Web ” and they are definitely spending a lot of money trying to do it.” Online initiatives that attract, engage and retain users such as coupon and recipe downloads, features that foster community and sites that position themselves as information resources are among the most popular.

These bells and whistles seem to be effective ways to drive traffic. According to comScore Media Metrix, approximately 38.2 million Web users visited food sites in September – up 15 percent from last year. Comparing July 2005 with July 2006, Food Network.com had a traffic increase of 21 percent; AllRecipes.com is up 51 percent; and About Food increased by 44 percent. Many of these websites are e-tailers and are leveraging the Web with good results.

One of them is Omaha Steaks, which has been online since 1990 with CompuServe, then with its own site since 1995. Omaha Steaks’ communication director, Beth Weiss, says the online part of their business is the fastest growing and credits their aggressive affiliate campaign, which is run by LinkShare and had 2,800 active affiliates for the month of August 2006.

Weiss explains that as a direct marketing company, 97 to 98 percent of its budget is spent on things that go directly to the consumer, like sending catalogs and emails to their 2.2 million active customers who buy regularly.

“We do very little newspaper or television – only a small amount to promote for the holidays and we do no radio because historically it has not worked for us,” Weiss says. “Our target demographics are differently structured depending on where the customer shops. If they mail order or use the 1-800 number, they tend to be older; younger customers tend to be online. The thing that crosses over all the marketing channels is that because our products are high end, we market to affluent people ” they travel and read, and most are in their late 40s and above.”

What the Big Kids Are Eating

It seems that affluent people in their late 40s or older are the sweet spot for many high-end online food purveyors.

Richard Gore, president of Culinary Entertainment Group (CEG), says “food entertainment space” is driven by boomers who go to three-hour restaurant meals as an evening’s entertainment. “Boomers don’t want to stay out late to go to a concert; they have the money to spend, and they are much more interested in food than earlier generations.”

CEG’s March 2007 introduction of Food University – high-end cooking events with an accompanying website – is targeted at boomers. To reach boomers with an estimated split of approximately 60 percent female and 40 percent male in regions such as Chicago, Jacksonville, and Houston, Gore says they are using a mix of print, local radio and local cable, with “events like celebrity chef tours, where the public can mix with their favorite chefs, and provide companies involved with a huge array of experiential marketing opportunities. People see a product and how it’s being used, sample it and they’re hooked,” he says.

Food University, through a partnership with Wyndham Resorts, will engage the American public in learning how to cook more adventurous fare by providing access to celebrity chefs like Martin Yan and Sara Moulton.

Benefiting from this exposure to celebrity chefs are many high-end food purveyors, including two e-tailers, Cooking.com and igourmet.com. Both have realized revenue increases in the past year; igourmet.com’s by 50 percent. Marketing manager of Cooking.com Kari Taylor explains that “the popularity of celebrity chefs and food television has driven awareness and increased demand of cooking products”; some of their more popular products include high-dollar items like Zojirushi bread machines, Calphalon cookware and Capresso coffee machines.

Tracy Chesman, vice president of sales at igourmet.com, a purveyor of 700 cheeses and hard-to-find specialty foods such as Douwe Egberts coffee, says there has been an increased interest in gourmet foods due to the accessibility that consumers have to cooking media such as cable television and the Internet.

“We got a lot of increased traffic when Emeril was on the Food Network and talked about Maytag cheese,” Chesman says.

She adds that igourmet.com saw an increase in sales of a specific type of walnut oil when a magazine article recommended it, which showed the company there was a direct reaction from communication in the media.

The Search For Food

Both companies – igourmet and Cooking.com – credit affiliate marketing and search marketing as key drivers of their business. Cooking.com has an affiliate program run by Commission Junction and their top affiliates include eBates and Upromise.

igourmet.com has outsourced its affiliate program to outsourced program management company Pepperjam.com since 2000 and says that since its launch, sales have increased every single year.

