Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Bigger Picture

For many, the main objective of search engine optimisation is to achieve good natural positions in order to reduce the reliance on expensive sponsored links to generate traffic and sales.

Search evangelists will be familiar with the golden triangle effect, an eyetracking study demonstrating where users tend to look and click on a generic search engine results page (SERP).

Many organisations believe that by obtaining a top 3 position in the organic listings, their expensive paid listing can be removed.
There are two main reasons why I believe this is an outdated strategy.

1. Google has Control

Google make their lion share of their profit from paid links. Therefore, it is in Google's interests to ensure that they achieve annual revenue growth from sponsored links and match shareholder expectations.

The first paid listings showed purely on the right hand side of the page, known as the right hand rail. Now, Google shows between 1-4 sponsored links above the traditional organic listings coupled with occasional onebox results just below, thus removing the potential for an organic ranking above the fold.

With reference to the Golden Triangle, users are increasingly likely to click on a paid listing providing it is relevant to their search query.

In essence, Google is in control of the ratio of organic to paid listings on the page and this can be changed at any point. If paid search revenues begin to plateau increasing the number of paid listings within the SERP is just one method Google have of increasing search revenue.

2. Paid Search Syndication

The second reason is one that is often overlooked by many search marketing experts. The main search networks syndicate their results out to other networks, powering their search function. The diagram below demonstrates how this is the case. Essentially, the results will be displayed in the same order but not necessarily in the same format.

For example, the following screenshot is from a search for "loans" on Google.

There are three sponsored links within the shaded area. These are the organisations that have set high max cpc's. More sponsored links are located on the right hand rail with the remainder of the page above the fold being populated by 7 natural links.

Conducting the same search on AOL, which is powered by Google, yields very different results:

There is no right hand rail on the AOL SERPs. In this example, six paid listings are shown at the top of the page, followed by four natural listings above the fold at the bottom. Taking the eyetracking study into consideration, it can be argued that a user is more likely to click on a paid listing when using AOL than with Google. This causes complications for search marketers looking to make informed decisions on both paid and organic search.

For example, the paid listing in position seven on Google does not show on the first page of AOL. Therefore, a search marketer looking to reduce bids and move from position six to position seven will lose more traffic potential than could potentially be forecast.

Additionally, optimising natural positions to achieve a 3-7 position will yield benefits in an above the fold placement on Google, but achieving positions 5-7 will be below the fold on AOL.

For some of the sites I work on, AOL is the third biggest search engine, sending more traffic than MSN Live. Other engines in the UK that drive traffic via syndicated Google results include the major ISP's, and Virgin which shows a staggering twelve sponsored links before the organic listings. Even a number one position in the organic rankings on this engine, is not good enough to achieve a placement above the fold.

Those looking to reduce their reliance on paid search must consider the fact that a percentage of searches do not come from the primary search engines. It was recently stated that more searches are carried out on Yahoo's partner sites than on the actual Yahoo! network. They will also face will strong resistance from organisations that are making the most money from it.

In short, paid search will not go away. However there will be a crunch point when advertisers cannot make their landing pages or advert creative any more relevant and they cannot afford to invest any more. The search engines are aware of this, hence the continual diversification into other online areas.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008


Monday, 12 May 2008

How to Break the Internet

I am a big fan of anything involving controversial comedian Chris Morris. One of the less noted achievements on his CV is the Channel4 series "The IT Crowd". it A comic depiction of the unusual goings on in a disfunctional IT department,
it is one of my favourite sitcoms.

It stars Katherine Parkinson as Jen, an ambitious corporate go-getter determined to climb the career ladder at Renholm Industries. Through some confusion she is allocated as the manager of the IT department with a oafish Irishman, Roy (Chris O'Donnell) and ubergeek Moss (Richard Ayoade).

There are occasional appearances from Noel Fielding who plays mysterious Richmond and the legendary Chris Morris playing Renholm, an over the top David Brent character.

In this scene, Jen, who knows nothing about computers, explains how her colleagues have instructed her to warn the management team at Renholm Industries of a serious threat to internet security.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Syntax Secrets

The beauty of Google is that the brand is instantly and universally recognised. There are no usability limitations meaning all demographics can easily interact with the simple interface, whether it be via the Google home page or a partner site powered by Google search.

However, there are a number of bonus features that exist to help
"power users" narrow down searches and dig deeper into Google's exhaustive search index.

Placing speech marks around a search phrase tells Google that you only want to to display results with that phrase written exactly and no words between. This can be used when one of the search terms is generic and could mislead the results.

Adding a term with a minus sign before it to a search phrase indicates that you do not want that word to show up in your search results. This can be used when you are searching phrases with double meanings, or to narrow down a search with a high volume of anticipated results.

For example, if you are looking for a clubbing holiday in Majorca but know that you do not want to stay in Magaluf. you can place a add "-magaluf" to your query to filter these results out of your search.

Google recently added the ability to search within one site to their standard search function for particular sites. However, this functionality has existed for sometime with via the site: function. For example,if you are looking for a DVD of the film Scarface but only want to buy from Amazon, it may be simpler to use the Google search Scarface DVD than use the navigation within Amazon's site.

Perhaps one of the more unknown functions is the ability to search results by the date that the web page was created. By adding a particular element to the end of the Google search results URL users can filter results to display the most recent news on a particular event. For example, I may want to search on the most recent Arsenal transfer news. By adding the code "as_qdr=d7" to the end of my search query, I can filter the results to content that has been created in the past seven days.

It is well known how the content freshness is a part of the algorithm Google uses to rank natural search results. Therefore, webmasters and SEO's can use this code to check that fresh content has been identified correctly within the Google index.

The Google Index continues to expand. The Googlebot is now able to autofill search units and get to the wealth of content that has always been hidden in databases and content management systems. I would anticipate that the larger the index becomes the more power users will be created, taking advantage of advanced search operators to refine their results appropriately.