Maximising the exposure of your website to draw customers and future sales to your business is a must with the competitive world wide web. Rebecca Spicer explores how search engine marketing and optimisation could be the answer to getting more hits.
Small to medium enterprises are increasingly looking to the internet to generate revenue, reduce operating costs, and to enable them to compete more effectively with larger businesses, according to the 2005 Sensis e-Business Report. The importance of the web as a trading tool for SMEs is rising, as is the number of consumers who are ordering goods and services online.
The report reveals almost half of all SMEs have a website, with another 14 percent recording an intention to get one in the next year. So in the great sprawl that is the web, how do you ensure potential clients get to your site?
According to Gavin Appel, vice president of search at online intelligence company Hitwise, seven out of the top 10 websites visited by Australians are either a search engine or portal. "We see that search is really dominating internet usage," he explains. As a result, businesses are looking to search engines as a strong means to customer acquisition.
The key, then, is to get your website on the first page or two of search engine listings when individuals search using key words relevant to your business.
SEO your SME
Most search engines use technology that crawls the internet and adds relevant web pages to its search engine for free. These will deliver the organic (free) listings for any particular search, so it’s important that your website gets found by these crawlers. Optimising your website so it can be found—search engine optimisation (SEO)—is key to any web strategy. This involves having the correct key words, word density, domain names, titles and structure of your website, along with relevant links to your site, so the crawlers find your web pages and link them with key words being used in searches.
"The unfortunate thing is, it’s not an exact science and the search engines do tend to change the goal posts quite often to try and keep one step ahead," says Patrick Smitka, director of SEO business, optimisation.com.au. And there are a lot of factors—such as the complex algorithms used by search engines, affecting how a site is going to rank–that are beyond anybody’s control. "Therefore, nobody can promise a brand new website will rank in the top three pages."
Consequently, both Smitka and Appel believe SEO is a long-term investment crucial to a web marketing campaign. The Search Engine Watch website (www.searchenginewatch.com) can be a useful resource offering a number of tips on how to best optimise your website. Otherwise, outsourcing the job to a specialist can help and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Because a lot of companies supply these services, before you engage an optimisation specialist Smitka suggests you know your budget, know who your target market is, and go with a reputable company that has worked with other businesses in your industry.
If you’re hoping to get fast results from your website then you’ll need to do more than just optimise it. "Gone are the days of build it and they will come," says Appel. This is where search engine marketing (SEM), or paid search, comes in. For example, Google’s AdWords, Yahoo’s Overture, and Sensis’ BidSmart—all with different structures and benefits—offer pay-per-click or pay-for-performance services. This generally works by you agreeing to pay a certain amount each time someone clicks on your listing, with the cost depending on where you want to be ranked in the listing. Search engines like Sensis determine their rankings by an auction, where you bid for how much you are prepared to pay per click for a particular key word, and this is a continual process. At any time someone can out-bid you for the particular key words you’ve chosen and your listing will move down the page of search results until you are willing to pay more per click. The paid search listings often come before or to the side of the organic search results.
Appel believes SEM has a number of benefits, including immediacy, cost-effectiveness, and the fact that it is completely measurable. "That’s the most important thing about search," he says. "The technology is in place to measure how many clicks you’ll generate from the search listings, right through to conversion on the website, whether that be a sale, a lead or even just a form filled out.
It also breaks down international barriers. From a competition perspective, what’s interesting for SEM and SEO is that you could be competing with someone across the road or someone on the other side of the world."
A client of Hitwise, Techni Waterjet—manufacturers of waterjet cutting machines—decided to use SEM when they began developing their export markets. "At this stage it became evident that utilising the web would be our most economical means of marketing," says director, Darren Reukers.
While investing in SEM has increased traffic to their website, another key benefit has been the monthly reporting supplied by the agency. "This gives us exact figures as to how we are travelling with SEM," he says. "They give a detailed analysis of the key words our customers use when searching our products, and what features of our website work or don’t work. Knowing this allows us to make better decisions for the future when working on our strategic marketing plan."
Robbie Hills, sales director for Sensis Search and Display, says SEM can be very flexible. "Businesses can determine their return on investment [ROI] very quickly, and then adjust their spend on a search engine to match their ROI. And they can turn it on or off. For example, if they realise they’ve spent too much in one month, they can turn it off. If they need more sales for the month, they might choose to ramp it up."
Businesses promoting or selling a range of products online may also choose to direct traffic to particular pages within their website. So, selecting a number of key words for different web pages within a site can achieve more relevant results.
Despite the shift to SEM over the years, Appel believes that, as search grows in popularity, companies are balancing their SEO and SEM strategy. "This way, they get greater exposure in front of potential customers," he says. Reukers agrees, adding, "We actually started with search engine optimisation, and moved on to search engine marketing as it gave us a more direct campaign for what we needed."
Starting an SEM campaign can be conducted in two ways: direct with the search engines, which generally offer a range of products from start-up to more advanced options; or through an agency that can take care of all, or part, of the process for you.
Hills says deciding which way to go depends on what the business wants to get out of it. "If the strategy is targeting three search engines and targeting a few words that are important to their business, they could do it themselves. But if they’re running multiple campaigns across multiple search engines, and potentially in multiple countries, then there is some value in engaging an agency to do it for you. It really depends on the complexity, and the confidence of the business owner."
Appel believes a key advantage in outsourcing your SEM campaign to an agency is that they have a dedicated team who look after all their clients’ needs, from the research stage through to implementation, reporting and analysis. "That cycle is crucial to a successful SEM or SEO strategy," he adds.
The search engines also offer full reporting on your SEM campaign, so it just depends how detailed you want this to be. Continual monitoring is also needed because bids and positions can change at any time. "It&rsqu
o;s a real-time advertising platform and you need to keep an eye on everything that’s going on," says Appel. So, time-poor business owners might find an agency beneficial in this regard. "We decided to go with an agency because we didn’t have the relevant in-house resources to deal directly with a search engine," says Reukers.
However, there are many agencies out there offering these services, so do your research. And as Appel suggests, ask questions. "It’s important to understand the medium before you dive into it. It’s always good to put together a list of questions and call or have a meeting with an agency or expert to help demystify search."
Here are some top tips to get your website working for you:
• know who your target audience is
• know what you want to achieve from the website—is it direct sales or leads?
• optimise your website—make sure it’s designed in a manner that is search engine friendly and easy to navigate
• develop link swaps with other relevant and reputable sites
• get listed on good quality directories
• test what works for you—test whether it’s SEM, display advertising or directory listings that works, and within SEM test a number of different key words landing on different pages and determine what your ROI is for those results
• develop an internet marketing strategy
• put your web address everywhere—on business cards, flyers, stationery and emails or get a stamp made up and go stamp-happy
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