“A huge part of igourmet.com’s success is due to the affiliates – who are essential,” says Michael Jones, COO of Pepperjam. Through igourmet.com’s LinkShare program, they can see that the amount of producing affiliates is increasing. Pepperjam says igourmet.com’s top “affiliates are loyalty programs like Upromise, Ebates, MyPoints and American Airlines AAdvantage, as well as the niche gourmet site, BacchusSellers.”

Jones adds that igourmet.com has very active and aggressive campaigns on Google, Yahoo and MSN and that search generates a large part of their business. Jones claims igourmet.com is the No. 1 listing for “gourmet cheese” and they “maximize campaigns organically on the natural listing through search engine optimization as well as through pay per click.”

Women In the Kitchen and Online

Both igourmet.com and Cooking.com say women make up the majority of their customers. For Cooking.com, their target audience is 35-to-65-year-old women with an interest in cooking, or empty nesters or mothers with younger children. The bulk of igourmet.com’s customers are mostly middle to upper class and clustered in metropolitan areas on the East Coast with a higher percentage of females (55 percent).

The 55 percent figure is in step with findings from comScore Media Metrix. They found that in July 2006, affluent females were the most popular demographic segment among food site visitors, with a 54.4 percent share.

However, vice president of research for BIGresearch, Joe Pilotta, warns that food companies should not jump to conclusions about who uses the Internet to shop for food. He said that in August 2006, BIGresearch did a survey of 15,000 people about the media influences for purchasing food and found that “the normal kind of intuitive thinking is not correct.”

Pilotta says that people who have a lower income use the Web a lot to comparison shop online before they go shopping. For example, a budget-oriented mother of young children will go online to check the food prices for items such as chicken and crackers at Safeway versus Albertson’s while preparing her shopping list before she gets in the car.

Many food sites are targeting Gen-Xers including CNET’s Chow.com, which is aimed at 25-to-45-year-olds, whom they believe are passionate about food but possibly not very skilled at preparing it. Chow.com, which launched in September 2006, includes the popular discussion boards of Chowhound.com and video tutorials on subjects like how to dice an onion, as well as recipes, restaurant reviews, party tips and coverage of food marketing.

SlashFood, a blog that is part of Weblogs.com, is another food site whose audience is primarily 25-to-45-year-olds. Sarah Gim, editor of SlashFood, says the site has easily built up traffic month-over-month since it launched in August of 2005. She says that their team of paid bloggers covers a gamut of topics, from food news to restaurant reviews to food culture, and credits the site’s popularity to the fact that “food in general is more popular than 10 years ago and many readers are motivated by issues concerning health.”

The Food Network is the most exhaustive example of a television and Web channel that has experimented with targeting everyone from foodies to newbies. The Food Network reaches 90 million homes in the United States and the core audience is 25 to 54, more female than male.

However, male viewers increase and the average age of viewers falls in the evenings, which is why shows that are similar to competitive sports, such as “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” succeed. “Iron Chef” is one of Food Network’s most popular, attracting many from outside its normal demographic – in particular, the core 18-to-49-year-old male demographic.

In October 2006, a 20-part series and accompanying website called “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie” kicked off on PBS. It introduces viewers to exotic ingredients and in-the-know chefs on an international level. According to an August 2006 Nielsen Media Research poll, 38.7 percent of PBS viewers make more than $60,000 per household and 30.8 percent have a four-year college education.

So how can food marketers reach such a wide swath of users online – who range in age, gender, education and geographic location? Because of the abundance of websites, Jupiter’s Riley says “food companies typically use interactive agencies to plan their media spending for them. The agencies will often partner with well-known content sites using demographic targeting information.” While many food companies want to drive potential customers to their websites, Riley says the ultimate goal is to provide an engaging brand experience. Food companies seek to do this through a variety of interactive components.

Interactive Is On the Front Burner

One effective component that Sara Lee used for its “Soft & Smooth Whole Grain Wheat Bread” campaign was word of mouth, which was created by AllRecipes.com to reach mothers of school-age children.

