Web sites paying for attention
March 13, 1999
by Jim Evans
(IDG) -- Part of the folklore of the Web is that it's a democratic medium. For a relatively modest investment, you can throw up a site, hock merchandise, publish editorial content and sell advertising, just like the big boys.
It's a nice theory that, unfortunately, ignores the math. As of January, 43.2 million active domains existed, which is up from 29.7 million one year earlier, according to Network Wizards, a Menlo Park, Calif., communications products company. The noise level is deafening.
Every Web site faces the same challenge: finding a way to break out of the pack and attract attention. To solve the problem, some sites spend liberally on advertising; others sell goods below cost to attract bargain hunters. Another option is to hire a service to ensure your site turns up prominently on search engines.
Small and large companies alike are taking advantage of software designed to increase the odds that Web surfers will find their sites. Ideally, companies want to show up among the top 10 sites suggested by search engines.
Small sites admit they fiddle with their HTML coding to improve the chances of coming up on searches. Major sites prefer not to talk about the practice, even though many do it.
"The bigger companies don't want people to know that they do these kinds of things," says Kevin Lee, cofounder and COO of Did-it.com, a Rockville Centre, N.Y., company that offers search-engine-enhancement services. "The problem is that a lot of people consider this kind of service guerrilla marketing."
Companies that promise to get a site listed high up in search results contend they offer sites a cheap alternative for branding their businesses. They say it could be a choice between between spending a few hundred dollars rigging your site and several million dollars taking your message to the masses. Whether or not these services perform as advertised, their low cost makes them tempting for small businesses.
Since everyone wants to be first in search-engine listings, Web surfers are often subjected to a lot of stuff that they don't want or need. "There's gray, fishy stuff going on with the indexes, and sometimes the end user doesn't get the best results," says Paul Hagen, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.
The practice is not going to cease any time soon. "Given that 80 percent of people find a site through a search engine, it strikes me that there are potentially big dollars in this market," says Hagen.
Of course, the search-engine companies don't want customers to get misleading results. As the methods for tailoring sites to get better rankings are becoming more advanced, search engines are upping the ante with more advanced "spidering" techniques designed to catch companies that register their sites multiple times.
"Search engines have gotten more advanced in picking up 'spam-dexing,'" says Jennifer Burrows, product manager for Register-It, a Netscape subsidiary acquired through the purchase of AtWeb.
Adds Forrester's Hagen, "Some of the search engines have gotten pretty sophisticated and know when someone is just bombing the search tool" or trying to get noticed by it.
Search consultants say that a novice webmaster has little chance of getting a site listed high in a top-tier search engine because of the improved spidering methods. Mark Zemrod, who does "cyber-marketing" for Kava King, an Ormond Beach, Fla., company that sells herbal relaxation products, learned to do site-rigging the hard way.
When Kava King first started selling products online two years ago, Zemrod tried to submit the site to search engines and do keyword optimization himself. "If you don't know what these search-engine spiders want, you do a lot of work and you still might be 50 links down the results list," Zemrod says. "I went through and tried to do it myself. In the end, I couldn't find my site in a search result."
So Zemrod called in AtWeb, which suggested that Kava King focus on keywords like "anxiety," "stress," "headaches" -- symptoms that people believe Kava King helps with -- and register the site again with major search engines.
It apparently worked. In 1997, the site had revenues of $30,000. Last year, sales more than tripled to $100,000, and the Web site accounted for about 80 percent of the company's entire business.
While Zemrod wouldn't reveal how much Kava King paid for AtWeb's services, he characterizes the price as "pennies per customer," and far more effective than conventional advertising. Says Zemrod, "We're getting on all the search engines. You just can't pay for that."
According to AtWeb's Burrows, Kava King is a typical customer. She says that about half of AtWeb's customers are small businesses, with fewer than 50 employees. Kava King had 15 employees, and many customers have fewer than 10 employees. "Many of the businesses we cater to frequently take this kind of guerrilla-marketing approach," she says.
Burrows says that AtWeb offers expertise. The company knows the right words to put in title tags, descriptive keywords and additional site elements.
Others have tried the do-it-yourself approach to improving sites performance in search engines, like Adam Carey, webmaster for ABA Staffing, a San Francisco-based provider of temporary staffing. In the past, the firm relied on word of mouth to sign up recruits.
A few years ago, ABA found it could find prospects over the Internet. Rather than working directly with a Web-marketing company, though, ABA Staffing did it literally by the book: a $49 tome by the staff of Did-it.com called Did-it.com's Search Engine Secrets.
"I'm a big fan of guerrilla marketing," Carey says. "It makes your company more intelligent, because you approach people knowing something about them."
He says ABA has saved money by seeking clients online. "We've basically abandoned print ads," Carey says. "Most of our clients find us through the Web."
Carey adds that he uses the same tricks everyone else does. Most of the software and services available simply increase the number of keywords on a site, he says. If your company sells shoes online and you want your page to come up when someone enters "shoes" in a search engine, you can load up your page with hundreds of repetitions of the word "shoe." Of course, that wouldn't make for an engaging site.
The secret, says Carey, is to repeat keywords both on the page and in the underlying HTML code. For example, in this case you would put the word "shoe" in descriptions of whatever pictures are on the site. Since search engines pick up sites based on relevancy, the number of times a keyword appears is crucial.
The basic process of rigging search-engine results, says Did-it.com's Lee, involves "reverse-engineering of search-engine algorithms." But more straightforward alternatives exist. A few search engines, for instance, promise better results for a fee.
For GoTo.com, the fee-for-placement model is at the heart of its business. GoTo.com allows advertisers to determine their own placement in search results through a bidding process.
Advertisers pay for each click-through. For instance, if you visit GoTo.com and enter "books," the first link is Interactive Collector, a site that bills itself as the "online center for buying art, antiques and collectibles from leading auction houses, galleries and dealers worldwide." The site pays 39 cents to GoTo.com each time someone clicks on the link.
Sites turned up in a search show clearly how much was paid to rank high on the list for a particular keyword.
Enter "washers," and the first link on the resulting list is Fastenercity.com, which sells nuts, bolts, screws and other hardware. FastenerCity pays GoTo.com 5 cents every time someone clicks on the link.
The fee is set by the highest bidder. If Bob's Washerama bid 6 cents per click-through, FastenerCity would drop to the second position on the list -- unless it increased its bid to 7 cents, of course.
Jeffery Brewer, CEO of GoTo.com, says advertisers like the company's straightforward approach. While a tug-of-war often develops between the sales and technical staffs at search companies, GoTo.com has a purely sales-driven model, Brewer says. "Since our advertisers pay to get into search results, we create a transparent market," says Brewer.
Brewer's approach may have its advantages. Instead of playing a cat-and-mouse game in which the search engines try to beat the corporate hackers and vice versa, other search engines might instead adopt GoTo.com's pay-to-play model.
That, however, doesn't look like it will happen soon. It's more likely that advertisers, search engines and search-engine-manipulator companies will tread a fine line.
"The portals want to give good results and the little companies want to be up there with the big guys," says Hagen of Forrester. "After all, everyone and their brother wants to get higher ratings."
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