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How high street retailers can win customers through search engines

Retail Week wrote a feature triggered by Screen Pages' report on how high street retailers do search engines, entitled "Seek and you shall find" by Liz Morrell.

High street retailers would never dream of opening a store, then not tell customers where it is or refuse to let them in. Yet this is effectively what many high street giants are doing when they fail to understand the usefulness of search engines as a driver of traffic to their web site.

Search engines account for more than 80 per cent of all internet traffic. According to search engine optimisation and web site promotion services company Ambergreen, more than 70 per cent of all e-commerce transactions originate from a search and over 60 per cent of users visit search sites every month.

"If your site is not optimised - or even worse, optimised badly - the chances of your online business being found are virtually non-existent," says an Ambergreen spokesman.

E-commerce solution provider Screen Pages head of online marketing Tim Ireland, author of a recent report into the performance of high street retailers on search engines, says: "It's an overly complacent retailer that doesn't actively pursue market share.

Potential shoppers, who use generic searches or seek specific products or product types via search engines, should be looked upon as new customers or potential converts to a brand. In the real world, attracting footfall in stores is a critical trading issue. Gaining market share in single-digit percentage points from the competition consumes much management and board attention."

However, management is failing to address the issue. "Ultimately, it's a lack of awareness. Even the ones who do know about it are not addressing it properly or effectively. It's a management issue," says Screen Pages managing director Roger Willcocks.

Lysander Meath Baker, director of internet consultancy Digivate, says most high street retailers have the wrong online priorities. "The majority see the internet as a form of above-the-line marketing. In other words, many retailers see the web as a promotional tool that costs money, not a transactional channel that makes money," he says.

James Roper, chief executive of e-tail body IMRG, says the web has slipped down the agenda with the high street management boards as they focus efforts on competing in a toughening bricks-and-mortar world. "I don't think the boards of the big companies are even looking at it," Roper says.

Ignorance is no bliss
Using their bricks-and-mortar stores as justification for doing nothing is no excuse, according to Roper. "Then you are missing out on all the other searches where customers are researching online, but buy in-store - you can't ignore that," he says.

High street retailers are also failing to understand how people shop, assuming they will be searching only for their brand name. According to Screen Pages, an estimated 1 million UK web visitors use the search term Tesco every month in the Yahoo! and Google search engines combined, but a further 500,000 use the terms shopping and home shopping.

Carphone Warehouse head of e-commerce Andy Harding says search engine optimisation is vitally important for the mobile phone and telecoms retailer and is one of the key sources of traffic to its site. "We get a lot of people coming directly to the Carphone Warehouse site, but we are not arrogant enough to think we can just live by that." He says the retailer, despite its brand name, must also rank by specific models of phone to avoid missing out on sales. "It you are not listed there, no matter how strong your brand is, a customer may not even consider you," he explains.

Forrester Research analyst Hellen Omwanda says that the dotcom boom and bust combined with the failure of online banner ads means that high street retailers remain wary. "Part of the reason is the general attitude that high street retailers have to internet marketing. It's about them being convinced it's not just hype," she says. "But it's not hype. It's great in terms of conversions, because you are capturing a customer who is ready to make a purchase."

High street retailers must also make this form of marketing a priority if they are to avoid losing out to their pure-play rivals. "The smartest people are the likes of Figleaves.com, which has a whole top team of people, (search engines) is all that they do, they are constantly buying links and keywords. It's about absolutely having your finger on the pulse," says Roper.

Willcocks agrees. "Because they are executing well in their niche they are getting results and nicking business from these people (high street retailers) who are sleeping giants. Market-savvy retailers can beat the retailers with the biggest marketing budgets just by being clever with their search engine marketing," he says.

But few are. Typing almost any product category into search engines such as Google will bring up pages of relevant links, but high street retailers are rarely listed on the first page of results.

First come first served

According to the Screen Pages report, 30 per cent of searchers will click on the top three results and another 20 per cent on one of the other results on the first page of links returned. If retailers aren't within the first page or so of returns they are unlikely to get enough customers visiting their site.