AllRecipes.com, which also provided the campaign’s recipe feature, created a custom consumer panel where qualified home cooks were invited to try their new product for free. AllRecipe.com’s vice president of marketing and partner affairs, Esmee Williams, explains that “an invitation was advertised in areas of the site where influencers were most likely to spend time.” Influencers (members who submit content and share opinions) were asked to fill out a short survey; those who fit the defined target profile were provided with online coupons good for 70 to 100 percent off a loaf of the bread.

More than 15,000 people participated, most of them in the target market. Seventy percent of the audience downloaded the coupon, and 40 percent redeemed it.

“Those who agreed to participate in the ‘taste test’ panel were also provided exclusive access to a co-branded microsite where they could share their feedback, submit recipes utilizing the product as an ingredient or forward product recommendations accompanied by a product coupon to friends,” Williams says.

Many food companies have microsites, which create environments that foster a relationship between a specific brand and audience. Among the most successful is KraftFoods.com, which frequently has been the No. 1 branded food domain during the past five years. According to Jupiter’s Riley, it has become a full-fledged destination site with recipes that incorporate Kraft products to appeal to busy moms as well as community message boards where users can swap ideas, and which Kraft can respond to and monitor.

Paula Sneed, Kraft’s executive vice president of global marketing resources, said in her keynote speech at the DMA conference in October that interaction with customers is imperative.

“We need to talk to consumers to find out their underlying motivations ” to succeed, it’s all about customer insights,” Sneed says.

eMarketer’s Phillips says food companies read user-generated content in blogs and message boards “to see which way the wind is blowing before they launch a product – it is an online focus group that offers feedback.”

In October 2006, Kraft partnered with MSN to launch Chef to the Rescue segments, which are four-to-five-minute videos that can be downloaded on demand, so users watch them at their convenience. They feature celebrity chef Cat Cora creating meals based on recipes from KraftFoods.com and are a way that Kraft serves its target audience of time-crunched mothers. Sneed explains that this is “the type of next-generation advertising that adds value to its core customer.”

Kraft Foods, along with Masterfoods USA and Sheraton Hotels & Resorts are among the initial sponsors of Yahoo Food, a section that Yahoo launched in November that offers visitors recipes, food-related articles, blog posts, celebrity interviews and video.

Intended for sophisticates as well as casual cooks, Yahoo Food offers original and syndicated content including articles from the magazine Every Day with Rachel Ray, recipes from Epicurious, original posts from 13 food bloggers like The New York Times writer Ed Levine and video from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. The site also will include a Yahoo video show, “Cheap and Easy,” with clips advising users how to make dishes for not more than $5 in less than five minutes.

Diners Eat Up Video

Videos and webisodes are now de rigueur components of many food-related websites with the hopes that these elements will become viral. eMarketer’s Phillips explains that the goal is to have users find it authentic and pass it to each other, and says that today it is easy for companies “to post something on YouTube and see if it goes viral.” She says a great example that was sent to her is Smirnoff’s Tea Partay video, which is a send-up of a gangster rap song, set in Greenwich, Conn.

Another viral marketing campaign, “Long John Silver’s Shrimp Buddy,” is about a guy going on a road trip with a man in a shrimp suit. It has received good and bad critiques from online users, which exemplifies the dangers of viral marketing campaigns that lack credibility. One blogger wrote, “It’s the weakest viral campaign I have seen” and another criticized that “It’s about as genuine as Coke’s summer road trip commercials with a bunch of teenagers encountering spontaneous poetry reads and magic shows.”

Perhaps the most well-known viral campaign for a food company is Burger King’s Subservient Chicken site, which had a million hits within a day after being released, and received 20 million hits within a week. Users could control the movement of a man dressed up like a chicken by typing commands such as “do jumping jacks,” “dance” or “watch TV.” Joseph Jaffe explains that this type of engaging interaction with customers is incredibly valuable because it is more of an opt-in media versus TV, which is mass media that everybody sees. Jaffe says the average user of the Subservient Chicken site spent 7.5 voluntary minutes there. “That’s 15 30-second spots and I bet that’s worth 50 30-second spots because the viewer is engaged the whole time, he says.”

