(As published in the December 2003 issue of Catalog Age Magazine)

In the past few years, the Google search engine has emerged from the Internet Petri dish to dominate the search engine market space—if not the entire Internet.

Google's deals to distribute search results to the likes of AOL and Yahoo have established a breathtaking critical mass worth over 80% of all Internet search. Are you looking to cut acquisition costs? Google presents any business—particularly merchants—an opportunity to do more than that. Now you can sell at $0 cost.

Many e-commerce executives realize that so-called natural, or unpaid, search results represent an attractive opportunity for incremental sales, but they believe that Google's juicy fruit is either unattainable or forbidden to them because they have a database-driven Web site.

This is not entirely true, despite the businesses that have sprung up as a result of the myth—keyword bidding, search engine optimization, paid inclusion. The secret that only the man behind the curtain will tell you is that you can break the retailing “sound barrier” and sell without marketing costs.


By capitalizing your natural resources—the product-selling content that you have already created and invested into your Web site's makeup.

The fact is, Google provides more than just a critical mass of users. Google has become an ad hoc market “operating system” for architecting your information. This makes it possible as a merchant to simply tune your site to the Google algorithm and convert your thousands of dormant product pages into an enormous, energized sales force. Once unleashed, these product “experts” can be programmed to automatically hunt the Web for you, find only the most qualified customers, and—the best part—sell for free.

It is here, in this ether, that the line blurs between Web site design and e-commerce marketing. It is here that your supply chain can be connected to a fluid demand chain to sell instinctively, without friction. While ad costs increase and profits fall short of potential, an eruption of serendipity is just waiting to be pricked out.

No, Toto. I'm afraid we're not in Kansas any more.

Shortcuts and Fractional Commerce. Oh My!

At the same time Google has risen to fame, a new epoch has been reached in the life of e-commerce. Thousands of retailers eager to cut costs have been working hard to make millions of products available over the Web, resulting in what could be considered one giant database with every product anyone would ever want to buy. While no single company yet contains this database, Google has three times the share of anyone else, based on our analysis of the visibility of the top 100 catalog e-commerce sites. (See “State of Search Engine Marketing 1.0” by Netconcepts and Catalog Age Magazine.)

This is a critical point. If consumers find e-commerce appealing because it helps them find and buy products easily and in less time, then your Web site is no longer the shortest distance between points A and B: Google is.

This means that the notion of an e-commerce site itself becomes entirely fragmented, as every page becomes a potential entry point and selling opportunity. In other words, an e-commerce site is no longer a collection of 10,000 product pages that users can linearly navigate. Rather, it becomes 10,000 “micro-sites,” each of which must be programmed to reach and sell its respective keyword market. The selling strategy has gone granular.

But this market teems with micro-competitors and commoditization. Compounding this new complexity is that the catalog and other marketing venues still play a role in stimulating desire and driving site traffic. Having no visibility at the stage when customers “Google” to compare prices or features raises a merchant's susceptibility to vast amounts of leakage to competitors.

This is a point of unknown and unquantified vulnerability for most merchants, and a point of seduction for savvy competitors looking to steal your best customers—on your dime.

Leading merchants recognize the threat and opportunity of search and are developing strategies that capitalize on their Web site's natural resources (content, popularity, links), to both defend this turf and offensively intercept competitor demand. With the abundance of these natural resources, retailers have economies of scale loaded in their favor. The question is how best to leverage these assets into a successful Google optimization strategy.

The Google Lever

Before starting the journey to Google's emerald city, there is an unavoidable force you must reckon with. Google's democratic method of determining relevant sites is based on link popularity—a measure of the quantity and quality of the Web sites linking to you. This feature is known as PageRank, and it is a critical factor in designing your Web site.

PageRank is important because it aggregates ranking power for you. Let PageRank befriend you. It is the lever by which you can lift the position of thousands of product page rankings with the least amount of effort. This means that rather than spending countless hours manually manipulating thousands of product page positions in the search results, you need only focus on improving your PageRank, which is influenced by your internal link structures and external link partners.

This scalability creates tremendous leverage for the Web site with thousands of SKUs. Yet e-commerce was not designed with these sorts of strategies in mind. As a result, major companies now find themselves at a disadvantage, struggling to participate in this new opportunity. Inhibited by their outdated Web site's structures, major retailers with high PageRank scoring home pages and hundreds of thousands of product SKUs (such as Best Buy, Circuit City, Radio Shack, JC Penney, Sears, and many others) are surprisingly invisible to engines like Google, without any product content even indexed—let alone well ranked.

