September 13, 2004
Over the past six years, Allan Dick has used search to build a claw-footed tub empire, selling tens of thousands directly to consumers across America. We asked him for his best tips on:
- Mixing SEO (optimization) and paid search ads
- Copywriting for search
- Tracking conversions
Vintage Tub & Bath did $19,000 in sales in 1998. This year, the company will hit $8 million.
"Search built our business," says Allan Dick, Vintage Tub & Bath's General Manager. "Once we figured out what search was and that our product was perfect -- you can't go to Wal-Mart and buy a claw foot tub -- it literally built us from the basement of an apartment building to a company with 25 employees and millions of dollars in sales."
How did he manage it, and what has he learned about search along the way? Here are his top 8 tips:
-> Tip #1. Dominate pages with both organic and paid listings
You may rank high on organic listings, but should still buy sponsored links, Dick suggests.
Of approximately 1300 search terms, he has 20-25 terms he considers critical (five of which are variations on the company name). "Those terms we optimize naturally, we make sure they're present in feeds, and we aggressively buy sponsored links," he says.
"We want people to know that we're deemed relevant in many ways, we want to push competitors off the page, and we know there's a multiplying effect between just having natural [listings], just having paid, and both."
Natural listings convert better, Dick says, but paid listings convert immediately and more consistently, he adds.
-> Tip #2. On choosing terms and copywriting ads…
a. Repeat the search term in your ad "If they put in 'five foot claw foot tub,' we put in the ad, 'Buy your five foot claw foot tub at Vintage Tub & Bath.'"
b. Include your special offer Find what makes you distinct, put it in the ad, and test it. "Google is the easiest place in the world to test," Dick says.
c. Broad terms vs. specific terms The broader Dick gets with terms, the more clickthroughs -- but fewer conversions. "Bathtub," for example, would bring a tremendous amount of people looking for built-in tubs and other products he doesn't sell.
That doesn't mean he only uses very targeted terms. But it does mean that when he buys broad terms, he acknowledges that it's more of a branding effort, a matter of being seen by people at the beginning of their bathroom renovation, for example, so they'll remember it when they're ready to purchase.
d. People are searching with more keywords Consumers are adding more words to their search terms, says Dick. "They're getting more savvy on how they search so we have to be more savvy on how we're found. Every so often, I go into Tracker and throw in my best terms to see if any new words come up."
Because bathtubs are "pretty static, it's not like the new fall line comes out every year," his research focuses on new ways to describe old products. "Is it a claw foot tub or is it a footed tub?" he explains.
Dick recently reviewed 1800 terms he used to buy, and cut about 500 of them. "The ones I cut tended to be one or two word terms, and the ones I kept were three or four. I even have some that are five," he says.
e. For Dick's products, visitors from Google have a higher average order size than MSN or Yahoo in organic listings.
For paid programs, Google and Overture convert "so much better than MSN does. We're brand new to MSN but it's not working very well yet," even though he's running the same or similar ads, Dick says.
-> Tip #3. Monitor and protect your name and brand
Dick keeps one employee busy full time doing "a menagerie of little tasks, one of which is to make sure our name and brand is protected," he says.
That means monitoring search results by hand. "One of our competitors started to spam our name," Dick says. "They spoofed Google, built five pages with our name in them, so if people typed in Vintage Tub & Bath, those pages came up."
Dick confronted the competitor, who told him, "I didn't know what else to do. You guys are everywhere."
-> Tip #4. Devote resources
In a company of only 25, Dick has four full-time employees working on search plus a relationship with an outside vendor that puts "a tremendous amount of resources into it," he says.
In order to hire people who really understand search, you have to be willing to pay for it. "Everyone claims to have that knowledge, but if you want the best, you're going to pay top dollar."
Dick also recently hired some people fresh out of college, and will spend what it takes to train them. It may take six months to bring them up to speed, but will be worth the time. "There's no one-size-fits all" approach to search, he says.
-> Tip #5. Track beyond the first click
Because most of his products are not impulse buys (nobody buys his wife a cast-iron bathtub for a Mother's Day gift) Dick never looks at conversion rates based on a single click.
"I might take 90 days before I look at data for conversion rates," he says.
On the other hand, he doesn't spend much time looking at conversion rates of people who buy a bathtub caddy.
-> Tip #6. Links: outbound and inbound
While you have to stay on top of pay-per-click, make sure you spend time building content, Dick suggests.
For example, his site includes a resource page based on questions his customers ask. "Eventually, I'd like to flesh this out into the best resource for vintage bathroom information," he says. Although the page is primitive (his word) and is buried deep within his site, it still has a page rank of four. "My home page only has a rank of five," he says.
As for inbound links, the only way to do it is by hand, he says. "It's one of those things that requires patience and no immediate return."
Dick's team painstakingly researches other sites, then sends a targeted email that says something like: "We saw this page on your site, and we think it would do well under this section on our site."
He purposely does *not* approach them with the attitude of, "Did you know you could improve your page rank by reciprocal links?" because that's condescending.
Dick ends his request by reiterating that a link to his site would be relevant to the other site's customers, and always includes an 800 number. Then he monitors the site to see if the link has gone up, and follows up if necessary.
Reciprocal links can't be done with an email blast, he says. "You want your links to be placed the best way in the best place. Make certain it's not a link farm."
-> Tip #7. Affiliate program
Dick's rules regarding his affiliates are pretty standard. "They can't outbid us on certain key terms, they can't outbid us on our name," he says. Again, this is an area he plans to grow.
"I really need someone to do it on a full-time basis, and I will train somebody to do that." Currently he only has someone working on it part-time.
-> Tip #8. Play by the rules
Doing "spammy" things -- which Dick defines as trying to be listed first on something for which you aren't relevant -- threatens his natural rankings and his business as a whole.
"If people don't find the things they need, our business will suffer," he says. "The success of search depends on the fact that it works."