Archive for the ‘SEO’ Category

Search or “pay to play”

December 17, 2006

To drive customers to our site and create brand and product awareness, we wanted to be included in the major search engines and to advertise both online and offline.

There is plenty of SEO (search engine optimization) research explaining how Google, Yahoo and MSN crawl the web to find and index sites. We have read a lot of it, and we advise “buyer beware”.  Some SEO companies profess to know the Google search algorithm and for either an upfront fee or a monthly charge will “optimize” your site for search listings. A few of these SEO companies promise (or even “guarantee”) a top 5 search result for your site (meaning your site will show up in the first 5 listings when someone searches for a keyword like “coffee” or “fondue”). Website owners complain because they are not listed for several months despite tremendous efforts to optimize their site for search listings. In response, SEO experts claim that Google “sandboxes” (excludes from search results) new websites for 6-9 months.  Many sites set up so-called link farms that contain nothing but links from other sites to their site because search engines will improve the page rank (which position in search results a site will appear on) if the site has a lot of incoming (and outgoing) links. Exchanging links with other sites is not an option for us because we do not want our site to contain dozens of links and banner ads, nor do we want to engage in the dubious practice of setting up other sites as link farms that would point to our main site.

In order for us to achieve our short-term goal of a search listing on the first three pages with the major search engines, we had to focus on website best practices, including: good site layout, easy to navigate (no broken navigation paths/links internal to the site), relevant and constantly updated content, well-structured home page, simple file structure with appropriate naming convention, sufficient (but not overstuffing) keywords in titles and text, some incoming links, clean and lean code, tags on images, a file (robots.txt) specifying for the search bots what they should and should not crawl and index.

In the short term we decided to participate in “sponsored” search until we would appear in the organic search results.  Sponsored search is the practice of bidding on and paying for relevant keywords and waiting until customers click on our ad that appears adjacent to search results for that keyword. In November, our first month of operation, we spent about $500 on sponsored search at around $0.50 per click on average per keyword (or about 1000 clicks). Given the click-through rate was somewhere around 2%, that represents 50,000 searches for our chosen keywords in one month while our sponsored search was “turned on” (there were days/times we turned it off because we did not believe we would attract the target demographic or visits would be low quality).  Here’s what we got: for the Google Adwords program (sponsored search), average pageviews per visit was 1.75, compared to 3.8 p/v for Google organic search (more than twice as high), and 4.15 p/v for direct visits (users who accessed our URL directly).  The Google Adwords referred visits are not what one would consider quality visits.  And the Google Adwords program generated few sales for us.

During November and December, we improved content, added features and optimized the website to make it more “search engine friendly”.  Several search bots index our site daily (including Google, Inktomi/Yahoo, and MSN) and we monitor our progress closely.  As of the date of this post, Google does not rank us in the top 1000 search results for several of our keywords, including espresso cups, cappuccino cups and fondue pots.  MSN ranks us in the top 5 for cappuccino cups, top 10 for espresso cups, and top 12 for fondue pots. Even when adjusting for the fact that MSN indexes fewer sites than Google (345,000 search results for cappuccino cups vs. Google’s 1.3 million), it still does not explain why MSN ranks us and Google does not.

So should we be patient and wait until we move up in the Google search results, or do we continue to spend on the Google Adwords program knowing that it doesn’t bring quality visits, product sales or even long-term customer relationships?