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Search Engine Optimization: Snake Oil or Science?

I recently met with a client to review design proofs for a new web site and to begin discussion on home page content and web copy requirements. The subject of search engine optimization came up, and as I was generally discussing basic notions of keyword inventory research, meta tags, page titles, headings, word count, keyword frequency and prominence – the usual SEO stuff – I was interrupted by another fellow at the meeting who dismissed the importance of SEO work and suggested it was inexact and unimportant.

Now, the world is full of pagans – those who are non-believers on the subject of Internet marketing – and I wouldn’t even mention this meeting if it weren’t for the fact the pagan in question is a ‘Madison Avenue’ type advertising executive with a full career behind him. It got me to thinking about the differences between what I will refer to as traditional or orthodox marketing, on the one hand, and Internet marketing, on the other. The goals may be the same in the abstract – SALES – but the methodology is different, and the ability to measure is measurably different. Let’s chat about differences for a moment.

The suggestion was made that because the web site in question was not going to be offering any product for sale, there was no point in SEO work or Internet marketing. Flat out wrong. Every web site has a Most Desired Response, that which the site owner wants the visitor to do while visiting, and that MDR needs to be identified. The site’s design and content need to be crafted tightly and well around that MDR, identify it with absolute clarity, and remove all obstacles that might prevent a visitor from the response. A sale is not the MDR? Okay – what about a phone call, a visit to the ‘sticks and bricks’ store or providing an email address for a newsletter? Those are of almost equal value, for they continue down the path of building relationships. Relationships that are well nurtured convert to sales, and that’s why I say of almost equal value.

Due diligence is required for keyword identification and keyword inventory statistics, and copy on the home page must be based upon that research so search engines will refer the right visitors who will offer that most desired response. Web site statistics on visitor numbers and conversion rates (a visitor becoming a customer who performs that MDR) tell you what you need to know about your chosen keywords and your web site content to determine whether and what changes should be made, and the process is repeated. Every visitor action can be measured – to the person, to the penny – and a prudent web site owner should heed those actions, learn what they mean, and adjust the site accordingly. I’ve said before that a web site needs to be a perpetual work in progress, and this is why.

It is no hyperbole to say that web site performance can be measured to the person, to the penny. The tools exist to provide every statistic needed for those measurements, to tell you both why something worked and why it didn’t, as the case may be. This is the advantage SEO work has over more orthodox marketing methods. A display ad in a newspaper of 200,000 circulation does not get seen or read by 200,000 pairs of eyes, and there is no reliable way to measure exactly how many eyes fell upon it. Such is not the case on the web. Beyond that, newspaper circulation is down dramatically as more and more folks get their news on the Internet. Where do you think your advertisements are better placed today?

It is important to note that ad dollars are moving away from print, radio and television and into the online world. A recently released report underscores this point. Outsell, Inc., an information industry research firm, reports that the surge of dollars into the online sector continues to grow. Outsell’s ad-spending study, published in January of this year, was based on a survey for 625 leading advertisers in the US, and revealed that respondents plan to spend more than 18% of their ad budget online in 2006 compared with 16% of their budget in 2005, while cutting back slightly for TV, radio and print. In a recent story published in the Boston Globe, Outsell reported that approximately 80 percent of advertisers currently use the Internet, and the adoption rate is expected to grow to 90 percent by 2008.

Where, then, do you think the eyeballs will go? As if that is not enough, listen to this: the 2004 holiday season saw $19B spent online; the best figures for the 2005 holiday season suggest it was nearly $30B. The Forrester Research Group in Cambridge, MA, estimates online commerce in the US by 2009, only three years from now, will approach $340B.

Madison Avenue veterans who haven’t kept pace with the Internet or who don’t understand either its potential or its reality are intimidated by it. They deal in trends, speculation and opinion; those of us who market on the web deal in carefully gathered and analyzed certitude – to the person, to the penny. This isn’t to say they don’t still provide a useful product. Rather, their thinking must expand to recognize online marketing as an equally integral part of any solid marketing plan as any other component.

So, are you a pagan or a believer? Is it snake oil or science? Anything as measurable as Internet marketing can be only one thing, and those who want to survive and succeed need to convert.


About the Author: Michael L. McGrath is a Web Copy Writer and Search Engine Optimization Strategist whose projects have won Webby Award recognition. His business, MLM Celtic Enterprises, can be found at

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Camilla Todd
Camilla Todd is Head of Digital Marketing at WNW Digital and manages Search Engine Optimisation, PPC, Social Media campaigns and Brand Awareness for WNW Digital SEO clients. You can follow her on Twitter @camilla_wnw, email her at or phone on 01392 349580

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