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In the beginning, there was the Web site. We struggled to get it right.

First, the design (does it look great?), then we agonized over usability (does it work?). Finally, we turned our attention to visibility (can anyone find it?).

Search engine marketing—the art and science of making Web sites visible on the Web—involves a lot of messing about with code. Few of its exponents can agree definitively on what works. Which is probably why marketers have been happy to leave it in the hands of the IT folks. Until now, that is.

The Way We Were… and the Way We Are Now

In common with just about every other Internet innovation, search engine optimization (SEO) first emerged as a technique pioneered by the adult industry. Its new, mainstream proponents were desperate to gain respectability and credibility. For all their hard work in establishing standards, and despite the search engines' efforts to foil the tricksters, SEO has retained its slightly shabby reputation.

But things have moved on. In 2003 the Web is vast, and most search engines now offer a paid “express inclusion” service. Getting discovered through a Web search is no longer a given; it's a highly competitive business. And anyone in business needs to be taking it seriously if they're not already.

Searching is still the number-one activity on the Web. (That's searching—not shopping.) It's worth remembering that e-commerce is still only a fraction of what people actually do online. Any of your stakeholders, actual or potential, could be investigating your company or your competitors at any time on the Web. What they find when they search can be, and should be, largely managed through intelligent search engine marketing.

Beyond ‘Driving Traffic'

Marketers would generally agree that after having invested in a decent Web site, it would be foolhardy not to use it as a tool for customer acquisition.

Before the advent of sponsored links on search engine results pages, there were basically two online methods of driving traffic to a site. The first was to make sure your site came up in search results (the “natural” way), and the second was to buy online advertising. Adverts were standard sizes, appeared in standard positions, and were paid for on a cost-per-thousand views basis. Everyone thought they knew where they were—except when advertisers began to understand the Internet a bit better and demanded more accountability.

Part of the problem with early SEO lay in the industry terminology—the very phrase “driving traffic” assumed a passive public, and the misplaced obsession with “hits” did nothing to reassure marketers that they were getting an effective ROI. As in the early days of Web design, cowboys spoiled the ground for the genuine experts by leaving a trail of dissatisfied client marketers behind them.

This was probably why search engine marketing didn't make the mainstream. That is, until awareness of pay-per-click kicked in.

Repositioned as “performance advertising” or “commercial search,” pay-per-click has moved into favor. Heavyweight media agencies that once refused to touch it now routinely offer pay-per-click in their services portfolio. According to Piper Jaffray, the worldwide commercial search segment is set to grow from approximately $2 billion by the end of this year to around $5 by 2006.

SEO: Is It Worth the Effort?

Despite the growth of pay-per-click, traditional search engine optimization is still a no-brainer. To be located through organic Web searches remains a basic goal of any business with a Web presence. All in all, SEO pays for itself over the long-term rather than the short-term. It is a measurable investment. But it's not simple.

The biggest factor affecting search engine placement is content—actual words on the page. This puts SEO at odds with an advertising-driven marketing environment where creative is usually synonymous with design.

Good Web copy is generally short. Some authoring software such as Macromedia Flash virtually eliminates the need for any live text at all.

Yes, folks, the humble word seems to have become redundant. But therein lies a problem. Search engines can read only words, not images. Consequently, many sites now struggle to achieve good, natural search engine rankings. Even when they do achieve them, chances are that the first three (or more) search results are sponsored listings—pushing the rest down below the fold, where they may not be seen.

If You Can't Beat 'em…

It is easy to see the attraction of pay-per-click. The advertiser jumps to the top of the search results just by bidding a per-click amount for a search term. Since you only pay on click-through, the placement itself is, in theory, free. Advertisers are in control and the process is transparent.

For short-term campaigns, paying per click can be an extremely effective tool for testing, jumpstarting a new site, or complementing parallel marketing activity. Overture claims that it delivers conversion rates 10 times higher than other forms of online advertising.

But there is a downside, and there are risks:

  • Popular search terms are hotly contested, and bidding wars can quickly inflate the cost per click.

  • Advertisers often bid on hundreds of terms in order to achieve the best results, and this requires careful management.

  • As with all advertising, the creative is crucial—and in this case we are talking about words.

  • Not all the pay-per-click engines offer instant deployment; the approval process can take a week.

  • Industry issues still to be resolved include concerns about fraudulent clicks and trademark infringement and rogue resellers.

  • The searching public now correctly identifies sponsored listings as advertising, which raises the possibility of them being unconsciously “screened” out, much the same way as banners.

Marketers may not have always realized the importance of search engine marketing. But it has an impact, both directly and indirectly, on sales, customer relationships, brand management, reputation management and market research. Which is probably why we're seeing the role of pay-per-click grow more dominant as marketers look for fast, accountable, cost-effective results.

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Robin Houghton advises small businesses and nonprofits on how to make the most of their marketing budgets (especially online) at Reach her at