Objective No. 1: Being Visible

There are really four phases to optimizing for Google. The first brick of the long yellow road is to get your entire product inventory crawled and indexed by Google. This is the major stumbling block for most large retailers. In fact, our research found that 95 of the top 100 catalog retailers have less than 5% of their inventory loaded into Google. (Again see “State of Search Engine Marketing 1.0” by Netconcepts and Catalog Age Magazine.)

Since these sites were not designed with Google or other engines in mind, the engines are unable to spider the database-driven product pages. But the URLs for these pages typically can be rewritten by the Web server or through the platform (WebSphere, Blue Martini, OSCommerce, etc.) to make the dynamic content appear “static” to both engines and users. Depending on technological constraints, a URL such as jcpenney.com/jcp/specialtysitec.aspx?deptid=469&catid=4396&cattyp=BRD&cat=levis could be made static, something along the lines of jcpenney.com/specialty/469-4396. This creates a win for Google, since it can crawl more of your useful content without getting caught in infinite crawling loops, and also a win for you because you'll have greater Google visibility and will make it easier for customers to email your links to friends.

However, just because Google can index pages does not mean it will. Pay attention to the link architecture of the site to make sure Google has access to 100% of the inventory. Retailers such as Talbots and Domestications, and dozens of others, still employ JavaScript rollover menus to conserve space. But Google cannot execute these scripts or crawl the links contained in them. The same can be said for Flash navigation, dropdown menus, and other design elements. The URLs must enable Google to crawl; the link structure must ensure it.

Objective No. 2: Being Found

Merely having inventory loaded in Google means little if those products are not easily found by the human beings who carry the cash to make a purchase from you. A variety of factors influence the positioning, but the greatest leverage comes from learning to wield your PageRank.

Since most sites link to home pages, Google considers the home page to be the pinnacle from which PageRank digs into the deeper layers of your site. The way you structure your hyperlink URLs, the words you use inside the link, and the words surrounding the link all influence how relevant in Google's eyes the page being linked to really is.

If Kohls.com wishes to rank highly for the competitive “women's plus size” keyword market, that phrase should be included in the hyperlink text found in the site navigation menus, breadcrumbs, and other internal links that point to the plus-size category page. Using a phrase such as “Women's (16W-24W)” instead, which no one searches for, would kill your chances. Worse, if the URL of that category page contained lots of variables or directory levels, unseen forces begin to conspire against you in your quest to dominate the “plus size” keyword market.

This has implications for everything from internal site merchandising to structuring affiliate programs—which are notoriously poor sharers of PageRank.

Once you widen the PageRank funnel to ensure each product is endowed with a maximum share from your home page, you can further influence your rankings with the keywords you use and the structure of those pages. Each SKU page should be structured to dominate its keyword market—to sing its “song” better than any other related page on the Web. This can be accomplished by “optimizing” the category and product page templates that serve up each SKU.

Although Google doesn't publish a manual for how to rank high, over 30 major factors have been identified as important determinants in Google positions. Some very basic questions to ask yourself here: Are you using the right HTML tags that Google considers important? Are your product descriptions rich with keyword text, or is there scant copy? Are scripts and style sheets and table layouts working against you in the background to depress the position of the content? Is the copy that contains the dominant keywords located in the optimal position on the page? If not, how will searchers be greeted with a compelling sentence in your Google listing description?

Pay attention to the keywords themselves. Decisions must be made by merchandisers whether product names and descriptions do indeed reflect natural vocabulary or jargon. For instance, one shopping engine lists five times as many search matches for “winter jackets” than “winter coats,” while research shows consumers search twice as often for “winter coats” than “winter jackets.” What seem to be trivial semantics actually carry a big price tag. Your words are either widening or shrinking your prospect funnel by defining your natural marketplace. Choose carefully.

Once you're indexed and visible to Google, how do you win more clicks, sell @ $0 cost, and truly leverage your all-natural strategy? Stay tuned for part 2!

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image of Brian Klais

Brian Klais is founder and CEO at Pure Oxygen Labs, a performance-based mobile consulting and technology firm.