Producing Search Engine Classifieds

June 27, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Structure Interactive has for several years ranked as one of the most successful and prolific Web developers in the area. It created 500 sites in 2003 alone, raking in advertising revenue of $25 million.

But when SI Director of Creative Services Charlie McGrath searches Google for "Grand Rapids Web developers," it isn't his company he sees first. Structure Interactive isn't even on the first page, sitting instead as the very last result on the second.

The first thing he sees on the page is a link to a much smaller and less visible Grand Rapids agency, Cull Group.

"Forget the cutting edge banner ads; get that in the face of someone who has already said they are interested in the things you are selling," McGrath said, referring to the prominent placement of the sponsored Cull Group result.

Google's primary revenue source, the AdWords program, places paid links at the top and in the right-hand margin of its organic search result page. Unlike the relevance-centered organic results, AdWords' ranking is determined by bid. Although sales help and consulting is available, most advertisers use the self-serve option on the Google advertising page.

"My hat's off to them," McGrath said of the Grand Rapids firm. "They are ahead of companies that spend weeks putting together Web campaigns."

Globally, search engines represent at least 17 of the top 100 sites on the World Wide Web. The two most trafficked, MSN and Yahoo, both have search components. Google's U.S. portal is the Internet's third most popular site.

While AdWords and other sponsored-result programs have created multi-billion-dollar revenue streams for search engines, a controversial cottage industry known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has become a popular service among marketing agencies and Web developers.

"It's almost like classified advertising, like AutoTrader," said Laura Bergells, a senior project manager at Highland Group. "People actively search for advertisers; they are actively looking for something. People will reverse-engineer their sites to make sure they come up first, second, third or fourth in the rankings."

This is done, Bergells said, by working to decipher the algorithm formulas each search engine uses to determine relevance.

On one level, SEO involves the title tag, the site content, and where relevant content is found in relation to the page — a key word in the lead trumps a footnote.

The other part, she said, is a popularity contest.

"What's increasingly important is how many sites are pointing to you and what pages those are," Bergells said. "It's not that you have 10,000 pages pointing to you but that they are high quality sites."

Bergells used the Business Journal's Web site grbj.com as an example. The site's total number of links was found by typing "link:www.grbj.com" into Google.

At the time of the interview, there were 217 links to grbj.com. At press time there were 97. The site ranks a 5 on a 10-point scale, Bergells said, which is strong for a site of its scale.

"Sites like this can do very well by selling text link ads as opposed to banner ads," she said. "For people for whom SEO is a key factor, what they want are pages linked to them from other sites that have a high page rank."

A Honda parts dealer, for instance, would gain SEO points by linking to an article about Honda parts. It should be noted that the Business Journal does not currently sell text links.

This is just good public relations, Bergells said, which companies should actively include in their online strategy.

Like most news sites, however, most of the Business Journal's links are internal.

Internal navigation structures can be mimicked to create the illusion of either a content-heavy news organization or a popular site by including multiple links that return back to the site.

This and similar abuses have many experts agreeing that SEO will not sustain itself as a marketing tool, but will instead be expected of Web developers as a best practice.

"A lot of this is snake oil, because the first level of what they do is the stuff that anyone building a Web site should be doing anyway — building clean, well-organized Web sites and having search terms in the text," McGrath said.

"After that, they can play this cat-and-mouse game. The search engine has no interest in whether or not Structure Interactive ranks highly. They don't care if we're No. 1 or 130 — and they shouldn't."

Bergells said that some of her clients are doing a Google dance, moving upward and downward in rankings each day. Competition increases as sites become more relevant, new ones launch and others tweak SEO.

Also, the search engines change their algorithms daily, she said, as well as root out sites that practice "keyword spamming."

"They'll knock off sites with an article about widgets that just says 'widgets, widgets, widgets, widgets,'" Bergells said.

The algorithms take this into account as well, weighting sites by the balance of keywords to the remaining content.


"The objective is not to invest in a Web site or have a Web site," said Buzz Baker, senior consultant for Alexander Marketing Services. "The objective is to get people who want to buy your product talking with you and you talking with them."    

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