A Web campaign that includes a podcast or user-generated content requires the person to register and therefore guarantees interactivity. And by engaging with users, companies are building awareness and keeping their brand top of mind. Food companies like Burger King and Campbell’s Soup are not trying to sell Whoppers or cans of tomato soup over the Internet – they are trying to build online relationships with users with the hope that the brand experience will follow them off-line and make them brand loyalists. eMarketer’s Phillips says companies will use every interactive angle possible to engage with customers – from word-of-mouth campaigns, to ringtones, to sweepstakes, to advergames.

eMarketer’s James Belcher predicts that advergames and in-game advertising are “small but growing and important” and points to Microsoft’s 2006 purchase of Massive, a maker of in-game advertising, as proof of the momentum.

In-game advertising places targeted ads inside video games – such as on billboards as a player skateboards down a street – and serves different billboards to different users depending on their geography and age. The technology is now attracting deep-pocketed corporate sponsors who see video games as a great way to reach desirable audiences such as young males.

Sara Lee, department store Kohl’s and chip maker AMD are experimenting with in-game advertising with the sponsorship of a series of online games called “The Flushed Away Underground Adventure” that launched on AOL in October. The game called on players of all ages to solve a series of challenges that feature characters from the movie “Flushed Away.” Sponsors have an online presence in the games as well as plug their products in customized pre-roll video ads and banners.

Marketers will be interested to know that according to October’s comScore Media Metrix’s Game Metrix, a study that analyzes gamers’ cross-platform behaviors, 37 percent of heavy gamers agreed that featuring actual products or companies in games makes them feel more realistic, and half of heavy gamers believe that it is inevitable and will be in all or most games in the future. The study also found that video games appeal to not just teenage males or children – on average, gamers are 41 and have an annual income of $55,000; females account for 52 percent of the gaming audience.

A July 2006 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, based on analysis of 77 branded food websites that are targeted at kids, found that 73 percent of the sites contained advergames, ranging from one to more than 60 games per site. McDonald’s Ronald.com has pages for kids to color, and Capncrunch.com, which promotes the Quaker Oats cereal, offers screen savers.

M&M’s has launched advergames designed for all ages. In October, they introduced the advergame “50 Dark Movies Hidden in a Painting,” which features a Brueghel-style painting with a series of visual riddles where players move around the screen and find the 50 movie titles represented by the characters in the painting.

Another advergame, the M&M’s Trivia Game, asks questions like, “Who drives the NASCAR M&M race car?” which for most users require them to search for the answers. Kevin Ryan, CEO of multichannel advertising agency Kinetic Results, explains that CPG companies like M&M’s are incentivizing users to search on their brand for the answers. “It is all about building an experience,” Ryan says. “It is not likely people are going to buy M&M’s online – they just want people to interact with the brand. It is a prototypical experience.”

The Search For Sustenance

Ryan believes, “There is a tremendous amount of opportunity in using search as a brand conduit ” it is the foundation for growth in the next couple of years,” he says. “There is a big value for search beyond direct response.”

Search is a very effective way of valuing and measuring the impact of investments in other types of media; for example, marketers can use search as a way of monitoring the effectiveness of a TV campaign, as they will see spikes in search activity immediately after the campaign launches.

Cam Balzer, vice president of strategy planning for Performics, agrees that search is helpful for branding efforts. He says that initially some food marketers and CPGs did not see the value in buying keywords if they did not convert, but marketers are starting to understand that consumers are not always looking for immediate gratification. “Marketers are realizing there is value in buying a keyword like ‘turkey’ because although a user might not be ready to buy a turkey at that moment, they might be searching on the word while they think about the kind of turkey to prepare for the holidays.”

Of course, some keyword buys do convert well. “Some of our clients are in the food-gifting business so they buy terms like ‘holiday pears’ and ‘holiday popcorn basket.’ Those words get costly but they convert very well and the high costs pay off. It is the direct market companies that leverage those,” Balzer says.

