Using the Four Pillars of Optimization to Recapture Online Market Share

The following article appeared in Chief Marketer on February 11, 2011.

In many market sectors, the traditional retailer is under siege. Take the apparel sector. Discounters such as Overstock.com, flash-sale sites like Gilt Groupe and Rue La La, fast-fashion players including Century 21, massive marketplaces such as Amazon, and fashion blogs like The Style Rookie have created a treacherous landscape for apparel retailers, which can no longer expect offline-branding or retail-footprint alone to adequately secure their online fortunes.

An apparel retailer, or any other type of merchant, that has its marketing and branding efforts siloed and is not evaluating its integrated business is at risk of losing its place in the online discussion.   

Case in Point: “Men’s Fashion”

Before you dismiss this as alarmist, let’s look at a simple example: men’s fashion. This is a good benchmark, as most menswear customers look primarily to retailers to inform their fashion choices. But of all the listings on the first page of Google for “men’s fashion,” only two are retailers.

The threat here is not that content sites such as GQ or About.com are taking control of the men’s fashion discussion, but rather that a straight affiliate play like www.mens-fashion-tips.com could capture more natural-search attention than Armani or Ralph Lauren or even Lands’ End.

These results, of course, are an algorithmic byproduct. Search engines aren’t editorial, so they typically do not favor one site over another for content reasons. They focus on how well the site matches their interpretation of quality and relevance for a particular search query. So why did only two retailers show up on page 1 for this query? Because the apparel merchants let it happen. They have ceded their voice in the search discussion for “men’s fashion.” 

As we dive deeper and narrower with search terms such as “men’s pants,” we see a much more retailer-focused environment, with Kohl’s, Macy’s, Banana Republic, and Gap among the diverse merchants appearing on the first page. And while the term “men’s pants” is still a very broad query, it does express significant intent to deeply engage with pertinent content.  And, at this level of query, the retailer rules the day. Why?

For the top-level query, such as “men’s fashion,” the eventual desired destination of the searcher is unclear. It is hard to tell if that searcher wants to learn more about men’s fashion, see videos about men’s fashion, or shop for men’s fashion. Over times, however, search engines have learned that the average search for “men’s pants” yields a click through to a retailer.

The Four Pillars of Optimization

The question remains: How does the apparel retailer—or any other retailer, really—position itself, from a natural-search perspective, to have a place in the broader discussion, at the edges of expressed intent to engage, in order to create a wide funnel and compel as many users as possible to engage with its brand?

There are four basic pillars of search engine optimization that elevate brands to the very widest end of the funnel or to the very top of a particular category.

Pillar 1: Keywords and Targeting. To properly position yourself to be part of a broad conversation, or even to infiltrate a targeted conversation in the search engines, you must have some degree of relevancy or you won’t have the legitimacy, never mind the natural-search ranking, to even be in that conversation. 

To play in the “men’s fashion” game, your site needs to have the keywords “men’s fashion” as a prominent part of it. To be relevant, you must have a clear relationship with the topic at hand. An association with a subject alone does not make you part of the discussion. “Stylish and affordable men’s pants, $79.99, free shipping” doesn’t put you at the table, in the same way that saying, “I once hit three home runs in a high school baseball game” does not reasonably associate you with Albert Pujols, either.

To be part of the conversation, research and target those keywords that show the widest visibility and greatest point of consumer engagement. Create relevancy on your site by creating content that is appropriate to the target keyword, create pages that are appropriate to the target, and create excitement around that target.

Pillar 2: Controllable Variables—On-site Optimization. In the world of the Internet, the only things that you can totally control are the elements of your own site. By mastering these elements, such as titling and tags, as well as search-optimized navigation and site structures, you can create an environment that is more conducive to search engine visibility for the terms that you target. These elements are crucial to the search engine spiders’ being able to access all of your content. And, of course, in order to play at the widest end of the discussion, you need to have great content around the target. (See Pillar 4.)

Pillar 3: Influenced Variables—Off-site Optimization. Off-site optimization, or more fundamentally, link building, is a core exercise in building overall awareness. A laserlike focus on link building from topically relevant sites with anchor text that targets the target keyword is the key to achieving top visibility for a particular keyword.

While this may seem like a dark art to some, targeted link building drives relevance to your site for your target keywords, and the search engines recognize this as authoritative and highly relevant context. The goal is to find the appropriate link partners and craft the right message to get them engaged enough to give you a link with your target keyword as anchor text. We typically find that these kinds of link-building exercises take enormous time and focus.

Pillar 4: Content. Content, they say, is king. And the single biggest reason that apparel retailers in particular have not seen success in infiltrating the broadest kinds of discussion on the Internet is that they do not create much content outside of product descriptions. To compete with the editorially driven sites and earn your right at the premiere place for the largest search volume query, you must have content that is unique, targeted, well executed, and focused on both the search engines and the users.

As with editorial players, the goal of retailers is to drive visibility through the leveraging of your domain expertise. Further, the quality content helps drive the value of your presentation at the edges of search intent. These kinds of presentations create true value for your consumer, and that, combined with the high quality expressed in your brand promise, will help drive the searcher to click through to your site rather than an affiliate site or an editorial site. Once engaged with this content, the searcher is accelerated into your sales funnel at high velocity.

Content is difficult to create, but the double benefit of increased presentation and velocity-driven customers is simply unparalleled. To wit, watch what the Gilt Groupe has done to drive natural-search optimization into an ecommerce model.  They cleverly use content, friend-building and in-bound links to drive up their rankings and, most recently, partnering with the television show White Collar, it’s becoming a storyteller rather than a retailer.

Traditional retailers are under attack. From direct brand solicitations to socially savvy shoppers hunting through Polyvore and Shopbop, they have never faced so much competition. But by focusing on the four pillars of search, a retailer can take back its voice, grab hold of the conversation, and drive ahead its editorial voice and shape the market and maximize its unique advantages. 

Search is powerful…but only when you use it.

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