The Search is On

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Media companies are getting better at search engine marketing these days, especially when it comes to optimizing their Web properties for search engines. Many are also reorganizing for search, hiring search engine marketing specialists and training editors in search engine optimization, another indication of search marketing's increasingly important role.

While business media continue to evolve as online companies, they are putting more attention and resources into search and are using both search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO) to bring a continual flow of traffic to their Web sites.

SEM, or paid search, is a marketing tool b-to-b media companies have used for years, but SEO, also called natural or organic search, is growing in importance.

Why haven't most print-legacy media companies made SEO a priority before now? SEO has been put on the back burner for a number of reasons.

One is that b-to-b media making the transition from printcentric business models have been wrestling with more urgent issues, such as investing in Web technology, developing successful monetization models, creating original digital content and staffing e-media departments.

There also has been a tendency to take SEO for granted. Wouldn't natural search favor the b-to-b brands that constantly produce online content specific to a particular industry, using the language—keywords in search engine parlance—of that business sector? And, because b-to-b media had other ways to drive Web site traffic, such as their print magazines and e-newsletters, search-driven traffic was not considered essential.

Another obstacle has been the controlled-circulation mentality of print-based media. Some b-to-b publishers have been reluctant to open themselves up to an online audience that might dilute the value of their print readership.

However, the b-to-b media are discovering that kind of logic doesn't translate well to the online world.

"Print publishers are waking up to the fact that just because they own a particular audience offline, they are not automatically granted the same audience online," said Marshall Simmonds, chief search strategist at The New York Times Co.

As Chuck Richard, VP-lead analyst at market research and advisory company Outsell, put it: "Traffic has become the currency of the Web."

Jeff DeBalko, president of the Interactive division of Reed Business Information and Reed Business' chief Internet officer, agreed. "It's just critical that we capture as much time and attention as possible from our users, whatever the source of the traffic," he said.

Courtney Lake, online audience development manager for the CMP Electronics Group, echoed that sentiment. "You cannot say you are a Web 2.0 company and not have search as a piece of your overarching proposal for progress," she said.

In fact, Web site traffic coming via natural search from the big search engines—Google, Yahoo, MSN and others—is the No. 1 source of traffic for business media sites, according to a study conducted in 2006 by Outsell.

A sample of 23 key business media companies reported that 37% of their traffic came from search engines, a higher percentage than the 34% coming directly by way of bookmarking, e-newsletter links or referrals from print products. By comparison, SEM was the source of only 9% of the traffic.

While SEM has its place, it doesn't provide the bang for the buck that SEO does, b-to-b media online experts say.

Prescott Shibles, VP-new media at Penton Media, said business media companies need to understand when to use SEM and when not to. "If you're using SEM with a conversion in mind, you can put a value on that conversion and make sure the value you get outweighs the expense," he said. "But if you're using paid search just to drive traffic, you have a real problem. It's not cost-effective to run a business renting traffic."

"At PC World and Macworld, my focus is to get the fundamentals of SEO in place as a strategic initiative for the organization, and to use SEM sparingly," said Colin Crawford, exec VP-online at IDG. "We consider SEM to be our laser because it can drive precision traffic for a specific period. SEO, on the other hand, provides us with a regular, steady stream of traffic to a broad range of pages on our Web sites."

At McGraw-Hill Construction "we do continual SEO across all our digital media properties," said Dora Chomiak, senior director of product development, digital media and e-commerce. "We've done some SEM, and I find it to be good for driving behavior." But, she added, "SEO builds sustainable, ongoing traffic and usage of your site, and that's the heart of a digital product."

Search staffing

In b-to-b media, SEM traditionally has resided within marketing or circulation, with the online/e-media department working with those departments or separately to develop search technologies and strategies.

Search strategy is the responsibility of the e-media division at Reed Business Information U.S., DeBalko said. But because search is a priority on a worldwide scale for RBI-U.S.' London-based parent, Reed Business, DeBalko and his team also enlist the help of Reed Business Search, a global division of Reed Business formed in 2006.

RB Search created and continues to develop a vertical search product called Zibb. "Zibb is not designed to compete with the major search engines but to provide more relevant search within our verticals," DeBalko said.

Within Reed Business Interactive in the U.S., "we have two people who are dedicated to nothing but SEO, and we have several other people who work on SEO-related activities, but it's not their full-time job," DeBalko said. "We could probably have 10 people working on SEO full time. There's enough to do."

At CMP Electronics Group, search expertise falls within the audience development group. "[But] we see SEO as something that our marketing, editorial and IT teams all have a hand in implementing," Lake said. "Business development looks to search for ideas. IT is re-evaluating how Web sites are developed to facilitate search, and editorial is writing stories to address how search engines spider content."

Penton Media has an "online audience development group separate from audience marketing, the traditional circulation group," Shibles said. SEO is centralized within the online audience development group, but those personnel are "mapped" to properties "so that they can develop greater vertical expertise," he said.

