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Why Search Marketing Is Difficult

Because you bought this book, you probably were already convinced that search is a big marketing opportunity, but it’s time for a reality check: Search marketing is not easy to do.

Although every company differs, large and small companies typically face different challenges in search marketing. (If your organization is medium sized, you might have some problems of each.) Because these are generalizations, your company might have some differences from its stereotype, but understanding what can go wrong can help you analyze your own situation.

Normally, large organizations have the advantage in marketing, but small companies sometimes have the upper hand in search marketing. Big companies still have some advantages, but it is a much more level playing field than with other areas of marketing. Let’s investigate the success factors for search marketing and see how they relate to company size.

You Need Flexibility

Smaller companies are generally “light on their feet”—more flexible than their larger counterparts. This flexibility provides small companies with fundamental advantages in search marketing, starting with a basic willingness to pursue search marketing in the first place.

Large companies are often “stuck in their ways”: They execute the same kind of marketing programs year after year, and it can take them a long time to even try search marketing. Some corporate types are risk-averse, not wanting to go out on a limb for the new thing. Small companies are often more willing to take a chance on an unproven approach and are more likely to raise investment in search marketing quickly when they see it is working.

Large companies are often slower than small ones, which hurts search marketing in several ways. First, search marketing inevitably requires changes to your website. The faster you can make those changes, the faster your search success can begin. Moreover, continuing success depends on frequent fine-tuning. Smaller companies tend to be able to make changes with more speed and less bureaucratic wrangling.

You Need Coordination

As you’ll learn, search marketing requires many little things to be done properly in order to succeed. For small companies, this isn’t that hard; sometimes everything can be done by a handful of people, or even one individual. But large companies usually have daunting coordination challenges that can hamstring their search marketing programs. At large companies, you often hear some telltale conversations about splitting up the web team or even dividing the website into multiple parts, which makes search marketing a lot tougher:

  • We need multiple teams of specialists: “The copy writers and the HTML coders really should be in different departments....”
  • We need multiple product sites: “Each product line should really run its own separate website....”
  • We need multiple audiences: “We should really have different user experiences for consumers than for our business customers....”
  • We need multiple countries: “It is really easier for everyone if the Canada and the U.S. sites are separate....”
  • We need multiple technologies: “We decided to keep using the Apache server for the marketing information, but we are putting all of the commerce functions into WebSphere....”

Each time a large company starts separating itself in these ways, it makes the coordination for search marketing more difficult. In Chapter 10, “Make Search Marketing Operational,” we’ll offer some ways to help, but this need to work together across business units is more difficult for search marketers in large enterprises. And, the bigger the company, the harder it is.

You Need Name Recognition

Small companies often have the advantage in search marketing, but not here. Large companies have a big edge in publicity. Searchers know their names and the names of their products. Searchers are more likely to include those names in searches, a big edge for the large companies that own those names.

But it does not end there. The bigger and more well-known the website, the more other websites will link to it and the more social media activity will mention that site—both of these are indicators to Google of a site’s importance. Big sites get links and social media activity for whatever they do without even asking. Because everything that big companies do seems newsworthy, they attract news coverage for every tiny product announcement (which means links from news organizations and other well-respected sources). Customers, suppliers, and resellers cozy up to large companies to bask in their reflected glory. Large corporations often have multiple sites that are interlinked, adding to their link advantage. The link popularity and social media activity that large sites enjoy helps their search rankings immeasurably.

Because of all of these factors, large brands have an advantage in search marketing. Studies show that content from large brands often outranks content from smaller brands that could be of higher quality. You can think of this as a “trust factor.” Just as a traveler might be more likely to stay at a name brand motel chain rather than the locally owned inn, and just as someone passing through a new neighborhood might opt to eat at McDonald’s (a known quantity) rather than the unknown local burger joint, search engines have shown a bias to large brand content, other things being equal.

On the flip side, these large brand names can be attacked in social media by pressure groups, disgruntled employees and customers, and anyone with an axe to grind. Because social media is so important to search success, big brands are big targets that can make search marketing more difficult. On balance, however, search marketing is easier when you are well-known.

Small companies can sometimes attract the out-sized attention of big brands, but it takes a lot more work—and often a good bit of luck.

You Need Resources

Larger organizations typically have a huge edge in marketing resources, but they are often slow to devote them to something new, such as search marketing. So, although larger budgets can be an advantage, sometimes small companies spend more than big companies do.

In addition, the largesse of big companies sometimes gets in their own way. Small companies are much quicker to seek outside expertise, and might get better advice from consultants than corporations get from their less-experienced internal personnel who are not search marketing experts.

When it comes to money, more is better than less. But most big companies squander this advantage with the overly complex design of their websites. Search engines greatly prefer simple sites without expensive technical gimmickry that small companies typically cannot afford. There are often good reasons to use these fancy techniques, but when they are overused or used incorrectly, they quash search marketing. Small companies tend to have simple, clean designs that search engines love.

You Have Lots of Competition

Each of the preceding obstacles to search success is important, but the toughest roadblock to your success is your competitors. You are not the only person joining the search marketing game. So the good news is that you are catching the wave, but the bad news is there are a lot of other surfboards out there to contend with.

Not too many years ago, small companies had search marketing to themselves, because many large corporations were oblivious to the importance of search marketing, or had experimented and failed. Today, large organizations are becoming formidable search marketing competitors. They are using their superior resources to address the other weaknesses outlined earlier so that they can leverage their brand names for their natural advantages.

Big business is not the only source of new competition. As a search marketer, you might already be doing battle in global markets, and you see that competitors seem to be getting more sophisticated about search marketing, lessening your advantage. Or, worse, you do business in just a few local markets and you are starting to face competition from other regions or countries that could never do business in your territory before the Internet, but now they can.

Before the web, companies seeking to enter foreign markets used exporters, licensees, joint ventures, or wholly owned subsidiaries to create a local presence in each market. Although these techniques still have their place, the web allows businesses to sell directly to a customer, no matter what country each one is in. The rise of global search engines helps a business from across the world seem just as “local” as one a block away. It’s likely that your business will be competing with new entrants around the world, if it is not doing so already.

Even more competitors are out there, and they are right in your own backyard—local small businesses. Search engines can personalize results by location, so millions of local businesses whose ad budgets are spent on Yellow Pages advertising are now able to profitably engage in search marketing. If you work for a large company, such as Home Depot, you might have had search marketing to yourself, but will soon face increased competition from local hardware stores.

What happens as more and more marketers realize how well search marketing works? As changes in search marketing make it profitable for more and more businesses? The simple answers are that it makes it tougher to rank at the top of the organic search results, and it also makes paid search marketing more expensive because more companies are bidding the price up. So what do you do about that? That’s what the rest of this book is about.

Before leaving the topic of competition, we should point out that the changes leading to more competition offer opportunities, too. Just as your business might face competitors from new places, your business can seek customers in new markets that were not cost-effective in the past. If you can become efficient enough, you can become a feared competitor in any market using search marketing and the web.

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