May 20, 2009

Secrets of Natural Search

(Read in entirety at Multichannel Merchant. Published 2008)

Let’s say your wife is an avid hunter. You decide to surprise her by tracking down a pair of specialty hunting socks to keep her feet warm. You have no idea who carries battery-powered, heated hunting socks, so you fire up Google and search for both “heated hunting socks” and “women’s heated hunting socks.”

You discover that a page from is displayed for both queries in the top-three natural search listings, welcoming you to its store. Of course! You recognize the Cabela’s brand as a well-known specialty outfitter for hunting and outdoor products. Plus, your wife already receives the company’s catalogs.

You click on the listing and proceed to make your purchase. Yep, she’s gonna love her new socks. And she’s gonna love you for getting her exactly what she needed.

In a given month, a few dozen other people across the country may conduct a similar query for “heated hunting socks” on a major search engine. Meanwhile, a few dozen others search and find product pages for similar “hunting socks” keyword phrases that include “merino wool,” “electric,” “warm,” “cold,” “for kids,” and even “diabetic hunting socks.”

On their own, these niche keyword markets may seem insignificant because each term or phrase may generate only a handful of visitors per month — depending on the season. But if you combine these total visits, the number of self-qualified Website visitors who reach the site for such “long tail” terms is of a market size similar to that of a Cabela’s catalog drop.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg — our research shows that for every brand search query conducted (such as “Cabela’s”), there are nearly 40 unbranded search queries (such as “hunting socks”).

Indeed, the power of natural search — also known as organic search — as an advertising channel can no longer be ignored by merchants. By engineering their Website’s tens of thousands of pages to rank highly in search listings across hundreds of thousands (or millions) of keyword phrases, merchants can leverage the size of their sites and the strength of their brands to attract self-qualified visitors and buyers. The results are rich in new-to-file customers acquired in greater quantities and more profitably than from any other channel.

We at Netconcepts focus on helping merchants capitalize on this natural search opportunity. Based on our experience, we’ve uncovered may secrets to natural search. I’ll share the three best-kept secrets here; embracing these concepts will maximize your brand reach and sales through natural search in the coming years.

  1. TREAT NATURAL SEARCH AS AN ADVERTISING CHANNELIn our view, natural search is the ultimate way to capitalize on your brand: The “snippets” that the engines show to represent your pages act as your brand’s advertisements. Keyword research estimates the number of exposures your brand will receive. Rankings convert impressions into click-throughs. And what you give up in control over the contents of those advertisements, you gain in access to a bigger market that searchers instinctively trust. (For years, Jupiter Media has reported that 85% of searchers click on natural listings, as opposed to 15% clicking on paid listings.)I covered some of the new, natural search KPIs in a previous article. (See “Beneath the surface of search,” January 2007.) We continue to advocate these metrics as a way to attain a true understanding of channel performance. To recap, the metrics that lead to natural search results include crawled pages, indexed pages, yielding (or performing) pages, keyword yield, and visitor yield, by engine. These metrics form funnels that marketing managers can understand and manage against.The chart “Natural Organic Conversion Data,” below is an example of these metrics using anonymous client data from March 2007.You can see by these figures that the organic conversion funnel can be graphed and understood. Why are only 30% of pages making it into Google’s index? Why did 84% of pages yield zero search traffic that month? Are there tactics that can be employed to double the visitor yield per page from roughly five to 10, and therefore double sales?

    These are the kinds of questions that leading search marketing managers are asking — and answering — in order to stay on top of the competition.

  2. TEST SCALABLE SITE ENHANCEMENTSFor most merchants, 85% of the pages of their Websites are what we at Netconcepts affectionately call “freeloaders” — pages that are indexed in search engines, but lack the on-page or social credentials to position them high enough to win natural search traffic. Getting those pages engaged presents the greatest opportunity to radically grow the channel.
  1. But given the sheer number of pages involved — tens of thousands — it’s crazy to think that you or anyone else will be able to hand tweak them for, at best, a handful of visitors each. Remember, this is the long tail we are talking about here, with diminishing returns and all. Your best bet, in classic direct marketing fashion, is to test, test, test optimization enhancements that scale across your Website (or through a proxy version of your site).For example, we recently tested the value of shortened, keyword URLs for a large home television shopping site through our GravityStream technology platform. (I won’t bore you with the inner workings, but the methodology we use presents a search-optimized, proxy version of the Website as the merchant’s “face” to the search engine world.)We developed a proxy algorithm to enhance some 600 URLs from a structure that, on the surface, appeared relatively search-friendly (!sf.htm) to a keyword URL that looks like: result? Keeping in mind that Google PageRank is logarithmic, PageRank scores increased from PR0 to PR4, on average. The PageRank increase of four points translates into a page that is 10,000 times more important than what it was initially, which was supported by the 550% increase in click-through traffic to these pages after the test.