Improving a retailer's ranking within the search engines is not a difficult process. "Ultimately, it's about making sure the site is readable," says Willcocks. This means having simply designed sites. "A lot of retail sites have a Flash front page and Google can't get past that so the site is invisible to the spiders (the indexing robots that gather data for sites)," says Jason Woodford, development director at internet marketing consultancy Academy Internet. If the indexing robot can't get into the site it simply gives up and moves on.

The Screen Pages report showed Habitat and Topshop had sites that were almost 100 per cent Flash and, therefore, had very few products visible to the search engine user. "Flashy, dynamic web sites may look good, but they are harder to rank naturally. Good detailed product descriptions and images when the user arrives, a simple transaction process and not trying to capture too much data leading up to the transaction can help boost natural ranking," says Rob Wilson, director of search engine marketing company 24/7 Search.

Meath Baker says it is a case of concentrating on usability over design. "Many retailers employ web design firms with little or no experience of building online shops. This leads to sites that are very good looking and funky, but a pain to use. Ironically, a focus on the way the brand looks often leads to slow and hard-to-use sites that probably damage the brand," he says.

The second step is about having the right keywords in the right places. "You need to make sure your copywriting describes your products effectively," says Woodford.

The final step is to ensure the site is well linked internally and externally to improve its page ranking on the search engine web sites. This ensures that the search engines realise your site is important, because it is referenced in so many places. "In terms of retail, the top rankers are the online giants Amazon and eBay," says Screen Pages.

Natural selection

As well as improving the visibility of their site among the natural ranking of a search engine is the ability for retailers to appear in the sponsored results searches by using pay-per-click.

Although retailers should be concentrating on improving their natural search engine rankings, pay-per-click advertising - where retailers bid on keywords to be top of the rankings for sponsored search engine results - is useful for short-term marketing campaigns or high-margin products because it can drive traffic straight to your site. "You need to focus on optimising your web site for the left-hand side because then traffic will come to your site for free," says Woodford. "High-volume products need to go on the left-hand side, because otherwise they will cost you lots of money (as sponsored links)," he says.

Pay-per-click also works well for those retailers that don't make it to the first page or so of natural searches or for those smaller or newer companies that want to up their profile.

"Not everyone can appear on the first page in the natural listings and on the lower pages the traffic just isn't significant enough to produce an adequate amount of sales. If you do a search for any item you can literally get millions of responses. The beauty is with pay-per-click you can get to number one in five minutes," says David Erasmus, managing director of Eyelevel, a company specialising in pay-per-click advertising.
Such paid for, or sponsored, search results have a rough click through rate of between 5 and 10 per cent according to Screen Pages.

Paul Whittaker is sales and marketing director of web site business Bathrooms365.com. A pay-per-click ad strategy has enabled him to compete against more established rivals. "Handled correctly pay-per-click advertising campaigns provide a useful short-term solution to gaining increased sales by thrusting your company and product to the front of the queue," he says.

Roper says retailers must be careful what keywords they use. "What the big brands do wrong is they buy keywords like computer or toaster. The smart guys like Dabs will go into specific keywords for products," he says.

"You can be generic, but if you are a niche retailer you want to buy niche keywords - such as wide fitting boots rather than just boots," says Woodford.

Erasmus agrees: "A lot of advertising methods are very canvassing, With this you can choose your keywords in such a targeted way that every click will result in a lead," he says.
Because of the cost of pay-per-click advertising, being specific literally pays off. "Retailers tend to concentrate on high-traffic terms and enter into aggressive bidding strategies with their competitors, hiking up marketing costs," says Wilson.

Roper says: "Pay-per-click can be good for short-term campaigns, but it can also be a black hole into which you are shovelling money if you are buying the wrong links." He says the bidding process associated with pay-per-click also means costs are rising. Carphone Warehouse uses both methods, but this is likely to change. "We see organic listings as being more important for the future, because of the increasing cost of pay-per-click," says Harding.