For the most part, it seems that food companies are just starting to realize the potential of search to engage their audiences. Balzer says, “A lot of food companies are strictly promoting their brand online and they need to reach beyond people who know about them to engage new consumers. For example, there are not many players for search terms like ‘healthy snacks’ or ‘healthy meats.’ Those words are not used by the household brand names like you would think and that is where the opportunity lies.”

Performics has worked with a meat-related food company and says that contextual targeting has performed well for building awareness of its product. Balzer says, “We have seen success with what they call ‘flavor conquesting,’ which means that one brand buys another brand’s keywords. For one client – if we were buying for a turkey product, we would buy ham in the content-targeting network so if someone is reading an article about ham sandwiches, the turkey ad pops up. We know the reader is interested in a similar food product [in this case a deli meat sandwich].”

Jupiter’s Riley says over the next few years, CPG spending on search “will grow a lot,” from $40 million in 2005 to $128 million in 2010, a compound annual growth rate of 26 percent. Search is by far the most lucrative area, accounting for 40 percent of the total online ad spending in the U.S., according to JupiterResearch.

For food companies to take advantage of search, they need to have good search engine marketing programs that are concerned with both paid and organic listings. Gary Angel, CEO of SEMphonic, a search engine marketing analytics consultancy, says, “Organic listings are an incredible value since they are essentially uncharged exposure. In addition, more clicks come from organic listings than paid; so organic listings are the No. 1 potential traffic source.”

Angel claims that paid listings provide coverage across a breadth of terms that can’t possibly be highly rated organically, scale programs to drive traffic beyond organic levels as well as allow companies to control the landing page and message given to consumers.

He says many companies have shifted significant resources into organic optimization in the last year – since this was an area that was significantly underutilized. He says that paid advertising really skyrocketed two years ago and has remained very strong – but many companies have essentially reached a plateau.

Online Offers Steak and Sizzle

Search is one of the channels through which Niman Ranch, a premium brand of meat, is acquiring new customers on a pay-for-performance basis. Niman Ranch pays its online marketing agency, LSF Interactive, only when new Web visitors buy – not for visitors that browse but don’t buy (leads) and not for existing customers that purchase again (repeat customers).

The comprehensive campaign includes search, email, banner advertising and comparison shopping engines such as Shopzilla and Yahoo’s shopping comparison tool.

Daniel Laury, CEO of LSF Interactive, explains that because they are compensated on a pay-for-performance basis, their job is to get the best conversion rates, which they do by tweaking the ad copy and landing pages and by fine-tuning their targeting. He says that recruitment through email and banners enables them to target users better.

According to Kinetic Results’ Ryan, companies have to foray into advertising on multichannels in order to reach audiences who are increasingly not only online but multitasking while they are online. Today people are on their computers instant messaging, while emailing and playing a video game. They have the television on in the background while they talk on their mobile phones. While they flip through the newspaper on the bus, they are listening to the radio or to their iPods. To reach these multitaskers, food companies have to develop campaigns that integrate several components.

An example of this is “Sara Lee’s Joy of Eating” campaign, which is being promoted on Sirius Satellite Radio’s Martha Stewart Living Radio channel and with an interactive presence on the Sirius website. The campaign also includes television ads, a Sara Lee microsite, online advertising, point-of-sale and visuals on packaging and bakery delivery trucks.

Some think that the Internet will never be a main channel for major food brands to reach customers. Datamonitor’s Productscan Online’s Vierhile believes that “There is no real compelling reason for consumers to visit food company sites except for recipes, which are really a one-off.” He believes that if anything has changed over the last 20 years, it is that food companies “have to get the products on the shelf.” To accomplish this, Vierhile thinks that food companies are focusing more on product packaging and in-store promotion.

In-store promotion includes free samples, shelf-edge talkers, in-store coupons, advertisements on conveyor belts, messages on the floor as well as in-store media on TV monitors. According to an August 2006 BIGresearch Simultaneous Media Survey of over 15,000 people, the top media influences for purchasers include in-store promotion – with the most significant influencer being coupons (see chart below).

