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Defining Your Search Philosophy

When I began my career in search engine marketing in 1996, there were no text books or classes and very little in terms of comprehensive resources online from which to learn. Regardless, I took it upon myself to crawl the Web, devouring any information I found on the topic of Internet marketing. In those critical first few months of learning, I formulated my personal philosophy on search engine marketing, which continues to drive strategies for my clients today.

In the past 10 years, I’ve seen various strategies and tactics employed by clients and SEM professionals alike. Those of us with a marketer’s perspective have fared better in the long term than those with a technology-centric approach.

Before my career in SEM, I was a high-tech public relations professional with a degree in business administration. As a marketer, I favor communications strategies that connect clients with their customers. Many of my industry counterparts with a computer science background, however, tend to take a technology approach to solving the SEM challenge. My PR background gave me the knowledge and motivation to develop optimized press releases, connect with online publications and submit for hot sites and reciprocal links. Not until Google came onto the scene in 1998, did link development become a critical SEM tactic.

So what is my search philosophy? Simple. Content is king. I’ve talked about this at Search Engine Strategies shows in the past and continue to stress this in articles and discussions with clients. It’s all about relevant copy and links as well as clean code. That may seem obvious, but not to a technologist distracted by the latest algorithm changes and code tricks.

Marketing-centric philosophy. Not all marketers are good, and not all programmers are bad, but there are tried and true strategies and tactics preferred by each. The good marketer prefers to focus on creating a positive and productive Web experience for the site visitor, based on their needs and perspective. Visitor-driven content might include case studies, data sheets, press releases and white papers. The bad marketer will develop content based on their or their client’s needs and perspective, usually at the expense of the visitor. Internal-driven content might include extensive use of Flash, 3D, frames, image text and avatars.

Good marketers promote a Web site based on common sense and a keen understanding of the rules outlined by the search engines. These would include creating and submitting keyword-optimized URL, title, META tags and HTML copy. A bad marketer will push the programmers to develop new tricks to get the site to the top of search results, which might include spider-sniffing, redirects, keyword-stuffing, link farming and creative use of DIV or indent tags.

The beauty of taking a marketing and visitor-centric approach to SEM is that the fundamentals don’t change over time. I’ve applied the same basic SEO strategies and tactics since 1996. Yet if I were technology or code-centric, I would have a headache from trying to stay on top of the latest search engine optimization site development tricks. Examples of this include matching font colors with background to “hide” it from the visitor to jack up keyword density without compromising the experience as well as creating sites as blogs (i.e. Blogspot.com) in order to boost page rank and overall site visibility.

Pudding it together. In 1998, my agency was approached to create a Web site related to the Disney/Touchstone motion picture “A Civil Action,” starring John Travolta. Based on a book, the movie covered a landmark legal case involving leukemia clusters in Woburn, MA. As a defendant in the case, our client was not presented favorably in the book or screenplay, and they wanted to provide alternative information about the case on their own Web site.

Disney put $40 million behind the marketing of the movie, including a Web site, but if you do a search for the movie, guess who is still in the top 10 search results seven years after the campaign concluded?

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. To achieve top 10 visibility, we took the white-hat route: relevant content, clean code and optimized copy. Disney took a different route: Flash-driven interactive site with virtually no text, on a temporary Disney URL. Since the week of the site launch, the Web site has dominated search results for terms like “a civil action” and “civil action movie” for this very reason.

On the other side of the coin, one of our pharmaceutical clients competes with a large company in France, which prefers black-hat search tactics. We didn’t worry too much about their technology-centric approach; we stayed focus on developing good content. Every time they inched their way into the top 10, the search engines would eventually figure out what they did to cheat their way in (IP spoofing, link farming, etc.) and kick them out within a week or so. The competitor outspent us, yet at every turn, we shut them down, as they refused to play by the rules.

The site visitor is the loser when marketers or technologists use black or gray hat SEO tactics to generate visibility in search engines. Either the visitor has trouble finding the site, or the site they eventually find is ugly, awkward or difficult to navigate. The end result is a negative site experience that translates into their lifelong brand impression of the company. That hurts sales and any vendor relationships, which puts the SEM team in a precarious position.

While either side of the bench can have a white- or black-hat philosophy, there is no denying that the technology evolves at a breakneck pace, while sound marketing principles haven’t changes in 100 years. The same goes for business. If you let customers drive your business, you will ultimately succeed. If you let techno-trickery drive SEM efforts you will ultimately fail. So what’s your SEM philosophy?

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