With organic search, content and inbound linking is king

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While the benefits of pay-per-click search marketing are well known, the current economy is forcing marketers to take a closer look at the “free” kind of search marketing, better known as search engine optimization.

Of course, SEO is far from free. It can be extremely labor intensive, often requiring expertise beyond most marketing generalists. Nevertheless, since it doesn't involve a direct ad buy, as does paid search, SEO is attracting renewed interest.

“We do use search in a small highly targeted way,” said Jodi Crawford, business development manager with Airgas Specialty Products, the country's largest distributor of industrial ammonia. “Our keywords and key phrases are incredibly targeted to our niches. So we start by identifying how our users look for information on our products and services on the Web. This is easy to do when you are in a niche area like ‘anhydrous ammonia.' ”

True, Airgas does bid on keywords using Google AdWords. But the company's greatest Web prominence, determined by how high up on query results pages the company appears, comes from organic search campaigns. Crawford said Airgas makes sure that traditional tags are present on each relevant page of its Web site, and that its copy aligns with its target keywords for optimum SEO search appearances.

“Often, particularly in our ammonia markets, our key strategy is to be a subject-matter expert for the industry,” Crawford said. “You'll find our associates contributing to trade publications”—these articles tend to appear in natural search results, she noted — “and we find that our technical content also comes up high in search engines organically.”

Crawford added that since Airgas appeals to a narrowly-focused market segment, achieving good SEO results can be a bit easier than for companies with a broader scope or for those selling consumer goods.

"Check us out on Google with such terms of 'ammonia supplier' and 'industrial ammonia,' " she said, noting the company's high organic ranking that usually results." We're lucky that our target market searches with very specific keywords and phrases."

A More Fledgling Approach

Trainers Warehouse, a much smaller company than Airgas, is a supplier of materials for corporate trainers, HR professionals and schools. The company has gotten good results from its Google AdWords paid campaign, but its order volume indicates that SEO could use more attention.

"This year, about 31% of our orders have come from organic search, compared with about 11% from PPC," said Edie Wiener, director-Web marketing. The rest is direct traffic from the company's catalog and other referring sites, she said.

"We haven't hired anybody to do our SEO work," Wiener said. "We're doing everything manually, making sure our pages have the correct search terms and meta statements. I've been pretty careful about that."

But Wiener said her SEO options are somewhat restricted because the company's online business is fueled by turnkey e-commerce services Mail Order Manager and SiteLink. She's hoping to move to a newer version of these products that feature enhanced SEO features, but accepts that budgeting for this new solution could slow things down.

"The new features sound attractive," Wiener said. "It would be gravy to add in SEO augmentation to our PPC efforts. I'm hoping this moves forward."

Becoming An Industry Authority

A company that manages its own profuse Web presence is Life Technologies, which maintains more than 5,000 Web site pages, making SEO automation a necessity, according to Robin Smith, global search marketing manager with the life-sciences company. As such, she is aided by automated SEO management solutions from Covario.

"SEO is considered to have more credibility," Smith said. "People tend to trust the results a little more than a banner ad or paid sponsored link, and are comfortable that the results were achieved organically.”

According to Smith: "[Organic search] is not an advertising channel; it's more of a necessity. It's like the Yellow Pages back in the old days, where you just had to be there. If you're not there for any of the keywords that Internet users pick up from print or banner ads, or even from a coined phrase you use, somebody else will get that user."

As with Airgas, Smith noted that being a player in a niche industry tends to augment organic search results, in particular if the company is viewed as an industry authority.

"If you have an authoritative site, with organic search you'll see results fairly fast," Smith said. "The things that you do and say tend to get picked up quickly; you won't see results as fast as with PPC, but within a few months you can see SEO results."

For better SEO results, Smith cited the importance of gaining inbound links from other sites, including social media and blogs. Google in particular highly values inbound links, and favors on its results pages those companies fortunate enough to receive lots of them.

"Natural linking shows that the content on the site is definitely compelling and interesting," she said. "Here, content is king; if you write content that people are interested in, they'll refer back to you with natural linking."

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