Organic search refers to the way search engines find the most relevant match to a searcher's query. Organic search results are driven purely by the relevance of the matches to the query words that the searcher entered, and are not influenced by any payments made to the search engine by search marketers. Google and Yahoo! provide organic search results, but so do many other search engines that you might not think of, including shopping search engines (such as Shopping.com) and specialty engines (such as Orbitz, the travel site, at www.orbitz.com).
Search marketers use many techniques to improve their site's organic search resultsthese techniques are frequently referred to as search engine optimization (SEO). For some organizations, organic search is by far the least expensive of all search marketing techniques, but for others it can be frightfully expensive, demanding costly technology or content changes. Let's look at the basic steps for organic search:
Sometimes these steps can be simple, but often there are so many approaches to improve organic search that decision-making can be difficult. Later in this book, we explore these approaches in depth so you can decide which ones are right for you. For now, let's just look at how different options have different price tags.
What It Costs
Organic search is an interesting search marketing technique, because utilizing the technique can cost nothing, or it can be expensive, depending on the situation you are in and what you decide to do about it.
It is possible that your site might already be well represented in search indexes and might already rank well in organic search for many queries. If so, it might be inexpensive to improve your results even more, by choosing more keywords to sprinkle into your content, for example. If your site has few pages indexed and is missing in action in the search results, however, optimizing your content for organic search can be a daunting prospectit can be complicated and expensive to make the changes required.
With organic search, you do not need to optimize every page on your site (although that is great to do)you need only optimize the pages that you want returned for the keywords you are targeting. One reason you might shy away from optimizing every page is that it can be expensive to do. Figure 3-1 shows you the range of prices you should expect to pay to optimize your pages.
Figure 3-1. Organic search costs. Use these averages to estimate your costs to optimize some of your pages.
Source: Marketing Sherpa (October 2003)
The biggest costs for organic search come from hiring search marketing consultants, changing the content and technology of your site, and paying for inclusion of your pages in the search index.
Search Marketing Consultants
If you need expert advice on choosing keywords, optimizing your content, or getting your pages indexed, it does not come cheap. If you want to start small, you might find some search marketing firms that will help you optimize a few pages for important keywords for between $5,000 and $20,000. Conversely, if you need a consultant to thoroughly address problems in a large site, expect to pay hundreds of thousands per year.
If your budget allows it, however, you can benefit greatly from hiring an expert to jump-start your organic search marketing program. Your site's problems in search are lowering your revenue, and every day they are not fixed is more money down the drain. It can be cost-effective to accelerate your efforts by using an expert who gets more visitors coming to your site quickly.
Under normal circumstances, however, it is not absolutely necessary to use consultants. You and your team can learn enough to do it yourself. Just keep in mind that it will take you considerably longer to move up the learning curve on your own, which may not be cost-effective based on your available budget and the business opportunities that you are losing each day. It is a big decision to hire (or decide not to hire) a search marketing consultant. Chapter 8, "Define Your Search Marketing Strategy," walks you through the process.
Content and Technology Changes
What you spend for your organization's own resources to make content and technology changes to your site is usually your largest expense for organic search marketing. Figure 3-1 provides a rule of thumb for how much it costs, but it varies widely from Web site to Web site. Part 3 of this book is devoted to diagnosing search problems and helping you correct them.
Although you are unsure of exactly what it will cost, it does not have to be scary. You probably do not know how much it costs to update your site to introduce a new line of products, or to acquire another company, or to support a new advertising campaign, but these are business decisions that are made every day in every company. The Web team knows that it is part of its job to support these initiativeswhatever it takes is just a cost of doing business. Your biggest job will be to make search marketing just another part of the Web team's jobjust another everyday cost of running your Web site. Chapter 9, "Sell Your Search Marketing Proposal," tackles how you convince the Web team to take that on. After you are successful, and the Web team makes search-related changes every day, you still will not know how much it costs, but at least it will be happening.
Organic search success usually requires fine-tuning to allow spiders to crawl your pages and to ensure your pages are found by the right search queries. If your site has a small number of HTML pages, updating the content is not pricey. If you have a huge dynamically generated site, however, it can be expensive to fix the technology so that spiders can see those dynamic pages. In addition to changes required by spiders, shopping search engines (and some others) depend on your data being sent to them, which forces you to write or buy a program that does that. On top of that, you always need to update your content to provide proper keyword prominence and density to get high rankings. All these content and technology changes cost money.
Content changes are typically less costly and easier to manage than technology changes. It is expected that content will be constantly updated, so if you can convince your Web team to write with search engines in mind, they will do that as a matter of course. It is not any more expensive to write a new page that includes mentions of the important search keywords for that page. Technology changes, however, are not so easy.
Many Web sites inadvertently make it difficult for spiders to index their pages. In Chapter 10, "Get Your Site Indexed," we work through the most common site design problems and the technology changes required to correct them. Usually, they require some kind of technology change, for example:
Don't worry if you don't understand the list. That's the point, actually. Every item in that list is something that your technology folks might need to do to fix your site so that spiders can crawl your pages. (And we cover many more, too.)
It is possible that your site suffers from few or even none of these technology problems. If so, organic search optimization will likely be inexpensive. If your site suffers from some of these problems, however, it can be expensive to get them fixed. Technology projects can be costly, hard to manage, and slow to complete. It is not unheard of for a large company to spend millions of dollars over several years to eradicate all of these organic search problems.
