Online Exclusive: Word to Corporate America: Fix Your Search

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This week, a little research: We've checked up on 15 or 20 of the Fortune 500 firms, to see how they're doing in search (one of our staffers did most of the legwork). As it turns out, the results aren't pretty.


First, our methods: For each business, we picked a term that we were fairly certain the company would want to be found for in the engines. The term was either a word or phrase that sums up what that business does (and that relates to its sales model) or an item that takes up prominent real estate on the business's Web site -- and relates to a product or service that the business is clearly trying to sell. Once we found our clearly relevant term, we Googled it.


Here's some of what we found:


· One wholesale giant features a brand-name furniture set prominently on its homepage. But it isn't advertising on the term "[brand name] furniture." A competitor is advertising on that term, and the competitor's ad appears at the top of the Google search results.


· A business that focuses largely on office technology doesn't advertise on the term "fax machine" (even though faxes are prominently mentioned on the homepage).


· One clothing retailer Web site prominently features the names of designers whose lines it carries, without advertising on the names of each one of those designers.


· A shipping company doesn't advertise on the term "overnight shipping."


· A banking firm prominently features its 529 plan (a college savings plan) on its site, but doesn't advertise on the term "529 plan." In December, that term received 7,568 searches, in the Yahoo Network alone.


· A home supplies retailer doesn't advertise on the term "bath fixture." This, despite the fact that it features bath fixtures prominently on the homepage.


· An office supplies company that sells printer toner doesn't advertise on the term "toner."


· A paper goods and paper packaging company doesn't advertise on the term "paper packaging."


· Several bricks-and-mortar businesses don't advertise on the term "[brand name] Times Square New York," even though they do have stores in Times Square.


· A home goods store with a prominently displayed wedding registry option doesn't advertise on the term "wedding registry" or "bridal registry."


What's happening here? These are companies with the smartest marketing minds, and the deepest marketing spend pockets, in the entire world. And yet somehow, when it comes to search, they're dropping the ball. Meanwhile, major competitors are getting phenomenal search engine positions for these and other high-value terms.


One answer -- the charitable answer -- is that some businesses can be smarter than they look. A lot of companies we evaluated seemed to be making major search mistakes; but, once we thought about their business models further, we realized that they might know exactly what they're doing. Their "mistakes" were cases of one marketer's lunacy being another marketer's calculated risk.


But that hardly lets everyone off the hook. A lot of the mistakes we saw are clearly mistakes, plain and simple. And if you have millions to spend on marketing but you're doing lousy search, you're behind the times.


Consider this year's Super Bowl ads. According to Yahoo, searches for "Pepsi" jumped 60 percent after the game; meanwhile, searches on the term "Super Bowl XL Commercials" leaped a massive 800 percent. Some businesses -- like Ameriquest, Burger King and Careerbuilder -- made sure to follow up on their TV ads with search ads and even advertise on search terms relating to the Super Bowl ads themselves. Other businesses -- including Pepsi -- didn't follow up on their Super Bowl ads with any noticeable search efforts at all. So they've gotten a lot of people really, really excited about their brands -- which you can see, in Pepsi's case, through that 60 percent jump in Pepsi searches -- only to have those people lose interest when they can't find the brand in the search engines.


Difficulty with keeping up with the times is nothing new, even amongst the smart and the powerful. Think of Kodak losing its edge to digital film; or Blockbuster getting massacred by that one-two punch of DVDs and the Web, otherwise known as Netflix.


Search is no different: It's a new norm that marketers have to deal with; and, no matter how powerful your business is now, you have to embrace that new reality to keep your edge (and your solubility).


Burger King gets the new search reality. Pepsi and a lot of other Fortune 500 firms look like they haven't quite learned. Where does your business stand? Google the things you most want to sell -- ASAP -- and find out.


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