How much a start-up should focus on SEO and SEM during its early stages?
Sunday, 5th April 2009
Source : TDS Asia 2009 Special
The spirit of Google is to innovate and ‘wow' their users, which results in enormous word of mouth.

Yet so many companies that use Google and rely heavily on SEO and SEM seem to adopt a completely opposite approach, says car rental comparison site Oodles.com's MD Steve Sherlock.

According to Sherlock, a speaker for EyeforTravel's Travel Distribution Summit Asia 2009 in Singapore, some businesses spend every waking hour trying to work out how they can get more back links and hire teams of spammers instead of trying to ‘wow' their customers.

Sherlock, who previously spoke to EyeforTravel's Ritesh Gupta about the significance of developing the best brand/product, provided an insight into ways in which a business can wean itself off search engines in order to build long-term value to its brand. He citied the example of working on such strategy from a start-up's perspective and shared his opinion about other tactics. Excerpts:

On how a business can wean itself off search engines in order to build long-term value to its brand: If we had focused on SEO and SEM first, then we may have had a lot more traction but would have failed to come up with a unique positioning and therefore would have been reliant on SEO/SEM as opposed to people coming direct to the site. In other words, we would have been a sitting duck.

Lets take Google as an example. Google did not rely on search engines to build its brand and awareness. The company had a very strong vision - something like ‘make the world's information searchable'.

Using this vision they came up with innovation after innovation. Best keyword search, Google Maps, Earth, Street View, gmail, Images, News, Indexing Libraries, Books and  Magazines, People etc. People just loved what the Google brand stood for and then the word spread and basically all the original search engines like Altavista, Excite and even Yahoo either went by the wayside or found themselves struggling.

Long-term value is built into a brand when consumers can imagine your brand being around well into the future. A great line from The Brand Bubble: "Consumers nowadays are like investors, if they see future prosperity for a brand they'll invest now".

On understanding how customers consume media and how this consumption affects bookings on a particular site:  Ultimately it depends on a company's overall budget. If you are only spending $30k per month then you hardly want to spend $10k to manage the campaign. But if your spend is $100k then spending $10k on management can make sense when a 10% improvement is achieved. As far as "attribution models" go, if you have specific audiences you want to reach you can easily find out from Google which sites from the content network fit the criteria. Then it's simply a question of making specific ads for those sites.

Comparing direct site traffic metrics with that of paid search traffic: Setting a strategy that weans a business off Google is vital if a company is going to build a brand and drastically increase its conversion rates. 

Our direct traffic – i.e. when a users types in Oodles.com or uses a bookmark in their browser - converts at 29.5 per cent (new traffic 26.81 per cent and return traffic 35.73 per cent). By comparison, Adwords converts at around seven percent for same period (new four percent, return 20 percent).

Our brand search:

  • Oodles = 31.82 percent (new 6.45 percent and return 45.61 percent)
  • Oodles.com = 27.27 percent
  • Oodles car hire = 40 percent
Whereas keyword searches provides the following result:

  • Cheap car rental Melbourne = 3.85 percent
  • Car rental Sydney = 5.88 percent
To quote Google: "Repeat Visitors: A campaign tracking cookie will remain for six months after a visitor clicks on your AdWords ad. If the visitor returns to your website within those six months, Google Analytics will still be able to credit the visit to the original campaign...."

Effectively in such cases, AdWords will be credited as the booking source regardless of the visitor coming directly to your site during this six-month period.

Priorities for online marketing be it traditional online advertising, SEO, PPC and social media:

The number one priority should be to ensure your brand stands for something in consumers' minds. That is the key to getting word of mouth and receiving a greater percentage of visits direct to your site. 

Oodles.com has and is evolving through the phases of SEO/PPC and towards more viable alternatives with greater brand building qualities and more sustainable outcomes.

SEO is obviously an asset because you won't be so easily dropped out of the index. And SEM is a useful sales tool to build your client database while your branding is being developed and your SEO takes time to kick in.

But don't do SEO until you have a direction for your brand, otherwise you might get enough business to keep you going but you will never work out a clear direction. As a result, there's a good chance you'll end up being a fairly mediocre company.

We were against doing SEO until we had a clearer direction for the brand. We even contemplated stopping Google indexing the site to remove the distraction of SEO from our minds - in the end we compromised because investors were reluctant to follow us down that track.

When you do decide to do SEO seriously, have a dedicated SEO resource that gets paid on incentive i.e. a percentage of SEO source traffic (excluding brand searches). 

With SEM be cautious of outsourced companies who want to charge 20 percent to manage the campaign. Instead, I'd recommend paying for the setup and for two months of management only. Beyond that pay a per hour management process. Review analytics. Build repeat users and build direct traffic, and perhaps affiliate networks, so that SEO and SEM are one medium you use to get leads as opposed to the main source.

Also consider building affiliate networks because affiliate marketing is a more viable alternative to Google paid search – it provides greater long-term brand building and offers twice the ROI.

But once again, before you do anything if you can get a direction for your brand (e,g, cars for frequent renters) then you have a message and you can target the people most likely to relate to your message.
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