Scan the search results page of any portal, and it’s easy to see why Internet search is such a tricky maze for some direct marketers to follow.

With “Sponsored Links,” “Direct Web Matches” and “Featured Sites” beckoning consumers, knowing which of these hot strategies is most effective at capturing attention often leaves marketers cold.

It may be easier in the short run to stick with simple banner ads to reach consumers window-shopping online, but direct markets risk missing out on important sales leads.

The vast majority of Internet users use search engines to find vendors or stores when browsing the Web for products and services to buy. The message for marketers is to consider how Internet search, if done properly, can quickly drive qualified customer leads to their Web sites.

Search engines offer a variety of ways for advertisers to appear in search results pages. In this article, we’ll explain the different options and how they can be more successful than other direct marketing mediums at customer acquisition and building brand awareness.

We’ll also offer pointers for adding search to your overall marketing mix -- whether you’re advertising online for the first time, or completely re-working an existing marketing plan.

Search Landscape

Determining the right approach to Internet search requires knowledge of providers and products to effectively target the 200 million-plus potential consumers now online. There are four different entry points direct marketers can choose, including editorial, algorithmic, paid inclusion and paid placement.

Editorial. MSN, Yahoo! and other major portals often feature listings on their search results pages that are hand-picked by editorial staff to help answer users’ queries. Editors’ picks are driven primarily by the quality of individual Web sites, so advertisers seeking this free publicity are growing more focused on making their online content current and engaging.

Algorithmic. Many search engines use “crawling” technology to scour the Web and create an index of pages that can be searched by Internet users. Algorithms, including Inktomi, FAST and Google, use keyword matching and link popularity to generate listings. That means advertisers seeking free exposure on search engines are always looking for ways to hone in on relevant keywords and boost their chances of being included in search results. Yet this is easier said than done.

With search engine databases containing billions of catalogued Web pages, it’s difficult to position a Web site so it stands out among the masses. Search engine optimizers, or SEOs, have come onto the scene to help marketers ensure their Web sites are easy to find, use and understand from the crawler’s perspective. If you’re considering an SEO, it’s wise to check references to make sure you are dealing with a legitimate outfit that won’t get you punished by the search engines for unscrupulous techniques.

Paid Inclusion: Advertisers seeking to expedite the rate at which they are included in a search engine’s database can pay a fee tobe reviewed more frequently and comprehensively. This is a strategy that might make sense for a company that’s recently changed its site design, for example, and wants to be sure any content changes are addressed rapidly. This service is offered by Inktomi, Alta Vista and others. However, paying a fee offers no guarantee that listings will always be included in the search results, or where they might be ranked on a given page.

Paid placement. This is an attractive option for advertisers seeking greater control over their listings’ placement online, as well as spending per lead. Under this model, an advertiser selectskeywords that are relevant to his or her business, and then bids for placement on those terms in the search results that appear on major online destinations. Advertisers in Overture’s network, for example, pay about 34 cents on average for each qualified lead. Other providers of paid placement include Looksmart, FindWhat and Google.

Built-in Benefits

As a marketing tool, Internet search comes with many built-in benefits, including a high level of consumer targeting, cost and pricing control, and conversion-tracking capabilities. As a result, search offers many distinct advantages over traditional direct mail that marketers should consider.

First, launching a direct mail campaign requires huge efforts to define the target audience and mailing lists. Search, however, takes the guesswork out of this process. Online consumers actually find marketers by conducting a search for a specific product or service, thereby creating a qualified lead.

Active participation by the consumer is a key ingredient other traditional mediums such as catalog mail, trade magazines and e-mail promotion lack. For example, consumers reference the Yellow Pages 30 to 40 million times a day, which results in 25 to 35 million-phone calls made in response to an advertisers’ listing. In contrast, about 180 to 200 million Internet searches are conducted daily, generating a whopping 90 to 100 million customer leads each day.

Moreover, search eliminates the need to continuously think up breakthrough packaging and copy for mailings. Marketers simply identify keywords that best describe their business and create descriptions for products and services.

Another important advantage to search is that marketers can track their success rate in real time with online tools, rather than having to rely on slower phone and “snail-mail” tracking.

Internet search also is a major step toward making the most of ad dollars in a tight economy -- especially for small- to medium-sized businesses that often lack enough money or manpower for a direct-mail blitz.

Consider that with a traditional, direct mail campaign, marketers incur costs, typically about $1 to $3 per consumer mailing, before a single lead is even generated. Yet in paid placement search, for example, the marketer sets the price for each lead and is only obligated to pay when a potential customer lands on their Web site. This ability to control the cost per lead allows businesses to achieve a higher return on their investment.

Mixing search into your marketing formula

Search is a terrific stand-along marketing tool, but is best executed as a compliment to other direct marketing programs – both online and off.

For business seeking targeted and measurable bottom-line results, consider these tips for integrating paid placement search into marketing campaigns:

  • Define your objective. Is your business looking to grow revenue, stimulate brand recognition or provide information?
  • Get your Web site search ready. Strong, relevant listings from advertisers need to be supported by fresh, user-friendly Web pages that search engine crawlers can understand easily.
  • Select a portfolio of relevant product/service keywords, ranging from general to specific. Be sure to use clear and factual titles and descriptions.
  • Understand the competitive landscape of some keywords, including popular terms or those promoted by competitors. Always add new terms around your best-searched keywords.
  • Experiment! Most of the search products described above are relatively inexpensive. You also can learn a tremendous amount just by signing up with a search provider.

Give it a Try

When it comes to marketing products and services online, a little help from Internet search can go a long way in helping you stake a claim to e-commerce territory. It’s up to you and your company how to best exploit Internet search, but after giving it a try, you’ll never look at your marketing campaign the same way.

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Paul Schulz is senior vice president, marketing & general manager, online business at Overture.