Exciting Trends in SEM

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a fast-moving industry which is subject to the ever-changing algorithms and constantly changing business models of the search engines. I was recently asked to name what I felt were the most exciting trends in the industry. This seemingly straightforward question led me to really consider the direction that I feel the industry is taking.

From a professional standpoint, I believe there are four critical trends in the industry: MSN’s new search engine, the move towards thematically relevant content, niche-specific search results such as local search and non-Web page results, and integration of search as an overall tactic with other forms of media, both online and off.

MSN Search – What’s the Big Deal?

MSN Search came out of Beta at the end of February 2005. The Beta search was released last November, and SEOs awaited the official launch of the site for months. But what does the launch of MSN’s own search engine mean for the industry? Let’s see.

  1. For SEOs, MSN Search means there’s another search player. It sounds simple, but a new and entirely different search property offers the promise of new (and perhaps better) search technology and another venue for SEOs to get their clients listed on a search engine other than Google or Yahoo. MSN previously relied on Yahoo to deliver its search results before the launch of its own index. So while Google, MSN and Yahoo have been the top three players in search for a while, it was only recently that MSN could be considered a separate search entity and a place for SEOs to focus on getting good rankings. MSN currently seems to favor on-page optimization and relevant content. Incoming links (e.g., off-page optimization) certainly factor into overall ranking, though without as much precision as Google which has recently switched its focus to contextually relevant (e.g., quality) incoming links.
  2. For SEMs and site owners there’s the promise of a unique MSN paid search product. MSN currently uses Yahoo/Overture paid search results in the “Sponsored Sites” section of its search results pages. However, it is well-known to SEM professionals that MSN is in the process of rolling out a new paid search product all its own. MSN’s paid search agreement with Overture is scheduled to expire in June of 2006 at which point they will be free to launch their own paid search product. This will provide SEMs and site owners alike with increased keyword inventory along with another search venue to add to the overall marketing mix. 
  3. Searchers get more to choose from. Internet searchers now have another outlet with which to perform searches and find Web sites. MSN Search technology, while not completely new in terms of the type of algorithm it uses to rank Web pages, does seem to provide highly relevant and beneficial results. Some of the perks include a huge index containing billions of pages of content. Comprehensive and continual crawling of the Web benefits searchers and site owners alike, with relevant and refreshed results appearing in search results daily. As with Google and Yahoo, MSN Search results now contain non-Web page content such as PDFs, music and images.

For a detailed article about all the perks of the new MSN search, check out “Microsoft Unveils its New Search Engine – At Last” by Chris Sherman and the updated version titled “MSN Search Officially Switches To Its Own Technology” by Danny Sullivan.

{mospagebreak title=Thematically Relevant Content}

There are many techniques SEOs can employ to optimize a Web page. If this industry were old enough to lay claim to tradition, I’d have to say that on-page optimization has been its main focus, with heavy emphasis placed on tags and content components such as H1 headings and linked text as the all-important markers of good SEO. While these optimization techniques are not obsolete, by any means, there is a new trend emerging in the field of SEO and that is the focus on thematically relevant content for both on page and off page optimization.

SEO has typically focused on page optimization, as opposed to site optimization. It is, after all, pages that are listed in the search results and not entire sites. However it is becoming increasingly apparent that a well optimized page in and of itself is not enough to get you at the top of the search results. SEOs are beginning to put the site before the page. That is, a Web site that is structured around a common theme (e.g., travel) may start with this overarching topic of “travel” and hone its way down through a plethora of subtopics. The site might be divided into topics:

Travel Insurance
Travel Services
Car Rental

The above structure was taken from an actual travel Web site and is an example of how the site starts with a broad topic and hones down to sections that are more specific. The above site is more likely to come up for the term “car rental” or “hotel information” if it has all its other SEO ducks in a row (good tags, optimized text, and exceptional incoming links).

As this article by Wayne Hurlbert suggests, the emphasis placed on thematic relevancy (which not only relies on a comprehensive site architecture but also robust, well-written content) is most obvious in Google. Google not only emphasizes thematic relevancy within a domain, but externally as well in terms of the quality (rather than quantity) of your incoming links. It is becoming apparent that links coming from Web sites that are part of your site’s topical “neighborhood” are given more weight than links from unrelated Web sites. Gone are the days of link swapping with unrelated sites just for the sake of benefiting from PageRank.

Yahoo and MSN currently appear old-school in terms of favoring optimization of pages rather than overall thematic relevancy of both on and off page elements. However, as algorithms become more sophisticated and search engines continue to compete for market share, this could change at any time.

{mospagebreak title=Changing Search Results and Marketing Integration}

Changing Search Results – Local Search, News, Products and More

One of the most exciting changes in the search industry is the search results themselves. Search engines are becoming more sophisticated in terms of the types of files they can index and the type of results displayed depending on what users are searching for. Here are a few examples.

  1. MSN search has a “Near Me” button which provides local results for your search query. For example, if you enter “Pony Rides” into the search field, the results will include only local sites or listings for that query. Google also has a “Local” search feature which is easily accessible via the main Google search field. 
  2. Satellite Images on Google now appear for millions of locations in the U.S. and Canada. This feature is accessible via the Google Maps beta site. 
  3. Searching for a product on Yahoo produces a link at the top to Yahoo! Shopping. Clicking this link produces a list of products related to your search which are available at various prices and locations. 
  4. Advanced search features on Google, Yahoo and MSN enable users to refine their searches based on specific criteria such as file type, domain type, country, language and more. The file type search is particularly exciting because it’s an actual keyword search that can be performed on non-Web documents such as PDF and Excel files.

Obviously all of these expanded search capabilities will not benefit advertisers and site owners, but many of them provide additional ways that sites can be found. SEO for PDF documents, for example, is something that can be explored for companies that may have a lot of white papers they use to help sell their services.

Search Marketing Integration

As an SEM professional, I think the integration of search marketing with more and more companies’ overall marketing strategies to be one of the most exciting trends in the industry. While the Internet has only been around for about ten years as a viable marketing tool (and just barely back in 1995), search engine marketing as an accepted form of marketing (e.g., something business owners are actually willing to pay money for), is a relatively new concept. Search engine optimization and paid search have often been budgeted separately from other online marketing tactics such as media buying and email marketing, with separate agencies and/or vendors responsible for each. However, both traditional and interactive marketers are starting to realize the benefits of SEM as yet another tactic in the overall marketing mix.

The acceptance and convergence of SEM with traditional-minded media professionals stems from the inherent success of this tactic. If done correctly, search engine marketing, both via paid search and natural search optimization, brings in highly qualified visitors. The ability to track search conversion rates for both organic and paid search has also helped the industry. Overture and Google both provide advertisers with tools to track conversion right down to the sales level. Smart marketers can employ these tools, or other third-party tracking tools, to help demonstrate the value of search in terms of solid ROI. Bottom line, that’s all anybody can ask for when considering the success of any marketing tactic.

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