    Also in support of this data, 50% of the 600 enhanced URLs were featured in the top-100 performing pages, out of a total site size of roughly 500,000 URLs. Following the results of the test, we implemented similar enhancements across other sections of the site.

    Another common issue that plagues merchant natural search performance is the lack of searcher vocabulary present within the content or navigational links of their Websites. Implicit navigation is one area that retailers often miss out on when they consider enhancing their sites for searchers.

    For example, let’s say your Website displays a “toys” heading in your left-hand navigation, followed by a list of the different kinds of toys you offer, including, “learning,” “musical” or “girls ages 5-7.” Because these navigation links are trusted by search engines to help determine what the pages are about, the pages have difficulty getting ranked for such general keywords.

    This means searchers will never find your “learning toys” page by searching for that phrase. When our clients face this issue, we recommend enhancing their left-hand navigation to be more explicit; include “learning toys” or “musical toys” in the links themselves.

    While cleaner URLs and explicit navigation are simple examples that make sense from a search engine perspective, even they have brand impacts that need to be weighed carefully before rolling out such a change across the site. It is important to employ a technology platform and an evaluation framework that enables you to approach experiments like these as business case tests.

  2. VALUE (AND BUDGET) NATURAL SEARCH ADVERTISING PROPERLYMany merchants still think of SEO as a one-time project allowing them to fix the major issues and leave the rest. And after all, natural search traffic is free, right? But this is a short-sighted approach. Everything has a cost. Whether a merchant is hiring experts internally or externally, studies have shown that, in spite of the cost of this SEO advice, organizations typically lack the resources or expertise, encounter technical constraints, or do not budget enough to implement changes that enhance their sites.A study finds that the average merchant spent in 2005 nearly $1 million on PPC vs. $120,000 on SEO. This illustrates an important point. For most merchants, there is not only a high additional organizational cost of ownership but a significant “missed opportunity” cost incurred in traditional SEO initiatives, as outlined above.Natural search is arguably the best source for profitable acquisition and new-to-file customers available. While the tactics are different, it is not so dissimilar from catalog marketing.Each query a searcher conducts is the equivalent of a free catalog mailed to them; each click-through to your site is equivalent to someone opening your catalog.

    How much should you budget for natural search advertising? Simple: If you spend $40 in customer acquisition cost, and your Website confidently converts 2% of visitors into customers, then you can spend roughly $0.80 per click ($40 × 2%) and still keep your CFO happy.

    But we still find savvy merchants budgeting a range of $0.15 – $0.30 per click for natural search traffic, depending on traffic volume and whether the phrases are company-brand terms or unbranded terms (unbranded terms are more valuable).

    While this can add up to a significant advertising cost, merchants are finding that the incremental top-line revenue alone often justifies the expense on an ROI basis, not to mention the new-to-file customers acquired. So think big.

The Keys to the Organic Kingdom

Search continues to grow more complex and competitive with new and different opportunities emerging almost daily. Why wait for your CEO to ask you these questions?

  • What is our strategy for dealing with universal or personalized search?
  • Don’t we need to build a .mobi site for mobile searchers?
  • Why aren’t we using RSS to feed products or specials to bloggers?
  • How can we convert more image search “voyeurs” into customers?
  • What if we create a product-related YouTube clip supported by a blog strategy?
  • Should we develop a Facebook app that provides search value?

By adopting smart metrics, an experimental attitude, coupled with an advertising platform that supports such decision-making, you can begin to properly test and measure such concepts. More important, you can properly manage the performance of your natural search channel. Without these critical tools, your brand faces the risk of being seriously left behind.

By treating natural search as an advertising channel, by applying classic direct marketing test frameworks to scalable site enhancements, and by properly budgeting for your site’s natural search advertising, you too will maximize the reach of your brand and your sales online with natural search.

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