The Search is On

Ask any long-time market-watchers — people who’ve seen economic conditions rise and fall — and most will give you the same advice during a downturn: Stick to the basics. In the investment community, basics might include: remain liquid, shop for value, invest for the long term, look for undervalued opportunities and diversify. Those same basics are easily applied to online marketing.

The pillar of online marketing is natural search. The better a Web site is optimized, the more likely it is to position well on the search engines. Highly positioned Web sites generate more traffic, and more traffic on a well-functioning Web site leads to more conversions and sales.

Those sites confronting difficult competition for natural search positions can buy their way onto the first search results pages through well-targeted and well-managed paid-search campaigns.

At the height of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, recession, during the worst fallout from the dot-com bust, search marketing took off. Quick-fix search “consultants” and their black-hat techniques quickly were moved to the fringes as groups such as the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and professional seminars such as Search Engine Strategies reached the mainstream. The new professional search-marketing firms and organizations worked to establish best practices and a body of research leading to greater acceptance and growth of the field.

The latest economic downturn, in my estimation, offers even greater opportunities for search marketing and the companies that aggressively put it to work. Here’s why:

Consumer behavior during a downturn

Here are a few behaviors we observed during the last economic downturn and why they bode well for search marketing.

1. People tend to stay home. Going out costs money, particularly when gas soars to more than $3 a gallon. At home, people go online — for networking, jobs and amusement. On the entertainment front, a 2007 Pew Internet & American Life Project study on technology and media use found that 57 percent of Internet users had viewed a video online and most had shared what they saw with their friends. One in six Internet users have downloaded and watched TV shows and movies online. The continued growth of broadband penetration will increase the time spent online and the opportunities for creative marketers to be seen.

2. Shoppers search before getting into their cars. Once again, due to the cost in time and gas, plus the increasing need for people to spend less, consumers will do more investigation and shopping online. The number of comparative online shopping sites and their popularity grew significantly in 2007. (In fact, during a recent study of hot holiday products and Web sites, Oneupweb profiled Pronto, a shopping site that saw its traffic rise fivefold for the year.) Consumers will research large purchases before heading to the mall and will more frequently buy online when postage is waived. Cost-conscious buyers will search for e-coupons and peer product reviews before purchasing.

3. Buyers use e-mail and social networking sites to save money. As each monthly bill receives greater scrutiny, expect people to find less expensive, more creative ways to stay in touch online. E-mail and social chat are popular, low-cost alternatives to postage, text messaging and/or expensive cellular phone network minutes.

4. More people get their news online. The Newspaper Association of America reported that total newspaper advertising revenue fell 7.4 percent in the third quarter of 2007, while online revenues rose 21 percent. These data reflect the obvious — printed newspapers are falling in popularity while online news consumption is on the rise. Expect the trend to continue during a recession as household budgets cut their subscription costs by cancelling the papers and going online. And when people get more accustomed to receiving their information online, they search more often.

5. People bundle their communications services. Rather than viewing broadband access as a luxury to be cut during a recession, many consumers are taking advantage of new opportunities to bundle their phone, television and Internet services for a lower net cost. This serves to continue the growth of broadband and its ability to deliver more content faster.

Business behavior during a recession