Paid inclusion is the one organic search technique where you pay search engines. In contrast with paid placement, where you bid on keywords to be listed in the paid results, paid inclusion gets your pages into the index to be shown in the organic results. With paid inclusion, you pay a fee to the search engine for each page that you want included in its search index.
But why pay to be included in the index when spiders come to your site for free? As you will learn later in this book, organic search spiders cannot index all pages. Your site might have problems that prevent the spider from indexing your pagespaid inclusion can help you. Or you might need the spider to revisit your site more frequently because your content constantly changesthat is another good reason to pay for inclusion.
Although paid inclusion guarantees your page is listed in the index, it does not make it any more likely to be displayed #1 for any searches. The organic search engine works the same as always, but with paid inclusion, you have ensured your page is in the index, in case it is the right page for a query. The lottery commercials say, "You have to be in it to win it"so it is with search indexes, and paid inclusion buys you a search lottery ticket.
Yahoo! offers paid inclusion, but none of the other worldwide engines do, so it will not solve all of your spider problems. Shopping search engines usually require you to send your product database to themthat is a particular kind of paid inclusion called a trusted feed. We cover paid inclusion in detail in Chapter 10. For now, just realize that you might need to pay for inclusion to improve your organic search results.
The Benefits and Challenges
Despite the wide disparity in what an organic search marketing effort can cost, no search marketer can skip organic search. Organic search is critical to any search marketing program, even if you also use other search marketing techniques. But organic search offers a unique set of benefits and challenges.
Highly Qualified Visitors Will Come to Your Site
Organic searchers who click your pages are highly qualified visitors to your site. They are much more likely to make a purchase than some other kinds of visitors you receive.
To understand why, think about the motivation of visitors reaching your site from a successful banner ad. Those visitors set out to find some information (possibly on a subject wholly unrelated to your site), and while reading that article, spot your ad. Intrigued, they click through to your site. These visitors are far less qualified than searchers because they did not start out with interest in your products. You can build the interest and still make the sale, but that is a lot harder to do than to sell to someone already interested.
In contrast, searchers initiate their search on a subject related to your organization's site. That's why the search engine shows your page in the results. Those searchers want to learn about what your site can tell them. You are far more likely to sell to search visitors than to someone who clicks a banner ad, simply because searchers might intend to buy whereas banner visitors were doing something else when you caught their eye. People using shopping search engines, as you might expect, are especially likely to buy.
Visitors clicking directory listings to your site fall somewhere in between banner ad visitors and searchers as to how qualified they are. Some might be as motivated as searchers, but others are just surfing around when your listing gets their attention.
Searchers who click paid placements are qualified, too, but searchers trust organic results more, and are more likely to act on them. As discussed in Chapter 4, "How Searchers Work," many searchers focus on organic results to the exclusion of the paid listings on the page. Your site must appear in organic results to attract those searchers. But this benefit of appearing in the organic results leads to a challenge, because it is not easy to get your page ranked #1 in organic results.
With paid placement, for example, anyone with a big enough budget can buy the #1 paid result, and they will get visitors to click through to their site. Organic search, in contrast, can require a lot of effort in modifying content and technology on your site, and no one can guarantee when (or if) it will pay off in higher-qualified visitors. That's the basic organic search challenge.
You Can Do It on a Budget
Although scary problems exist that can make organic search a challenge for some Web sites, there are ways to succeed at organic search inexpensively. Your site probably has many pages in the search index already, and you can tune the content for these pages to rank higher and draw more traffic.
Moreover, the work that you do on organic search lasts. Paid placement success stops the minute you stop paying the search engines. After you optimize an organic page, however, you can continue to get high rankings with little work for a long time.
Despite organic search's low cost in some situations, we cannot emphasize enough that some situations can make organic search an expensive proposition. Chapter 7, "Measure Your Search Marketing Success," shows you how to assess the situation in which you find yourself.
What You Do Works Across Search Engines
Unlike paid placement, where an ad listed with Yahoo! does not appear in Google, most organic search techniques work across all search engines. Whatever you do to allow Google's spider to crawl your site will probably also help the Ask Jeeves spider. Similarly, improving your keyword prominence and density helps your pages rank higher in all search engines. Just by its nature, organic search tends to require the same techniques for all search engines.
Beyond this natural tendency, currently only four organic search technologies are used by the major worldwide search engines, as shown in Table 3-1. That is a big change from a few years ago, when there were a dozen technologies around. With a dozen technologies, it was rarely worth pursuing any organic search technique that worked for only one technology. Now, with only four technologies in the game, it can be worthwhile to do things that affect only one technology, because numerous search engines use each technology. One example is paid inclusiononly Yahoo! offers it, but it affects all of the search engines syndicating the Yahoo! organic search technology, so it makes sense to consider.
How to Get Started
Organic search is probably the easiest search marketing technique to get started with, because you are already started. It is highly likely that spiders already crawl your site, placing your pages in their indexes. If you search for your company's name, your home page might already be shown high in the list.
So what does it really mean to get started with organic search? It goes back to the basic steps laid out earlier:
Organic search is critical to any search marketing plan. Because it requires a great deal of expertise to succeed, most of the rest of this book shows you how. However, there are also other techniques for you to learn, starting with directory listings.