A Mobile Feast

BIGResearch’s Pilotta says that “Coupons are still very effective even though approximately 1 percent are redeemed.” According to a Prospectiv October 2005 study, approximately 10.5 percent of consumers get their coupons from online sources, about 30 percent of consumers said they would like to receive coupons through online channels and more than half would like to receive coupons online if they were tailored to their interests.

A growing alternative to sending coupons inserted in newspapers is to send them in email newsletters. Email Data Source says that supermarkets that send email newsletters are successful in driving traffic to their Web properties. Supermarkets’ weekly newsletters offer specific targeting, can be personalized and include recipes, online specials and links to weekly ads.

Another innovative way for food merchants to deliver coupons and offers is through mobile marketing platforms including ipsh, VeriSign’s m-Qube, Motricity’s GoldPocket Wireless and MobileLime’s Mobile Rewards.

“Mobile advertising is better than online advertising – it is much more targeted,” says Bob Wesley, president and CEO of MobileLime. “The merchant can communicate with their customers before, during and after each purchase transaction, directly influencing buying behaviors at the point of sale. It is the ultimate in one-to-one communication because a person’s cell phone is a unique ID that is portable.”

For example, Chevy Chase Supermarket is using MobileLime’s Mobile Rewards platform to offer its patrons information-based alerts and instant savings on items store-wide through their mobile phones. Chevy Chase Supermarket was able to tell its customers that they were having a limited- time offer on Edie’s ice cream. This drove a large crowd of customers to stop by the store for the ice cream and also helped to increase loyalty sales on other items for which Chevy Chase sent alerts while shoppers were in the store.

In September 2006, Go-Tan, an Asian food brand, ran a marketing experiment in a supermarket in the Netherlands. Customers shopping in the supermarket (and anyone walking within a 100-meter distance) who had an open Bluetooth connection were reached by a contact request from the Go-Tan device about discounted Go-Tan products available in the store. More than 25 percent of Dutch mobile users leave their Bluetooth with an open connection, which means that Bluetooth could prove to be an appealing channel to establish direct and immediate communication with end users.

Food seems to be a natural match for the Internet. People love to talk about food and share food with others – and foodrelated sites are capitalizing on this social nature by offering various social media tools. It is predicted that food-related sites will continue to grow as interest continues – Yahoo indicated that they launched Yahoo Food because they saw it as a big opportunity and anticipate that CPG companies as well as health and diet companies will buy inventory in the section.

While the Internet is not the No. 1 channel for reaching consumers, most everyone agrees that it is vital for food companies to have an online presence. The KraftFoods.com URL is featured along with the 1-800 number on Kraft’s brand packaging, in their advertising and in Kraft’s Food and Family magazine. If food companies want to reach consumers with a multichannel campaign, Kraft Foods’ Sneed points out that all of the disciplines have to be integrated to maximize the potential for effectiveness.

For example, in 2006, Kraft Foods employed many marketing channels when they wanted to target Easy Mac macaroni and cheese cups to college kids instead of mothers. Kraft Foods used print ads, television spots and built a youthful and innovative website called Scam Some Mac, which includes short videos, an advergame and a viral element that lets you ask others to send you some mac & cheese.

Consumers can expect to see more pioneering online campaigns as food companies increase their spending on Internet initiatives in hopes of engaging users. With the growing amount of traffic to food-related sites, food companies will throw money at their online efforts although some will wonder if online exposure leads to off-line conversion.

Jaffe points out that people can tune out a television commercial with a remote control and ignore a magazine ad by turning the page, but to watch a video or participate in a sweepstakes online, users are required to register. Jaffe says that, “People are always trying to measure the value of an online campaign but maybe people should be trying to validate the value of an off-line campaign.”

In the end, it is finding an optimal mix of media, including Internet initiatives, which will move a company forward. Kraft Foods’ Sneed says, “Companies should not be afraid of trying new and innovation online campaigns – they need to be leaders, not followers.”