Online marketing spend is growing rapidly, but companies are realising that pay-per-click is only half the picture and strategic search engine optimisation also makes a difference. By Martin Croft
Marketers spent &£1.4bn on online advertising in the UK in 2005, 7.8% of the total spent on advertising in this country. And &£768.4m of that &£1.4bn was spent on search marketing alone. That means that, as an advertising medium, search marketing is bigger than radio (&£614m in 2005), and only just behind consumer magazines (&£827.1m) and outdoor advertising (&£896.8m).
The figures – from the Internet Advertising Bureau, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the World Advertising Research Council – also show that the amount spent on search grew by a massive 78.8% year-on-year, up from &£429.6m in 2004.
But that only tells half the story, because the IAB figures only count paid-for search advertising (known as pay-per-click or PPC). They do not cover the huge sums that marketers across the UK are spending on the other half of the search coin, natural search or search engine optimisation.
Guy Phillipson, chief executive of the IAB UK, points out that a key driver for paid-for search has been the growth in online audiences during 2005, ahead by 9.3% from 26.8 million in June 2004 to 29.3 million in June 2005, according to NOP World. And much of that growth can be attributed to the rapid consumer uptake in broadband connections to the internet.
No wonder, then, that marketers are falling over themselves to make sure their future marketing plans include search.
Zed Media digital planning director Charmaine Oakley says: “It’s a really hot topic. Clients are desperate to learn more about search. Many of them are traditional marketing directors who have, up until now, left digital media to their juniors.” Now, Oakley adds, such traditional marketers are having to learn about search because in some cases it is delivering as much as 70% of their business. Oakley says: “We work closely with our clients to educate them about search marketing. The more they understand, the better the campaign we end up with.”
Most of the big search engines, online advertising networks, digital agencies, media buyers and specialist search agencies will offer clients some kind of consultancy or training to get them up to speed on the latest developments in the market.
As Chrysi Philalithes, vice president for global marketing and communications at online advertising group MIVA, which pioneered PPC advertising in Europe, says: “We work with both clients and agencies to make sure we’re working towards best practice in search. It’s quite important to differentiate between small and medium sized businesses, large direct clients and agencies – they are three different constituencies with different needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in search.”
But even with the huge sums of money being spent, few clients really understand what search is, and the search marketing industry recognises that there is a desperate need to get marketing clients up to speed. All the experts agree that only a client who truly understands search will ever be able to get the best out of the medium.
For a start, clients need to know that the two constituent parts of search – paid-for and natural – are completely separate.
As Craig Hanna, training director at online publishers, market research and training company Econsultancy observes/ “We have courses for each – they are different animals in terms of their skills sets. One is a media buy; the other is strategic.” As for what clients are looking for from training, Hanna says: “A few want to do it all themselves [by running their own search marketing campaigns]; but a considerable number want to understand it so that they can better oversee their outsourced agencies. Also, with more knowledge, they can work out what they can do in house and what they need to put out to outside agencies.”
So how do PPC and natural search differ?
Paid-for search, or pay-per-click or PPC, is where marketers bid for keywords that they think their target audience will be inputting into the search box. What they bid then determines where they are placed in the list of paid-for search results which almost every search engine displays alongside its natural search listings. Often, these will be identified with a term such as “sponsored links”. The aim is usually to be at least in the top 10, if not in the top three.
So a financial services company might bid for words like mortgages, loans and so on. Some bigger clients for whom search has become the major source of new business prospects or sales can be bidding on tens of thousands of key words at any one time.
Nor is it enough just to decide on a list of the most important keywords to your brand – you have to know when your target audience is most likely to be going online to search. So keywords may be a few pence during one part of the day, and pounds at others. Managing PPC campaigns is a complex and time consuming process.
Natural search is a very different thing. The main focus of search engine optimisation is looking at the technical design of a site, its written content and its structure and information architecture in order to ensure that the various semi-intelligent software packages that are constantly indexing the World Wide Web rank it as highly as possible against the search terms that that site’s target audience are using in the search box.
Exactly how different search engines come up with their natural search rankings is a closely guarded secret – if the world knew exactly how Google’s algorithms worked, every site would be number one. So the algorithms are well kept secrets.
What is known is that most search engine algorithms place major emphasis on the number of active links which a website has, the reason being that the more times a website is referenced by another site, the more relevant it must be to its topic.
But just growing the number of websites that link to a client’s site is not enough: the content of the site must be optimised to appeal to the target market. In the past search agencies and their clients could get away with creating shadow sites, which were only ever visible to the search engines’ spiders, now the search engines frown upon such tactics, and are trying to index only real content visible to visitors. Using shadow site techniques can be a one-way ticket to oblivion, as search engines are quite capable of delisting sites that infringe their rules.
Clients also need to be aware that older content management systems – software packages which allow them to create their own web pages – may actually work against their sites achieving high rankings in search engines.
Hanna says/ “Most CMS packages aren’t search friendly. In fact, they can be search invisible.” He explains that this can happen because some CMS packages give web pages extremely long, complex address names full of symbols; search engine indexing packages find such pages difficult to classify.
Finally, clients need to realise that although Google’s dominates the search market, consumers still use other search engines – and they have different ways of ranking pages and different ways of selling PPC advertising. Research commissioned by online marketing agency Harvest Digital shows that three quarters of experienced internet users are promiscuous when it comes to search engines – in other words, only 25% of people use just one search engine exclusively, while the rest regularly use more.
But even more fascinating, says Harvest Digital partner Mike Teasdale, is the fact that “the survey shows a quarter of users think they can’t find what they are looking for because advertisers are paying to come top on search engines.”
The survey also provides an insight into how consumers search and how long they spend doing it. Nearly half of the respondents say they are using search engines for more than 30% of the time they spend online, with just over one in ten saying they spend more than half of their time searching. More than two thirds of internet users use three words or more in every search, and the more time users spend searching each week the more search terms they use. Only 5% of users who have been online for three years or more ever use single word searches, which has significant consequences for brands buying keywords for their search engine marketing, Teasdale points out.
Econsultancy chief executive Ashley Friedlein says that clients tend to go through a three stage life cycle. “They start by dabbling in search, doing a bit themselves; then they outsource to an agency; then, when search has become a major factor in their business, they take it back in-house.” This latter stage can mean that clients run everything to do with search themselves or they take back the strategic management of the medium, sitting in an oversight role above their PPC and search optimisation agencies.
But Friedlein believes that more companies will take the whole search business in-house over time.
Other experts are not so sure. They argue that search is such a complex subject that only the marketers with the biggest search budgets will ever be able to justify taking everything in-house.
But while there does still seem to be a place for specialist search agencies for most clients, that does not mean they can afford to remain in the dark about the medium. As David Hughes, course tutor for the diploma in digital marketing from the Institute of Direct Marketing, observes/ “Clients need to be able to understand the issues involved if they are ever going to manage an outsourced search campaign effectively, let alone do it in-house. Even more importantly, marketers need to understand search because it’s the purest form of lead generation there is.”
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