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Join Our Research Team at DMA 2014
Oct 13, 2004
Interview

6 Money-Making Search Marketing Tips for Online Publishers (Includes Some Surprises)

SUMMARY: Don Crowther has been selling content online, from pay-per-drink articles to pricey professional PDFs, since 1997. His chosen marketing tactic? Search. In MarketingSherpa's exclusive interview, Crowther reveals six specific tactics that most publishers ignore -- to their detriment. Including:
- Test results from paid search ad wording
- Why your headline should be a graphic (not text)
- Forget meta tags because what really matters is...
Plus, why the vast majority of content management systems are terrible compared to a very inexpensive alternative:
"I started in the business of selling content online in 1997. At the time Excite and Altavista search engines were really big deals, and you had 24 hour turnarounds when you submitted something. So I did a lot of search optimization," explains Don Crowther, President of Breakthrough Consulting.

Optimization soon became more challenging as the Web exploded. But, Crowther kept focusing on it because when search traffic arrived at various sites that he'd created to sell content ranging from pay-per-drink articles to pricier PDF reports, it converted to buyers.

Return on investment for a little sweat equity was fabulous.

Hoping for tips to do even better, he decided to fly out to a conference for econtent entrepreneurs. "The host got up and practically his first words were, 'Don't bother with SEO, it's a waste of time and resources.'"

Crowther burned with a new ambition, "I've spent the rest of my career ever since then proving him wrong." We asked him to reveal his top six search marketing tactics for publishers who'd like to do the same:

Search Marketing Tip #1. Dump your site's dynamic content management system

"The biggest content management systems are as a rule major mistakes for publishers because they kill search traffic. You have a huge opportunity cost - anywhere between 20-80% of your potential revenue. That's because no matter what the search engines say, they are only getting to a very small percentage of content on dynamic sites."

You can spot a dynamic site from the page URLs which may include session IDs, equal signs, question marks, or end in a number or ".cfm" or ".php".

Crowther has come up with a workaround that allows him the convenience of dynamic publishing with the search engine friendliness of flat HTML pages: "Every single page of my sites is actually a flat file that pulls dynamic content. It's not done through rewrites. These are real flat file pages that pull information. All my pages are .html."

He developed his system in-house, but says there are a few low-cost software tools on the market that can help you out. (See link below to one of these.)

Search Marketing Tip #2. Forget about meta tags -- here's what really matters...

In the early days of search marketing, copywriting meta tags for pages could have high impact. Now Crowther says, "Meta tags are virtually worthless, but do them if you can do them specific to the page."

What are search engines looking at in your copy and content if they don't bother much with meta tags anymore? Three things: (Note - most examples below are for a fictitious site.)

a. Title tags

This is the copy that appears above a visitor's browser window to let them know what site they are on. "Search engines place the highest amount of weight here."

The most common publisher mistakes are to use the same title tag automatically for every page on their site (which means you may not be ranked for each page's unique content) and to put their brand or site name in the title tag.

"In almost no circumstances should you put your company name in the title tag, and certainly never starting your title tag. The first word is the most important -- it should be the keyword you want to be ranked under."

So, instead of "ShippingWeekly.com" you might put "Ocean Freight and Shipping Industry Data."

b. Headline-tagged copy

This is copy that's tagged with an "H1" tag indicating to search engines that it's your headline. If your headlines tend to be keyword-rich, then go ahead and tag them formally as headlines.

But if you want to test headlines for marketing purposes, make your headline a graphic and tag other copy as H1 instead. (See below for why.)

And, if your headlines tend to be written by editors who are not keyword and SEO sensitive, you may want to have the marketing department put "H1" tagged keyword-rich phrases on the page above the formal headline. These phrases don't have to be in big bold headline-style type. They just have to be tagged as headlines, and make sense to a human visitor.

c. First 250 characters of text

These are the first 250 characters of text that appear to search engines as their spiders scan your page. Unfortunately, many publishers' pages are designed using templates that make text such as navigation bars appear to search engine spiders first.

(Ever notice that, when your site shows up in organic listings at search engines, the descriptive words shown are your navigation bar or something else that's not your article or marketing copy? You may have to get the Web department to revamp page templates to change that.)

You need to place keywords within your first 250 characters of text in such a way that human visitors read the copy or article thinking it looks normal and readable. If you put a list of keywords there or repeat a term too many times, it will not only look weird to humans (thus harming your conversion rate) but also spiders may suspect you of keyword stuffing.

Stuffing can drop your ranking instead of helping it.

There's an art to this, and yes, your editorial staff can be taught it or you can have marketing add a "story summary" to the top of every article with appropriate keywords.

Spiders do pay attention (albeit less) to words after the first 250 characters, so if you're copywriting, keep the keywords flowing in a "non-stuffing" manner. Crowther suggests using your bullet points.

Search Marketing Tip #3. Why your marketing headlines should be graphics (instead of text)

Studies since the dawn of advertising-time have shown that 70-80% of viewers read no further than your headline. Given that, if you're running a direct response promotion to sell content, you'll want to test several different headlines to see which converts the most viewers into buyers (or email sign-ups).