However, the immediacy and measurability of the web also means retailers can experiment with pay-per-click marketing. "You can start it today and get results tomorrow," says Willcocks.

Woodford agrees. "You can be straight up on the front page in five minutes. In traditional marketing, it's difficult to know what your return on investment is, but in pay-per-click you can see how much revenue you have generated," he says.
Ignorance and complacency is no longer an excuse. Roper says retailers must invest in search engine marketing. "If people want to thrive in this space they need to apply their minds to understanding it."

Willcocks agrees: "It's a crying shame that these world-class companies are not investing properly in understanding this and those that do are not executing well, yet it's money for old rope."

In an online world that allows Joe Bloggs to compete with John Lewis, high street retailers cannot afford to stand still - unless they want to continue losing out.

Search Engine action plan

  1. Work with online shop experts rather than general web design firms
  2. Ask your web designer what they have done to ensure your site ranks highly in search engine results
  3. Learn from the niche and pure-play retailers that are doing it well and stealing your business
  4. Insist on site structures and technology that allow for full search engine visibility - avoid Flash and complicated design
  5. Set up an ongoing program to manage pay-per-click keywords and search engine optimisation
  6. Understand that a search engine-optimised site won't cost much more to build - if anything - than an invisible site

High street retailers in Search Engines

In Only 28 per cent of high street retailers have broad coverage of their web site's pages in the major search engines

  • Only 50 per cent of high street retailers surveyed showed evidence of a search engine strategy
  • Of those that did only 5 per cent had page one search results in Google for generic search terms and only two made it to the top three results for their primary search term
  • Less than 40 per cent had no keywords in their category and product pages and only 22 per cent had internet-friendly page titles
  • Only two retailers had taken full care to ensure all their pages could be indexed by search engines and only 22 per cent paid attention to indexing robots (the automated programs sent out by search engines to read and index web sites)
  • Only 22 per cent have high street-grade page ranks (measure of site importance) in Google

Source: Screen Pages survey of 18 high street retailers (Tesco, Asda, Debenhams, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Bhs, Woolworths, WHSmith, Dixons, Comet, Currys, Habitat, Boots, B&Q, Argos, Mothercare, Next and Topshop)

Top Search Engine optimisation tips

  • Anchor text: make sure your hyperlinks contain your keywords/key phrases of the landing page. Search engines like this as it shows relevance for that particular keyword. Never write "click here to find out more".
  • Content is king: Good content and proper use of it can result in excellent search engine ranking.
  • Dynamic sites: Is your site dynamic? If it is, potential customers will be able to find your homepage, but it may be difficult to find pages deeper within your site.
  • Flash: Got a Flash site? Search engines cannot read Flash and you will need a lot of help to optimise your site.
  • Frames: Is your web site built using frames? If it is you will have problems ranking highly on any search engine.
  • Keywords and copywriting: Just as important as the title tag. It is not just humans that read your web pages, search engine spiders also read the words and both audiences must be catered for. There should be between 200 and 750 words on each page. The text should contain your most important keywords and phrases, keywords that are in your tags, and should also read perfectly so as not to confuse the human reader. Add additional copy-filled pages to your site, such as how-to articles, tips and tutorials.
  • Linking: Your search engine ranking is influenced by the link popularity of your site. This is determined by how many other web sites link to your own.
  • Metatags: They are not as important as they were in the past but they still have some value in search engine optimisation (SEO).
  • Tagging: Adding alt tags to the images on your web site will not only help with SEO, but can help make your site more accessible. Label your images with a description of that particular image and try to include your keywords or key phrases where relevant.
  • Web site submission: Have you submitted your web site to relevant smaller directories and local listings sites as well as the major search engines and directories? This can help with both visibility and increasing your link popularity.

Never, never, never …

  • List your keywords. It does not work and you may be blacklisted by search engines.
  • Hide keywords by using the same colour text as background of the page.
  • Submit identical pages to search engines and directories.
  • Try to trick search engines because it will lead to you being seen as a spammer and your whole site could be blacklisted.

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