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The Strategy of Search

There's a reason not every chess piece moves the same way. Together, you can use the tactical advantages of a knight, a queen or a rook to execute your strategy. There are chess players that react to every move as it comes, playing the game at a purely tactical level. This is the way most of us start (and pretty much still the way I play). You don't think ahead to what the next move could be. Strategy plays no part. Each turn, you look at the board and make what appears to be the best move.

Now, if your heart is set on becoming a competitive chess player, you probably won't go too far with this tactical approach. At some point, you'll have to start playing the game at the strategic level. You will need to look at the big picture, and explore the possible impact of all your opponent's future moves.

In my opinion, search marketing is a game that's been played at the tactical level for the past 8 years. Strategy hasn't really been part of the game. That's going to have to change.

What's a Search Tactic and What's a Search Strategy?

Sometimes it's difficult to determine the difference between tactics and strategies, especially in a situation where everything is still relatively new. Let's imagine you're doing search marketing for an accounting software developer. A search tactic would be achieving a top 5 ranking for "small business accounting software" on Google, or bidding a certain amount for "accounting software packages" on Yahoo. Even measuring conversions and making necessary adjustments would be considered a tactic. Each of these is analogous to a single move in a chess game. Even if you're doing all of the above, it's still a collection of tactics. There's not an overlying strategy.

A strategy would entail looking at the target customer and really understanding how that target customer would research accounting software. Let's create a quick profile. The target customer is the owner of a small business who's looking for more powerful accounting software than the entry level package she currently has. She typically researches larger buying decisions online. She usually uses a search engine to help find information about a product or service fairly early in the buying cycle. She prefers unbiased information sites to manufacturer's sites.

With even this rudimentary level of understanding, you suddenly have a much larger picture of the strategic approaches you can take. You can research the best potential keyword choices, understanding that the target will likely use many iterations of the query. You can see how other marketing channels might affect your search strategies. You have a good understanding of how your target customer will react with paid and organic listings. Now, you can start to look 2 or 3 moves ahead, anticipating what the customer might do. And, as you do so, you start to move from tactical marketing to strategic marketing.

The Questions You have to Ask Your Customer

To use search strategically, you have to ask your customer some specific questions about their use of search engines in regards to your business:
  • Which search engine do you use?
  • Where do you first look on a search engine results page?
  • Would you use a search engine when looking for the product or service I provide?
  • When would you use a search engine?
  • Why would you use it?
  • How would you use it (what keywords or series of keyword queries would you use)?
  • What other sites would you visit during your research?
  • What would you be looking for to cause you to click through to one site rather than another?
  • What would you be hoping to find on the site once you did click through?
This represents the bare minimum of information you need to start to get some understanding of how your customer will use search in their buying cycle.

Survey the Competitive Landscape

Now, you can begin to see how you'll compete for the user's attention against other sites that may be listed for the prime keyword queries. Understand that searching is usually an iterative process and you'll have to intersect your customers awareness at least once in this process, and hopefully more often.

Go to the primary engines (the first one is almost guaranteed to be Google) and look at the first place your target customer's eyes will go. See what other sites are currently showing here, and what they're offering to your customer. Is it what they're looking for? Click through on the most promising links and see if the competitors fulfill the promise once the searcher lands on the site.

Can you see the strategic perspective, rather than a purely tactical one? Suddenly, strategic objectives become much more important than the ones you've probably been obsessing about. Position is important, but the text in the listing is at least as important. Being outbid by your competitor on the sponsored listings becomes less irritating if you know that it's the organic listings that represent the prime real estate.

Why Search hasn't needed Strategy until Now

Eight years is a long time to be doing anything at only a fraction of its potential. I believe it's a testament to the power of search that it's been providing good, and sometimes exceptional, results with this tactical approach.

Most search advertisers have been quite happy with their results. If you happen to get a good position on a high traffic word, you're going to generate a lot of traffic, no question. And for many marketers, this has been good enough. But as search matures, the thinking that goes into maximizing the potential of it has to mature too.

The Missing 40% of Search Marketing

The best marketers understand that there are 5 strategic steps to marketing:

1. Understand the Customer

You have to have a good, general understanding of your customers. You have to know how they live, what motivates them, what their pains are and what they care deeply about.

2. Understand Your Customer's Feelings about Your Product

Now, you need to know how your target customer feels about your product specifically. What motivates them to purchase? What pains do you solve? What hot buttons do you have to push to encourage the sale?

3. Find the Channel to Reach Them

With target customers identified, you have to find the most cost effective means of reaching them. What channels will deliver the message to the right person, at the right time, at the right price?

4. Deliver the Message

You've got the medium, now you have to craft the message. Here you find that magic match between your target customer's needs and motivators and your product or service's benefits, relative to your competitors.

5. Establish an ongoing Relationship

It's not enough anymore to just close the sale. You have to work towards building a relationship with the customer. You have to maximize the lifetime value of that customer by giving them a reason to continue doing business with you.

Search marketing has largely ignored every step except 3. We've been obsessed about rankings, without considering what the ranking means to the business or the potential customer. Yes, rankings are an important tactic (Atlas One Point's latest release on the effect of paid search rankings on click through rates seems to confirm this) but only when taken as part of a bigger strategy. You have to know the right keywords, the right engine, the right place on the page, and the right text in the listing to capture the attention of the customer. You can only do this if you understand the customer. Then, after you've captured the click, you have to deliver the right information on your site, and nurture the lead into a prospect with the right conversion triggers. Again, it comes from understanding. Search marketers have to start looking beyond simple rankings.

Strategy is Hard Work

It's not easy to think strategically. When you approach things on a tactical level, you have the luxury of focusing on the task at hand. With a strategic approach, you constantly have to be making decisions based on a delicate balance of a number of different factors. Every choice has to be made with an understanding of the impact it has on all the other factors.

When it comes to search, you not only have to be aware of the entire search process, but also how all the other channels might affect the consumer's use of a search engine. Is there a television campaign running that might generate additional or unique search engine usage? Will the story that's running in a newspaper create more traffic through search?

The pay off comes with the dramatic improvement in effectiveness. When search advertising budgets climb to thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars monthly, the time invested in crafting your strategy will pay you back several times over. And once you make the move to thinking strategically, it will give you a whole new perspective on how to use search as a marketing channel. It will also put you far ahead of your competition.
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Copyright 2004 - Searchengineposition Inc. - All rights reserved
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