Don't Be Displaced by Search Engines

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The term digital divide has been used to describe the people or communities who can make use of information and communication tools and those who can't.


Not only does a digital divide exist between consumers who have computers with Internet access and those who do not, it exists between businesses that have a search engine presence through natural and paid search results and their competitors who don't.


Businesses displaced by search engines now can be considered among the disadvantaged. The resulting displacement costs for businesses that have yet to establish their presence online in search engines compared with those who have, though intangible at first, can become economically significant over time.


Whether a business has a Web presence or not, it competes to a varying degree with businesses that do have a presence, depending on their serviceable market area. When an industry is global, national or regional in scope, the business that isn't present in search engines unwittingly competes against and most likely loses customers to businesses that are.


How can a business lose a battle it hasn't begun to fight? In the digital information age, out of sight means out of mind. If a company's message isn't at the top of a search page result at the instant it is being sought, another company's message will be. Top of page equals top of mind.


The unequal adoption of search engine marketing by enterprises of every size inadvertently has divided businesses into three classes.


1. The positioned. These businesses are in the right place at the right time with the right message. They appear in search engine results on purpose. They understand top of page equals mind and market share.


Most large businesses recognize the value of promoting and protecting their brands online in this manner and have taken the steps to do so. Many smaller entrepreneurial companies also have identified search engine marketing as a means to compete for and gain market share, while many more haven't seized the opportunity.


2. The present. These businesses are online but not necessarily executing a plan. They typically are small to midsize enterprises that established a Web site, then abandoned it. They initially believed in the importance of having a site but quit before the Web could catch up to them to produce measurable results.


These businesses constitute the first group of digitally divided; they are online without a plan, which effectively yields the same results as being offline. Being online without a strategic plan and the right team to execute it is like not being online at all.


3. The absent, unaccounted for and missing in action. Because of a lack of planning or an oversight, these businesses have a Web site that hasn't been submitted to or indexed by search engines. This group includes businesses that don't have a Web site because they didn't think it was necessary or important. This group is the most disadvantaged and also the least likely to think it is disadvantaged.


To determine which class your business falls under, search for your business name in Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves. If your company name doesn't appear on the first page of results but does appear within the first three pages, your business is present. If your site appears on the first page, your business is semi-positioned.


Next, search for the generic terms or phrases used most often to describe your firm's products, services or industry. Again, if your site appears in the first three pages, your business has a presence. If your listing appears in the first page of results under a generic description of your firm's products, services or industry, congratulations - your business is positioned. If your site appears in each of the four search media under both types of queries, you have an advantageous market position.


Obviously, if your business can't be found through any of the previous search criteria, it should be considered absent, unaccounted for or, worse, missing in action in relation to the search engines.


Think of search engines like your local phone book. The major difference is search engines provide listings for every village, town and city in the wired world. They already have become the de facto yellow pages of global commerce. Unless yours is a pure online business, the lack of a listing for your business name, let alone a listing under your business category, in your local white and yellow pages directory has a cost: It is highly unlikely you will get any phone calls via a phonebook search. This same listing benefit holds true for search engines.


Businesses that are positioned aggressively online are quietly taking market share from competitors who are not.


More importantly, those already positioned online have left a barrier to entry in their wake. This knowledge slope will grow steeper for businesses that continue to not proceed with an online marketing plan. If much more time passes, they will reach the point of no return where they cannot compete effectively because of the digital divide created by their lack of knowledge.


Business owners and managers can make the leap and save themselves time, effort and money by seeking counsel from service providers who have crossed the digital divide caused by search engine displacement.


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