Tips for Optimizing SEM Efforts, Part 1

Search engine marketing has long been a top driver of online traffic and a key area of investment for e-commerce merchants. After all, using search engines as a resource dominates online life for all users. Consumers turn to search engines specifically for shopping-related queries. According to Forrester Research, 83 percent of online consumers conduct product research prior to purchasing and 39 percent of first-time online purchasers begin their shopping with search.

Merchants have responded to this behavior by investing in optimizing their sites to rank well in organic listings (search engine optimization), as well as by budgeting significant dollars for paid search advertisements (SEM). To build an effective search marketing program on a realistic budget, focus on quality rather than quantity. Choose the right opportunities to maximize visibility to the right audience rather than trying to stretch thin to cover too much territory. You can accomplish this by doing the following:

  • putting as much effort into planning as into execution;
  • balancing your spending and search strategies between the best search engines for your target customers as well as between natural versus paid search optimization; and
  • fine-tuning your paid search campaigns to target audiences to make your budget go further.

Prerequisites for optimizing SEM
Before leaping into campaign building and site optimization, it’s critical to research and plan your SEO/SEM strategies. Specifically, you should follow these steps:

1. Know which keywords are worth investment. This is imperative to gaining a firm understanding of which search terms users prefer or which are most competitive for paid search advertising. Use keyword research tools to identify the right key words. Competition for top pay-per-click keywords is fierce. Both Google and Bing offer keyword tools for insight into which terms shoppers use and how competitive these are for paid search.

Google’s tool is based on paid search data. Be sure to select “exact match” and use the advanced options to filter by device types such as desktop/laptop and mobile. Bing’s tool is based on organic search data, but requires site registration and verification.

2. Analyze your site’s search logs to focus on specific terms your shoppers are using. For example, “window treatment” is an industry word; shoppers search using “curtains” or “blinds” much more commonly. Mine other internal data such as keywords used in the subject lines or calls to action of successful email campaigns.

3. Study your competitors. Use the keyword tools to view the most popular keyword searches on their sites and study their site content to see which terms are emphasized.

4. Use paid search to test the validity of keyword terms. Allocate a portion of your paid ad spending for keyword research. Since paid search advertising can be enacted quickly and offers instant results, this is a handy way to vet keyword terms before incorporating them into your site for SEO purposes.

5. Determine whether to plan for search engines other than Google. Google is far and away the dominant search engine with 66.4 percent market share, attracting 47 percent of the world’s web traffic daily. However, Bing is the default browser for Internet Explorer users, with 87 percent of its traffic coming from that browser. The demographics for Google and Bing also differ, but in general it’s cost effective to design your strategies based on Google’s requirements and modify as needed for other search engines rather than devising separate plans for each.

6. Analyze how your shoppers interact with natural versus paid search results. Although studies have repeatedly shown that consumers favor “natural,” unpaid search results generated by search engines over paid search placement, searches with a specific commercial intent are a different matter. Natural search results may drive more volume but paid search placements can bring more focused prospects to your website. Use analytics to determine your ideal mix of natural versus paid search strategies.

Organic SEO: building reputation for higher ranking
To improve your rankings in organic search results, it’s no longer enough to focus on site content alone. Google continues to refine its search algorithm, shifting the emphasis to quality based on websites’ on-page content as well as the nature and reputation of inbound links that sites attract. Therefore, you now have to cultivate an SEO reputation carefully. Deliver fresh, relevant content on your site and cultivate linking relationships with trusted sites.

While “content is king,” it’s important to consider not only quality but also the timing of content production and release. Certain content optimization basics still work, but new rules also apply. Consider the following:

1. Keep it fresh. Updating your site regularly not only attracts more frequent indexing by search engines, but “freshness” now factors into relevance, too. Google now rewards more recent content based on factors such as when a page was first indexed, how old it is relative to other potential search results, and how much of a document has been updated. A continual stream of new content also provides more fodder for social media, which has growing importance in rankings.

If you can’t update your selection of products offered, there are ways to continually modify a range of related content to boost freshness for SEO and keep shoppers engaged.

  • Spotlight the latest user-generated content such as product reviews or posts to a Q&A support forum.
  • Showcase expert, keyword-rich content such as blog posts, seasonal buying guides, FAQs and educational articles to provide fresh, keyword-rich content for search engines.
  • Post your own original content before sharing it with affiliates or other retailers.
  • Tailor manufacturer content to your audienceto not only create original material for search engines, but a better experience for shoppers.

2. Plan ahead. Don’t rely on changes to rankings based on your optimization efforts. The standard time frame for changes to affect rankings remains 30 days to 45 days, which means you must balance timeliness with long-term planning. How?

  • Keep the look fresh while anchoring key text. Crucial internal links should remain in place on the homepage and gateway pages, but you can create an overlay to layer critical text on images that can be swapped out according to the season.
  • Begin elevating seasonal content well in advance — at least 45 days before you hope to rank well for that content — which may require juggling promotions. In early October, kitchen retailer Sur La Table featured a Halloween link prominently while also featuring links for Thanksgiving preparations and a section for holiday shops.

Off-page opportunities: creating quality links
Inbound links are crucial to organic search engine rankings, and quality matters more than quantity. Beyond simply avoiding purchased links from brokers, you must now curate inbound links carefully and cultivate ties to sites with stellar reputations. With social media playing an ever-larger role in organic rankings, you can generate even more relevant and fresh inbound links. Try the following to hone in on the best off-page prospects:

1. Think local. Searches with keywords without location information are increasingly producing results listings that include localized suggestions via search engine tools such as Google Places or Yahoo Local. Localized information is crucial for mobile shoppers looking to locate products on the go. Meet this growing segment of specialized search results by enhancing on-site store locator information with a unique page for each outlet, then optimize off-site listings to match. Most local directories also offer the opportunity for businesses to “claim” their pages and add information such as store hours and the types of products and services.