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SEO is the way to go

They say history repeats itself, what’s old is new again, there are no new ideas, and so forth. Consistent with that idea, it seems to me that search engine optimization (SEO) is kind-of like Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC). It’s based on market research and typically involves employing a variety of tactics to reach out to your target audience and maximize communication in the most cost-effective way possible.

Considering that IMC has become the favored approach in the marketing business today, it only makes sense that companies would begin to favor SEO over paid search listings. That’s exactly what they’re doing, according to a Brafton report, and new evidence suggests it’s a wise idea. Hitwise analyzed Internet searches over a 4-week period ending May 9 and found that paid search traffic comprised only about 7 percent of all search traffic — a 26 percent drop from the share paid listings accounted for a year earlier.

Hitwise analyst Heather Hopkins indicated that the use of search engines isn’t dropping, however. Instead, organic traffic is increasing and more people are visiting sites for companies that use SEO.

The report is encouraging, I think. From what I’ve read and learned, SEO seems to be the best way to reach out to customers on the Web via search listings. Paid placement is not only costly, but questionable. In some cases, customers are interested in the information whether it’s paid for or not, but there’s no guarantee that a top listing will generate results. Paid inclusion is more dcost-effective, but it’s also difficult to distinguish and there’s no way to tell where the listing will be displayed. Because it’s based on solid research, SEO makes the most sense because it provides a scientific basis for the tactic that’s employed and examines what will work (or won’t) for the audience in question.

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Innocence lost…

I’ve always been a fan of Google. A naturally inquisitive person — I’m a reporter, remember? — I often use Google to look up random, useless information. My boyfriend and I recently debated the release date of Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” for instance, and Google helped us resolve the issue. But learning more about paid placement and search advertising has made me question the results I get, as well as Google’s dominance in the search business.

googleAnd apparently I’m not the only one to do so.  A Reuters report indicates that the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies are questioning Google’s dominance, too, and investigating whether the company has violated antitrust laws.

According to the report, Google is the top text-based search ad provider, despite backing out of a deal with Yahoo last year after federal regulators indicated they would oppose the deal. Bert Foer, head of the American Antitrust Institute, noted that Google has not done anything wrong. It’s natural for people to challenge Google, however, as those ads bring in a great deal of money. Criticism and skepticism often comes with the territory when you’re at the top of your game, no matter what it is.

“It’s not that it’s bad or poorly intentioned,” said Foer. “It’s playing such a large role in the flow of information and has so much free cash to play with and so many creative and aggressive ideas that it presents potential problems regarding… privacy and competition.”

My newfound skepticism of Google has even extended to its news content. I often use Google to scour the Web for the latest news on work-related topics, but now I wonder if it really gives me the most relevant results or if I simply get the top advertisers’ stories. What about images? I’ve used Google to find images to post on this blog. Are there better images I might find elsewhere? Am I just getting the images provided by Google’s top advertisers? Who knows…

This is exactly what’s wrong with paid placement and paid inclusion. It raises questions and concerns that wouldn’t existed if search engines advertising strategies were completely clear and transparent.

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I like competition.

The national recession is forcing everyone to pinch pennies — both personally and professionally. For me, that meant planning a couple three-day weekend trips — like a recent excursion to Pittsburgh for a weekend of baseball (Go Reds!) — rather than a more extended vacation. Web advertisers have adapted by devoting their dollars to pay-per-click ads, for which advertisers pay based on the number of clicks. It’s a great idea, as ROI is important for any IMC endeavor and it’s easy to track with pay-per-click. According to the New York Times, pay-per-click is actually the only type of online advertising that grew in 2008. But there’s always a downside with new trends, and fraud has apparently become a problem for pay-per-click advertisers.

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According to the New York Times, Click Forensics, a click fraud detection company based in Texas, indicated that 17 percent of all ad clicks during the last quarter of 2008 were fraudulent. And 20 percent of Newcars.com‘s ad clicks on Yahoo in 2007 were fraudulent. Frequent clicks from IP addresses in areas the company doesn’t serve and heavy click traffic in a short time frame are both indicators of fraud, which is typically designed to cost advertisers extra money and decrease competition. One way to address the problem, according to Center for Digital Democracy Group executive director Jeff Chester is through regulation.

