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September 25, 2004
Search Engine Results - The Great Equalizer
You scroll down past the banner ads and enter your search term. You pass the
"sponsored results" without a glance. You ignore the shaded results to the
right, as well as the additional "sponsored results" at bottom. Hiding somewhere
in the middle of it all, you finally find the results you came for.
Welcome to the world of natural search engine results- a world where mom-and-pop shops
compete with million dollar companies, where million dollar companies compete with billion
dollar corporations. And, while many will argue to the contrary, the playing field is more
or less level. Small companies can and do dominate their behemoth competitors in this
world, for a variety of reasons.
What is natural search?
For those who aren't quite clear what the term means, "natural" or
"organic" search describes the "editorial" search engine results on
any particular engine. These results are purported to be completely non-biased - meaning
that the engine will not accept any amount of money to influence the rankings of any
individual sites. This is quite different than the paid advertising that appears in
"sponsored" or "featured" search engine results, in which higher
positions are rewarded for to the companies willing to pay the most per visitor.
Why is natural search important?
Savvy searchers who understand the difference between paid and natural results are more
likely to hold the natural search engine results in a higher regard, much like a person
reading a magazine would probably be more positively influenced by an article about a
particular company than by a paid advertisement from the company.
It is also likely that natural search will become more important in the coming months.
Yahoo's new SiteMatch program, which mixes some paid search engine results with natural
results, is certain to get some close scrutiny from the FTC (even though the fees paid are
not supposed to influence rankings). This type of public attention will no doubt educate
some oblivious users as to what "sponsored results" actually are. More
importantly, other search engines are likely to use this as a means of differentiation
from Yahoo. It is no coincidence that AskJeeves announced that it was getting rid of its
similar program the day after Yahoo's new program was unveiled, claiming that it was
impossible to produce unbiased results using this methodology. Microsoft also recently
claimed that they were taking steps to further differentiate paid results from natural
results. No matter what the end result, one probable outcome of this new attention to paid
search engine advertising is that more average searchers will learn the differences
between paid and natural search engine results, and many will instinctively favor the
What advantages do huge corporations have?
Certainly, large companies do have some specific advantages when it comes to natural
a. Links- the primary advantage that large corporations have is their
ability to obtain large amounts of inbound links, which can have a huge impact on search
engine rankings. Often these links are given freely without the company asking (or being
aware that it is happening). Many of the huge corporation's vendors, affiliates, partners,
etc. are eager to show their association with the company and link to the corporate site
readily and non-reciprocally. Large corporations can also facilitate huge increases in
link popularity through a simple corporate policy requiring inbound links from any
companies wishing to work with them. In addition, very large corporations may have several
websites, which can sometimes be effectively linked together for additional link
b. Budget- although history shows that a large percentage of major
corporations do not spend wisely in this arena, larger corporations typically have larger
marketing budgets then their smaller competitors. However, this does not necessarily mean
that they will readily allocate a portion of that budget for search engine optimization,
as discussed below.
What advantages do smaller companies have?
While the advantages of huge corporations, particularly in the area of link popularity,
can be difficult to overcome, it is often unnecessary to try. A large percentage of such
companies consistently seem to shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to natural
search engine optimization, a primary reason why small companies can often outperform them
in search engine results. Specific advantages include:
a. A willingness to pursue the channel- Smaller companies are
typically more willing to devote resources to natural search than large corporations. Huge
things have to happen for a major corporation to get involved in this "new"
channel, a channel far removed from the traditional marketing methodologies used to build
the giant. Few corporate underlings want to be the one to put their neck on the line and
recommend something completely new and "unproven". Even when a large corporation
looks into natural search engine optimization as a potential marketing tool, it can take
many months, and sometimes years, for a final decision to be made.
b. A willingness to change the company website- Huge corporations face
similar problems when it comes to changing to the corporate website. Within such entities,
a person can often not get so much as a comma removed from the text of a secondary page
without holding several upper-level management meetings and, ultimately, making a board
presentation. Smaller, leaner companies are able to approve necessary website changes more
quickly, and are almost always more willing to quickly adapt to the needs of both visitors
and search engines.
c. The willingness to outsource- Larger companies have more internal
resources at their disposal, and are less likely to outsource this specialized service to
someone with proven experience. Often, search engine optimization is treated as an
afterthought and dumped on an IT person, who typically has too much to do already and will
approach the problem solely from a technical standpoint. Natural search engine
optimization is by necessity a combination of marketing and technology. Newcomers to the
field (especially those who treat the discipline as strictly a technical issue) often make
fundamental mistakes that at best do not get results and at worst put sites at risk of
d. A lack of technical hurdles- Huge corporations are more likely to
have technical issues on their website that can prevent search engines from indexing all
of their pages. Often the pages of corporate websites are generated "on the fly"
from large databases, and such pages (without modification to the URLs) are sometimes
never indexed. In addition, (although usability studies are making this happen less
often), some huge corporations have their sites built entirely in flash or use other
technologies that are virtually invisible to search engines.
The Bottom Line
To most huge corporations, search engine optimization is often a very small piece of an
enormous puzzle - and it is a piece they have been doing without for years. The necessary
steps required to fully embrace the channel are often enough to stop any well-intentioned
initiative in its tracks. As most search engine optimization experts will tell you, some
of the most egregious search engine mistakes are consistently made by household name
companies - leaving their smaller, leaner competitors the opportunity to take full
About the Author:
Scott Buresh is managing partner of Medium Blue Search Engine Marketing. His articles
have appeared in numerous publications, including ZDNet, WebProNews,
MarketingProfs, DarwinMag, SiteProNews, SEO Today, and Search Engine Guide.
He was also a contributor to the recently released Building Your Business with Google
For Dummies (Wiley, 1994). Medium Blue is an Atlanta search engine optimization company
with local and national clients, including Georgia Pacific, DuPont, and Boston Scientific.
The SEO Book: (by
Aaron Wall) Author Aaron Wall takes you from A to Z on a journey to understand the basics
of Search Engine Optimization. No hype, just honest and effective advice. This eBook comes
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The Nitty Gritty of Search
Engine Optimization (by Jill Whalen) This special report in ebook form is probably the
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