Despite the hubbub over search marketing and its promise to drive results, the reality is that many marketers are still in the dark about the technique. Even if they do dabble, most are not using sophisticated tactics.
This is especially true when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO), also called natural search, in which a Web site's content and unseen tags are optimized to appeal to search engine spiders. Almost half (46%) of b-to-b search marketers do not optimize their sites at all or do so only nominally.
These were among the findings of two separate studies-one by OneUpWeb, an SEO service provider, and another by JupiterResearch.
"Traditionally, larger companies have not seen search and search engine optimization as important," said Lisa Wehr, president of OneUpWeb. She said some companies, particularly those in the b-to-b arena where typical sales can reach into the millions of dollars, simply don't think search applies to them.
"Search is of no consequence whatsoever," said Stephen P. Ban, VP-corporate marketing at T. Rowe Price, in comments he made as a panelist at BtoB's NetMarketing Breakfast in New York last month. "Because of the nature of what we do, the smallest sale we're likely to do is $25 million." T. Rowe Price manages 401K and pension plans.
"Search is overrated in a lot of capacities," said Timothy Dunne, VP-digital media and business development at Nextel, another panelist at the Oct. 27 BtoB event. "If they have to go to a search engine to find Nextel.com, I haven't done my job."
Not surprisingly, SEO advocates and search engine executives dispute these negative assessments about the value of search.
"The actual purchase may happen offline, but it's imperative for companies to have a good Web presence and search presence so that their product is there and they can answer questions at each stage of the buying cycle," said Dan Boberg, director, strategic alliances at search engine Overture, a part of Yahoo!
Confusion and cost could be holding marketers back. There are a daunting number of SEO service providers, and the SEO process itself is complex.
JupiterResearch's Semiannual Search Engine Marketing Survey, which covers search marketing overall, not just SEO, found that only 25% of search marketers polled use sophisticated SEM tactics. Of those, advertisers that have traditionally used direct marketing are the most sophisticated.
"This is direct marketing 101," said Nate Elliott, an analyst at JupiterResearch and author of the study. But while he said he expected those companies to be more sophisticated at the outset because they have mastered direct response in other media, there is a learning curve for all marketers when it comes to search. "They don't know what they should and shouldn't be doing," he said. "We saw that tenure does matter."
As for site optimization, Wehr said marketers must not ignore it. "There are competitors online taking advantage of search, taking away business and market share," she said.
OneUpWeb analyzed the Web sites of companies listed in BtoB's annual Top 100 Advertisers report published in September. For a measure of the correlation between optimization and search engine positioning, it determined whether the company appeared on the first page (results 1-10) or the first, second and third pages (results 1-30) of Google and Yahoo! for primary keywords, excluding the company's name.
Of the 54% of b-to-b marketers that optimize their sites, 19% are doing it well, appearing on the first three pages of Google and Yahoo! Another 35% are doing a "moderate" job, according to OneUpWeb's research.
"SEO is a critical business strategy," Wehr said. "The vast majority of b-to-b companies are going to be researching online."
Well-optimized sites have considerably better visibility on search engine results pages, with 37% appearing on the first page of Google natural results and 47% on the first page of Yahoo!, according to OneUpWeb. Seventeen marketers from BtoB's annual Top 100 Advertisers report had well-optimized sites. By comparison, only 5% of sites with little or no optimization appeared on the first page of Google and Yahoo!
Search result positioning
"B-to-b companies may find it even more critical than consumer goods companies to be well-positioned in search results," Wehr said. "They have longer sales cycles, where prospects are anonymously gathering information on solutions to chronic or complicated challenges." B-to-b customers, she added, often look for companies considered industry experts. "Being listed in natural results gives the company credibility," she said.
Wehr said she remains optimistic, and predicted that when she repeats the b-to-b search study next year, "well-optimized sites will double."
Search engines such as Google and Yahoo! have a stake in educating marketers. "Sophisticates," meaning search marketers with intelligence in both bid strategies and measurement techniques, are more than twice as likely to spend $100,000 or more per year on SEM, and are about twice as likely to have a total marketing budget of more than $1 million compared with "unsophisticates," according to JupiterResearch.
"It behooves the search engines to educate these marketers," Elliott said. " The more educated and the more efficient they are, the more money they'll spend."