The traditional search optimization approach to enhancing brand value leaves a great deal to be desired. Although it??s critical that your brand Web site dominate its name space, there are other venues where you need to look at how your brand??s visibility is impacted through search.
If we talk about search scope, we??re looking at all the search engines and tools that create visibility for a brand. Each brand has its own search scope, depending on which search engines, tools, and directories may show results creating visibility for the brand. A few years ago, when human-edited directories like Yahoo!, Looksmart, and the Open Directory Project (DMOZ) drove significant traffic from their listings, search scope was an important part of the online marketing strategy.
In today??s Google-dominated world many companies choose to focus only on Google and Yahoo!, or just Google, thus limiting their effective search scope. But the fact remains that millions of consumers and potential business partners continue to use other search tools, and I mean many other tools ?ª not just the well-known AOL, Ask, and Microsoft search services.
Simply implementing the fundamental principles of search engine optimization usually achieves acceptable search visibilityfor a brand??s primary Web site, but search scope goes beyond the organic listings in the search results. Pay-per-click advertising extends search scope into the arena of cross-brand advertising and brand-tailcoating, where alternate sites (affiliates and competitors) chase brand-related keywords.
The unfortunate lesson business has learned is that it is sometimes necessary to cover the PPC market just to ensure that no one usurps a brand??s specific visibility through doppelganger URL branding, similar product/service identification, and other marginally acceptable but widely practiced tactics for skimming traffic away from high-value brands.
So measuring your success for brand visibility in search depends upon a number of factors. First and foremost, you have to know what people are searching for. With a high-value brand there will be thousands of queries every month for which it is virtually impossible to optimize completely (Google reports that 20-25% of each month??s queries are new). It is therefore necessary to cherry-pick the queries that have the most relevance to your brand value.
How do you measure brand value on the Web and through search? I suggest that brand value is impacted only by Web sites that consumers and potential business partners are likely to consider to be authoritative or representative of the brand owner??s own interests.
Affiliate sites do not represent brand owner interests (but my definition is not concerned with enforcement and protection of trademarks). A company??s official Web site is an obvious choice for being representative of its brand interests, but some companies maintain separate corporate and ecommerce domains, and both types of sites would directly affect brand interests.
Some companies also outsource certain activities, such as corporate blogging, to separate URLs (VisInsights is an example of such an outsourced activity ?ª Visible Technologies operates VisInsights for precisely that purpose). It follows that an outsourced corporate activity represents the brand owner??s interest.
Where a company has established multiple active domains it becomes necessary to achieve significant search visibility for all the domains, even though they all represent a similar brand interest (which may encompass multiple brands). A clearly articulated strategy must determine which URLs will be used for brand visibility. In a collective effort you want a flagship domain that serves as a brand hub.
There are several large companies that do a good job of orchestrating their search visibility. For example, if you visit the Orbitz or Hotels.com sites you??ll find front-page links to co-branded sites, thus enhancing visibility for partner sites and (presumably) enhancing search visibility. Some other large corporate entities take a different approach. IAC, for example, does not co-brand its Ask Search across its 60-70 Internet properties (including Ask??s sister search, AskCity).
Co-branding partner sites is important to enhancing brand visibility through search because it helps the search engines find related sites, and in turn those sites may help each other in search results (although this is not a guaranteed effect by any means). The extension of a brand??s reach through multiple domains builds brand credibility with the Web audience because they see the brand associated with trusted domains. Trust builds trust.
An emerging sector in search scope optimization is site search. As Web site inventories grow, as brand networks build out to new domains,
providing users with a focused search experience has become increasingly important. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen notes in this April 2007 AlertBox that ??site visitors mainly use the primary menus and the search box??.
Site search is problematic for several reasons, however. First, most organizations don??t have the resources to implement comprehensive site search technology for large content sites. They can turn to external resources, such as Google??s Search Appliance, but each third-party tool comes with limitations. Web-based and open-source tools usually have page limits (often around 10,000) that may make it impossible to cover all the current data in a large resource site.
Many sites offer search-service based site search, but the search engines don??t necessarily index and report all results for pages. Ask??s ExpertRank technology intentionally prevents a lot of content from reaching the public view index. Google??s (now hidden) Supplemental Results Index is devalued in comparison with its Main Web Index ?ª often leading to the wrong pages being promoted above accurate information because of Google??s overreliance upon linkage. Yahoo! may crawl non-existing pages on sites that don??t configure their 404 Error handling according to Yahoo!??s expectations.
As of today, the only viable site search option from a major search engine is Microsoft??s Live Search Box because Microsoft recently expanded its search index and is not devaluing pages (in site search) that obtain fewer links than less relevant pages.
But even Microsoft??s site search functionality has practical limits. Sites that are crawled less frequently may not see new content appear in their site search for weeks or months. Although the major search engines all support XML sitemap discovery (including Microsoft), you have to update your XML site maps whenever you add content and the autodiscovery process does not guarantee inclusion.
Hence, it becomes necessary to ensure that new Web content is made available to site visitors through multiple channels (and in as many visible locations as possible).
But another limitation of site search with all search engines is that large networks may not be able to include all their content in third-party site search tools. The typical search engine site search plug-in allows up to about 5 domains. Google??s Custom Search Engine provides greater control over the number of domains that can be indexed
but unfortunately the CSE tends to favor one domain over others and doesn??t handle Supplemental Results pages any better than Google??s Web Search.
As there are no perfect solutions for site search, a solid site search strategy has to be flexible and evolving. You should review your site search activity on at least a quarterly basis, look for new options and solutions twice a year, and upgrade your site search resources on an annual basis. If you seek out user feedback, ask them how they feel about your site search and what they would like to see in it.
Site search helps make your sites sticky and it reinforces the value of your brand because it eliminates the competition for visitor attention from other sites. If your business network offers extensive resources through product pages, consumer feedback and discussion, articles, and/or special features your brand value increases as you build search visibility for your inventory. Expanding your search scope improves brand performance overall, although you need to strike a balance between the various options available to you and the resources you have to allocate for search visibility.