Wading Through the Search Mania

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Having worked in e-commerce for multichannel brands like Eddie Bauer, RedEnvelope and Williams-Sonoma, I have been exposed to the evolving ideas and practices in online marketing since the days AOL was king. Search is the hot topic today, and we see less and less about the shopping portals. Even affiliates seem to have fallen off the radar a little.

Wading through all of the press on search can be time consuming and repetitive. Cutting through the clutter, here are the core ways to succeed in search:

· Focus first on site search: It is your most cost-effective way to increase site conversion. A few tips: link to category pages, promote best sellers, provide product comparisons, let users sort results by different attributes and build search functionality for information like shipping costs. Cutting-edge lead: personalize site search results based on previous behavior.

· Optimize your site to drive organic search: You can increase the amount of free traffic to your site from the search engines with a few tactics: include keywords in your header copy and your html links, create a site index and improve crawler effectiveness by building site links through directories and other marketing partners.

· Use an SEO partner for the search engines: Though it is tempting to manage search inhouse, automated technology is required to optimize and scale your search program. Be leery of third parties selling the services of the search engine optimization firms - go direct.

· Focus on the big three first: It's easy to get lost in the matrix of potential search engine opportunities. By focusing on MSN, Yahoo and Google, you tap into virtually all of the potential search use on the Web today.

· Be specific with keywords: Leverage keyword popularity tools to understand the number of searches for any given keyword as well as all of the variations. For example, the keyword "dining table" is too broad. Try "glass dining table" or "round dining table."

· Focus on your copy: Evaluate the copy that your competitors use for the same keywords. Reserve the marketing language for the descriptions and focus on the search terms in your headlines. Note: Copy pulled directly from the catalog may not work as well as copy drafted specifically for search.

· Use automated, scalable data feeds: Data feeds are critical to leverage distribution and improve reach and ranking on search engines as well as comparison-shopping sites. Best practice: Include your brand name in the creative of your best-selling products - see MSN Shopping for examples.

· Analyze and optimize: Successful, large-scale search marketing requires ongoing evaluation and analysis of results to optimize and improve performance. Don't expect results to turn overnight once you make changes. It may take a few weeks to see the effect of your efforts.

· Measure ROI at the customer level: We are all trying to maximize our marketing dollars across programs and channels. This means understanding search at the customer level - the number of new versus existing buyers, their repeat purchase rate compared with other programs and contribution per customer.

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