So over the SEO smack down

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Dare I enter the fray? Well, I guess I just have. For those who have not been following, there is a bitter feud over whether search engine optimization is worth its salt. Both Did-it.com executive Dave Pasternack's recent comments that "SEO is not rocket science" and Jason Calacanis' remarks that "SEO is bull ---t," have incited many search marketers to take to the cause.

My personal opinion on the matter is that few Web sites are built with a search engine's spider in mind. Until this happens, SEO will continue to exist, whether you consider it rocket science or not. More interestingly, few sites are built with consumer search behavior in mind. For me, this is the most intellectual piece of the search puzzle. It's one thing to be found for a set of keywords. It is another thing to derive business critical insight from keyword data.

In fact, I will go as far as to say that the majority of search marketers are so focused on the tactical application of keyword research that they completely forget that this data can drive business value far beyond the pay-per-click campaign. For example:

· If your firm regularly spends upward of $10,000 on an average focus group, consider spending the same amount on aggressive analysis of keyword data from the long tail. Simply observing the variations in linguistic preference and the most frequent qualifiers will most certainly help your branding team understand how consumers view the category or a product.

· More advanced analysis will map searches for competitive brand names and monitor over time to determine gains and losses.

· For generic terms, aggregate linguistically similar terms to better understand where the consumer is coming from, if you sell furniture, try grouping based on common themes, such as brand, type of furniture, material, and so on. From here, you can slice and dice the data and send the findings on over to your merchandising department.

· The same exercise can be conducted to observe variations in search volume for specific keywords over time. I find this data brilliant for observing search activity pre-, during and post-product launch awareness.

· Media buyers and PR firms should also pay attention to this data, overlaying flight dates. Sometimes even the most experienced marketer can be surprised, as evidenced by Hitwise executive Bill Tancer's now infamous "Prom Dress" research, suggesting that the key window for marketing such dresses is much earlier in the year than previously thought.

· Finally, and most complex, try mapping the search queries for a brand to the brand's actual market share. My first such chart started with the number of searches for each of the major airlines' brand name. The very next day I was lucky enough to run across a chart of actual market share for these same airlines. The resulting chart revealed that every airline had slightly more market share than searches. The two outliers had significantly more searches than market share. A cursory analysis revealed that neither of these airlines sold through consolidators, such as Orbitz or Expedia. To fly with these airlines, one had to actually find the branded site.

So who should you hire to conduct such research? Though there are a handful of search engine marketing firms capable, a background in linguistics and consumer behavior is most desirable. Then again, you just might need to hire a rocket scientist.

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