“Click fraud should be at the top of the priority list with Obama and the F.T.C.,” Chester said. “The F.T.C. has seriously lagged in coming to grips with the problems surrounding the online ad market, specifically click fraud. It’s extremely important to address the problem because it ultimately affects the consumers, meaning what they end up paying.”

Here’s what I don’t understand about click fraud, however. Who’s responsible and why? Do other car sellers hire computers whizzes in far-off locations to repeatedly click on Newcars.com’s ads in an attempt to drive them out of business? A CNET News article published in 2004 indicated that that’s exactly what happens in some cases, but that seems like a poor strategy to combat your competition. In other cases, the article indicated that smaller search engines are to blame.

“Marketing executives say click fraud is pervasive among affiliates of search leaders Google, Yahoo-owned Overture Services and FindWhat.com. In a typical affiliation, any Web publisher can become a partner of these large networks by displaying their paid links on a Web page or within its own search results and then share in the profits with every click.”

Regardless of the rationale, it’s a troubling trend from the early days of the Internet that’s become a problem again due to the national economic situation. Click Forensics and other companies offer solutions that help reduce click fraud, but it costs money to hire those companies, too. Ultimately, it seems some companies might drive each other out of business, either through click fraud or the cost of combatting it. Whatever happened to friendly competition? Once upon a time, competition was considered a good thing, driving all the companies involved to improve their performance and/or product.

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Facebook and foreign policy

I’m a little skeptical about the idea of the federal government using Twitter and Facebook to reach out to citizens. Not because it’s a bad idea. Just because I find it weird. Being one of those early Facebook adopters who joined in college, when it was mostly drunken pictures of frat parties and whatnot, I’m still awestruck by its widespread use as a marketing tool and means of communication today.

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In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s VP of global communication, indicated that with the right messages, the government can encourage even the most wary citizens to at least accept government agencies online, which then helps spread messages virally through Facebook’s news feeds and other tools. The challenge is getting people to act. Schrage said:

“I don’t think the United States has a particularly strong track record of doing that successfully. But I would say, based on my conversations with people in the new administration, they have a sensitivity to these issues and to [social media] as a priority like no other administration has had certainly since the dawn of the Internet era. So you’re going to see much more innovation, much more creativity. We have not yet designed the Internet equivalent, or the social networking equivalent, of Voice of America [the official radio and television broadcasting service of the U.S. government]. Voice of America was, for its time, an incredibly powerful tool. Incredibly powerful. But we have not yet come up with the tools and techniques for the social networking era that engage people in a way that the Voice of America really couldn’t, because it was constrained by being a one-way media.”

He’s right. But with some innovation on the part of the nation’s best marketing minds, Facebook and other social networking tools could really be used to engage Americans beyond simply getting out the vote. I’ve seen it happen for other causes. Be Hope to Her, a national campaign to raise awareness of the poor quality of water in Africa, was held at dozens of college campuses on the same day last month, and it was largely organized by volunteer groups that networked through Facebook. And that’s just one example. Young people, in particular, have become adept at reaching out to others via Facebook, in a way that the government and other entities haven’t yet mastered. Perhaps they should consider hiring some of those students once they graduate.

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Design dumb

A designer I am not. As a writer, I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the designers and graphic artists who can bring a story to life. While good writing is important, I’m not naive enough to think that words alone will attract people’s attention in today’s on-the-go society and 24-hour news cycle. But my lack of design skill became evidently clear this week as I tried to craft an imaginary Web site for Juan Ana coffee, the Fair Trade coffee sold my the mission I visited in March in Guatemala.

Web sites are a powerful marketing tool. (Duh, right? Surely the Internet wouldn’t have grown like it has if they weren’t.) But an effective Web site is especially important for companies trying to reach out to consumers in other countries, be it selling coffee from Guatemala to Americans or something else entirely. However, for someone untrained in design, it’s hard to say what works and why. I know, for instance, that I like for a company’s name or logo to be displayed in the top left of the page, but why? According to George Cleanthous, it’s all about psychology. A BBC News report indicated that Web users form an opinion about a page in less than a second, largely due to psychological factors. Cleanthous wrote:

“The mind is able to recognise a combination of general human psychological and website design factors (which are not actually independent of one another) at extremely high rates of speed, in the same way that you are able to to recognise several letters jumbled together as a specific word and assign meaning to it.  Psychology has always played a part in internet usage, but we are only recently beginning to understand the depth of its effects.  When you break it down, web design is simply the manipulation of content and images on a website to appeal to the perceptions of a target audience.”