Shibles added that the online audience development group handles a lot more than SEO. Along with search marketing, it manages e-mail marketing and database marketing "because they all support our lead-generation efforts," he said.

McGraw-Hill Construction didn't have a person dedicated to search until last year, Chomiak revealed. "We use him across all our construction products," she said, noting that this employee was actually hired by McGraw-Hill's Sweets Network, a database of building products. "A number of different people have been doing SEO as part of a broader portfolio of responsibilities," she said. "But we thought, `Let's get more serious here,' and we hired him to oversee SEO and SEM."

Next steps

At Hanley Wood Business Media, Erik Schulze, director of audience development, has three staff members in his department focused on SEO and SEM. In addition, a third-party search firm "has helped us understand the landscape," he said. "With a small team, we've been able to build SEO up to a point, but we're now looking for help from both technology and the editorial team to take SEO to the next level. We have to."

Hanley Wood is deploying its new Content Management System (CMS) this year. "The CMS will do some fundamental things that will make our pages more visible to search engines, such as creating search engine-friendly URLs," said Alec Dann, general manager-magazines online. Because keyword searches tend to bring visitors to article pages rather than home pages, Dann said, the system is designed to automatically generate pages around search terms. "We've been doing a lot of work to develop a controlled vocabulary, based on our industries, that will aggregate content," he said.

Other business media companies use search agencies and other third-party experts to supplement in-house efforts.

At PC World and Macworld, "there is no employee whose sole job responsibility is focused on SEO," Crawford said. "However, we do have SEO experts within the audience development department, and we work with an SEM agency and SEO agency to supplement that expertise and to help manage campaigns and other initiatives."

Until recently, we haven't dedicated a lot of resources to SEO," said David Bergen, who joined Farm Journal Media in March 2007 as VP-operations and business development for AgWeb, the company's Internet portal. "This year, for the first time, we have a budget for SEO."

Farm Journal Media will use a third-party for SEO. "In the short term, I'll get more for my money, but once upper management sees the ROI from SEO, I think they'll increase the investment level," Bergen said.

Editors driving SEO

Experts in online media and search contend that writers and editors can have a great impact on SEO because they are the ones creating the content searchers are seeking.

But in spite of this seemingly obvious synergy, b-to-b media companies have been reluctant to add SEO responsibilities to their editorial departments. While CMS is part of the solution, technology alone is not enough, experts say.

Hanley Wood's new CMS "is changing the way our sites are built," Dann said. "With that, we're moving a lot of work out of the technology team and into editorial."

One way Hanley Wood's editors can make an impact on search is by developing community, Schulze said. That's because search engines rank sites based on linking, both inbound and outbound. "We've been focused on bringing people to us through search," he said. "But we're training our editors to adopt the idea of community, where they go out to the Web to find cool things they can share with their readers."

Search responsibilities also are evolving at PC World and Macworld. While search expertise traditionally has resided within the audience development group, that team "is now tasked with leading and organizing an integrated approach in dealing with SEO." This integrated approach to SEO includes editors as well as other active participants in the online effort, isuch as the development and design teams.

"The editorial staff touches all of our content, so editors are becoming experts in content optimization," Crawford said. "With the help of our SEO agency, we developed a specific SEO training program for editors, and we now hold regular post-mortem meetings to review articles for SEO."

Crawford was quick to point out, however, that "editors are not writing for the search engines but with the search engines in mind."

Chomiak agreed. "We don't want the editors to completely change their writing for search," she said. "A year ago, we hired an online editorial director and he's responsible for drawing the line between the writers' responsibility to write for the audience and the need for our content to be found by search engines."

At Penton, editors have been trained to "wrap the core editorial content with other content that's more search engine-friendly," Shibles said. This can be done with a kicker before the headline, with a deck or an abstract summary, among other techniques.

Penton editors can choose to use the online group to improve the search engine friendliness of their content. The SEO specialists, though, don't treat all content equally.

"You've got to focus your efforts on the content that's going to get you the most value," Shibles said. "For a news story that's not going to hold value for a long period of time, we're not going to do a lot of optimization. But, if you've got something like a Top 50 that has a lot of value over time, there is a lot you can do in terms of optimization."

At RBI-U.S., the SEO specialists within the Interactive division "spend a lot of time with the editors to show them the search results of stories they have written, then [show] them how the placement in the search engines would change if they had done things differently," DeBalko said.

"There are best practices in how you write content so that it can be found by the search engines, and that's what we work on with the editors on a regular basis," he added.

DeBalko expects SEO to be a growing concern for b-to-b media companies. "Everyone's interested in SEO because no one has it figured out," he said. "SEO is dynamic. It's not something you do once and you're done. It's something you're constantly testing, constantly tweaking and constantly improving."

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