Search engine basics

5th Apr 2012 | 08:00

Search engine basics

Getting the most out of natural and paid search

Search engines account for a significant part of the web traffic that most websites receive, so it's important that you get your search engine strategy right.

Web analytics business Experian Hitwise's figures for December 2011 saw over 2.18 billion visits to online retailers in the UK, with 43% of the traffic coming directly from search engines and more than nine in ten visits from search engines where from Google (91.75%), followed by Microsoft (3.57%), Yahoo (2.53%) and Ask (1.8%).

Paid search v's natural search

The traffic that comes from search engines can be split into two categories, paid and free. Free traffic comes from the "natural search" or "organic search" results. The natural search links are essentially anything in the middle column on the search engines – although occasionally the first few results below the search box can also be paid search and are labelled as "Sponsored Links."

The information in the natural search results section is gathered by the search engines from your website via "bots" – it's short for robots. These bots go to your website at regular intervals and go through the pages of your site, gathering information, which is then held in the search engines index.

Paid search results are the links that appear just below the search box and to the right of the search box. Anyone can buy a link on Google, but where and if you appear in the lists below and to the right depends on how much you are willing to pay, and on your relevance to the search that someone has just entered.

Until you start to advertise on search engines all of your traffic from search engines will be free. So it's worthwhile making sure that you are maximising on your free traffic before you start to spend on paid advertising.

If you're confused between the difference between natural and paid search then don't be, you're not the only one. In a survey "2010 Search Engine Results Page (SERP) Insights Study" in 2010 performance marketing experts Performics found that only 63% of users in the US were able to tell the difference between a paid search and a natural search result. And that data varied alarmingly by age, of those under 30 years of age, 80% said they knew the difference, but of those over 30, only 59% could tell the difference between the two.

Natural search and search engine optimisation (SEO)

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the "science"- some say "art" - behind maximising your free traffic. The secret of good SEO is to get your results to appear higher up the page, and most of the theory behind SEO is based on common sense. You can do SEO yourself, or you can employ other people to do it for you, and there are millions of businesses that make a lucrative living from helping businesses exploit this free traffic from search engines.

The basics of SEO are simple. Make your site easy to navigate, label everything, and keep your site fresh and useful and you will get traffic. The bots that navigate your site are essentially dumb, they follow links and they grab text and pictures. If you hide links in Flash, and if you don't tell them that a link is going to take them to the "Contact Us" page and instead call it "link27" then you're going to put them off.

If you confuse the bot, then Google assumes a real person will be confused too, and so you are pushed further down in the listings. If the bot encounters the same information every time it visits it will reduce the frequency of its visits, and your site will get pushed down the search list. If your site is being updated constantly, then the bot will increase the frequency of its visits, and your site will rise up in the natural search rankings on the search engine.

Most of the "art" of SEO is trying to second guess what Google does in between visiting your site and how that then translates into the position on the natural search results. There's a definite correlation between the frequency of change, and your position, and the speed of response of your web server and the position. Everything else is guesswork.

If your site takes a long time to load on a browser, then Google will push you down the list of sites it displays. If you create a website that's confusing you're also likely to appear further down the list.

The basics of paid search

Paid search is unlike any other advertising you will have encountered, unlike other advertising you only pay for the customers that come to your site, and the responses are instant.

Paid search is a bit like turning on a customer tap. With paid search you create a campaign, decide how much you want to spend on the total campaign, decide on the maximum you want to pay for a click-through to your site, and then switch the advertising on. Your customers will then start arriving, and it's then up to your site to do the conversion from prospect to purchaser. When the money runs out on your campaign then your customers stop coming.

Paid search on Google is through Google AdWords ( With an AdWords campaign you can enable adverts on all of Google's extensive search empire from Google Search, through adverts on Gmail, and through to local adverts on Google Maps.

The basic element in AdWords is the keyword and phrase, and the more targeted the keyword the better. For example if you're a Renault garage based in Camden then your AdWords would probably be "car servicing in Camden", "MOT's in Camden", "Renault service Camden." The secret is to guess what your customer is putting into the search engine, and then try and structure your keywords around that.

Creating a successful AdWords advert

The good news is that you can alter your keywords and your adverts as many times as you want, and unlike SEO you have complete transparency on results. You can see just how many people have seen your advert, you can see exactly how many have clicked through, and if you have your site setup correctly you can then see how many have converted, and how many have gone elsewhere.

If the advert isn't performing well, then it's a simple process to change the wording. As you get better at working with AdWords you'll find you'll setup multiple campaigns all with different wording. You can then instantly see which performs best, the ones that aren't performing can be switched off, and you can either transfer the funds to the ones that are, or you can create new variations of the best performing advert to see if there's further advances to be made.

Pay per click (PPC) fee

The other key element of an AdWords campaign is Pay Per Click (PPC). When a user enters a search term in Google, the search engine will quickly compare that with the keywords purchased in AdWords. When it finds a match it will then look at each advert to see the PPC. The more you are willing to pay, the higher up on the page your advert will appear and the faster your marketing budget disappears.

If you have overstock that you want to get rid of quickly then bid high, but remember you need to be able to cope with the traffic and the orders. If you want your marketing budget to last longer then, bid low.

The search engine that's right for you

While we have concentrated on Google there are other search engines, and there are lots of search engines for specific markets that you should be aware of. While the market specific search engines may not have the traffic of Google, they could be more effective for your business. The only way to find out is to try them and see.

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