The key to Web design, it seems,  is a basic understanding of what works psychologically for a particular brand or product. For instance, Cleanthous notes that most people prefer reading black text on a white background, rather than vice versa. But that color scheme could — and has — worked for some products, and it’s up to the designer and the marketing team to determine when it can.  So while I enjoyed designing my Web site, it was a challenging task that reminded me just how little I know about marketing and design, and how much more I have to learn if I want to succeed in this business.

Psychology Image

Needless to say, I’m not a psychologist, either.

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Words of Web Wisdom

As a reporter, I spend a large portion of my days looking up information online — background information, names, addresses, etc. You name it, I’ve probably looked it up. That said, I am constantly amazed by the lack of consideration a lot of companies, organizations and institutions have for Web design. It’s critical for attracting and keeping customers, but the vast majority of small businesses and non-profits have outdated, poorly designed Web sites that contain inaccurate information.

For example, I looked up the Web site for WVU’s Sierra Student Coalition the other day to ask a few questions about eco-friendly transportation initiatives. Good idea, right? WRONG. The site hasn’t been updated since 2006! What if someone who was new to Morgantown and WVU wanted to get involved? I realize they advertise upcoming meetings and host other activities on campus, but an organization’s Web site is its link to the world. It’s critical to keep it up-to-date.

Before it launched a new, overhauled site a few months ago, the San Lucas Mission — which I visited and worked with during my recent trip to Guatemala — had used the same elementary Web site since 2004. The design was terrible, the photos were terrible and the information failed to capture the wondrous work of the mission. The new site is modern, sleek and innovative. Even more important, it contains a wealth of accurate information that will likely entice new volunteers to pitch in to help out the people of Guatemala.

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Another important component of Web design is ease of use and access to information. When I do manage to find up-to-date Web sites, it’s often difficult to find the information I’m looking for. I’ve noticed that this a particularly common problem with content-heavy government Web sites. You can have the most creatively-designed, data-rich Web site in the world, but if people can’t find the information they need, it’s useless. An example? The search engine on WVU’s main page. WVU’s Web site contains a wealth of information dating back to the 1990s, but the search tool is TERRIBLE. There’s no easy way to sift through the results, they’re poorly organized and you can’t sort through them by date.  I usually end up using Google to access information at WVU’s Web site because it’s far more effective.

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I could provide dozens of other tips and suggestions, but those are just a few of the Web issues that make my life more difficult. I’ll keep the rest to myself for now.

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Black? White? Or both??

I’m a white girl in every stereotypical way. I have no butt, no boobs, no hand-eye coordination, no athletic ability, etc. The list goes on and on. But my stepdad — who is essentially my second dad, as he’s been married to my mom since I was 5 years old — is multiracial. Black, white and Cherokee, to be exact. So I’ve always been a bit sensitive to messages targeted towards a people with a mixed ethnic background. As Lori George Billingsley indicated in a PR Week column published last week, marketers who want to connect with a multiethnic audience should avoid taking a broad-based approach and instead “create specific cultural relevancy with each ethnic group to strengthen their brand.

Targeting each audience with its own unique Facebook page or MySpace group is one good way to accomplish this task, I think, and Billingsley presents evidence in support of that idea. She said minorities are more apt to frequent social networking sites, and Hispanics are actually the fastest-growing group of Internet users. African-Americans account for about 11 percent of U.S. Internet users, and about 90 percent of Asian-Americans are online, too.

Billingsley advocates using social media to strengthen brand relationships with minorities. Expanding on that idea, I think marketers should consider using social media reach out to minorities of mixed ethnicity, too. If that approach proves successful, it might resolve some of the identity issues that arose in the media during last year’s presidential race. Perhaps it might also encourage the population to stop thinking of people as white or black or Cherokee, but rather a mix of all three fascinating ethicities. I know my stepdad would appreciate it.

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On another note: I’ve been encouraged by some of the small, local businesses I’ve noticed embracing social media. The Boston Beanery, the Morgantown-based restaurant chain I worked for in college, sent out a message to Facebook users today reminding them that the Beanery’s famous chicken chimichanga special was available today for Cinco de Mayo. Welcome to the 21st-Century!

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