Crowther notes that the best performing headlines, in his experience, are not always the ones that are the most keyword rich. In other words, headlines that please search engine spiders aren't the same as headlines that impress potential buyers.

But, you may not want that non-keyword-rich headline to be in text because search engines will review it when deciding how and if to rank your site. They'll ignore the headline if it's a graphic and move directly to the next bit of text copy on the page.

And, if your headline is a graphic, you can run an a/b wording test fairly easily without the risk of being penalized by search engines for publishing mirror pages. Just have your server give every other clickthrough a different headline, count the sales results, and choose a winner.

Search Marketing Tip #4. Get keywords into your URLs for Paid Search and SEO

As discussed above, URLs with dynamic programming indicators such as session IDs are optimization killers. On the other hand, if you can include your keyword in the URL of a specific page, it can help with SEO.

Best practice -- use URLs containing periods instead of slashes for this, i.e. "ocean.shippingnews.com" versus "shippingnews.com/ocean". (Your Web team will understand the implications immediately.)

Crowther also often buys special URLs for each product he offers. So he might put an ocean shipping information product on its own site called simply "oceanshipping.com" instead of using a branch of the main shippingnews.com site. This way the search engines give the topic even more weight -- because the whole site's obviously focused on it.

He's also tested using special URLs for paid search campaigns. "You only have a very small number of characters to make your sale. The URL is 25% of your copy. You might as well test that copy."

In one test, he tried (real URLs) putting PressReleaseInfo.com versus 101PublicRelations.com in a Google ad. (Note - caps are on purpose.) The former pulled a 50% higher click rate than the latter. Best of all, the conversion rate held steady. That meant Crowther got more buyers, not just more traffic.

Key: if you want to test this you *must* own the URLs you display in the ad, and if tested they must lead to a Web page with content that's on the topic (even if it's not your formal landing page.) Yes, you can have Google send clicks to another location -- but the "official" visible URL also has to work and be owned by you. (See below for a tool to help with this.)

Search Marketing Tip #5. Track metrics in two ways you may be overlooking now

If you are in a highly competitive market with loads of other Web sites (not necessarily just publishers) vying for the top positions in a keyword, you may never make it as high as you'd like.

For example, if you publish Hotel News, the hotels' sites themselves may boot you from any chance of making it to page one of results for the term "hotel".

Crowther advises that you continue to invest in optimization efforts for secondary terms that may be less competitive as well as researching new terms that might do better. However, when tracking optimization results, set up your reports so keyword traffic is grouped by the value of the keyword.

This means you're not judging overall optimization ROI by measuring how well traffic from less-valuable keywords converts. You know ahead of time this traffic won't do as well as traffic from the really good terms.

An analogy -- think of secondary keywords as direct mail lists that generally don't perform all that well for you.

You may still mail them to make your numbers, but you don't have unrealistic performance expectations, and you certainly don't write off direct mail as a tactic entirely if these lists don't do well for you. Instead you pledge to find better lists for the next drop.

One other tracking tip -- if you offer a free email newsletter to site visitors, be sure to set up your tracking so that each new opt-in is flagged with the search engine and key term they came from. Then watch that flag over as much time as it takes these names to convert to buyers.

Crowther knows one stock-tips publisher who uses a daily newsletter as a marketing tool. Some free readers from search engines took more than three years to convert -- but they ultimately did and he assigned credit to that originating search campaign.

Search Marketing Tip #6. Use search engines for R&D before you decide to launch a new content product

"The last thing I'd do is go off and develop a whole content site about something no one cares about," says Crowther. He suggests you incorporate search engines as a critical market research tool before oking any new product launch. How?

Step A. Create a list of keywords and search terms you figure people seeking the content you're proposing would use to find it.

Step B. Using inexpensive Overture and Wordtracker accounts, review how much traffic these terms actually get. Plus add these tools' suggested terms to your list and see how much traffic they get as well.

Step C. Using your Google and Overture accounts, pop in the top traffic terms and see how much the average bid price is for them currently. It could range from less than 50 cents to more than $50.

Step D. Go to the biggest engines your prospects will use such as Google and Yahoo (which is fed by Overture), and review how many competitors are already offering products in these terms.

Step E. Review the data and make your launch decision.

Crowther's personal rule of thumb is if at least five competitors exist, and there's plenty of traffic, and bidding is affordable given assumed conversions, then he launches.

However, if there's no one else in the category, he'll probably hold back. "Players already in the market spending $1 or higher on bidding tells me there's money to be made. Now I have to find a hole in the information that no one else is providing and supply it. It's classic marketing."

Useful links related to this article:

Crowther's latest content offering PayPerClickMoneyMachine: http://www.payperclickmoneymachine.com

Another of Crowther's multiple content sales sites: http://www.101publicrelations.com

Article Manager - (very) low-cost content management tool that helps you create a site that's not dynamic in a way search engines dislike: http://www.articlemanager.com

How-to Kit: Tweaking Your Site's Copy to Get More Search Engine Traffic http://sherpastore.com/store/page.cfm/2113

ZoneEdit - a service that allows you to have DNS point traffic to different URLs (useful for search marketing tests) http://www.zoneedit.com

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