The traditional apparel merchant is under siege.

From discounters like Overstock.com, to flash-sale sites like Gilt Groupe and RuLaLa, fast-fashion players like Century 21 to local retailer proponent, Groupon, to massive marketplaces like Amazon, to fashion blogs like The Style Rookie, there is no part of the online apparel retailing market space that is not under pressure from new and nimble competitors.

These kinds of competitors have created a treacherous landscape for apparel retailers who can no longer expect offline-branding or retail-footprint alone to adequately secure their online fortunes. It is imperative that apparel retailers protect their turf from interlopers. Traditionally, it has been the apparel retailer that curates and interprets the fashion scene to make available all kinds of fashion for various audiences. And a retailer that has their marketing and branding efforts siloed and is not evaluating their integrated business is at risk of losing its place in the online discussion.  And, nowhere is that accelerating faster than in apparel.

In Search of Your Voice

Before you dismiss the claim of brands being left out of the online discussion as alarmist, let’s look at a simple example: men’s fashion.

Men’s Fashion

This is a good benchmark, with most shoppers looking to retailers to inform their fashion choices. But of all the listings on the first page of Google, only two are retailers, and only one is a major fashion retailer.

The threat here is not that content sites like 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 Land’s End. These brands are significantly more important to the American fashion scene than some of the minor players on this query. Why would Google, or any search engine, allow that to happen?

Actually, these results 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 are only two retailers showing up for this query on page 1? Because the apparel merchants have let this happen. They have ceded their voice in the search discussion for “men’s fashion”. 

Narrowed Search Results

As we dive deeper and narrower with words like “men’s pants”, we see a much more retailer-focused environment.

Men’s Pants

And while the term “men’s pants” is still a very broad query, it does express significant intent to deeply engage with content around “men’s pants”.  And, at this level of query, the retailer rules the day. Why?

For the top-level query, like “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. Search engines, over time, however, have learned that the average search for “men’s pants” yields a click through to a retailer.

So the question remains, how does the apparel retailer position itself, from a natural search perspective, to have a place in the broader discussion at the edges of expressed intent to create a wide funnel and compel as many users as possible to engage with their brand?

4 Pillars of Optimization

There are 4 basic pillars of optimization that elevate brands to the very widest end of the funnel, or to the very top of a particular category.

PILLAR 1:
Understanding 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. In order 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. A similarity, or association with a subject 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.  Saying, ‘I once hit 3 home runs in a high school baseball game’, does not reasonably associate you with Albert Pujols, either.) In order to be part of the conversation,the marketer must research and target those keywords that show the widest visibility and greatest point of consumer engagement and create relevancy on your site by generating 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, but laser-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, it is not. Link building drives relevance to your site for your target keywords, and the search engines recognize this as authority 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. While it may sound easy, 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 have not seen success in infiltrating the broadest kinds of discussion on the internet is because they do not create much content outside of product descriptions. In order 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 is focused on both the search engines and the users. Like editorial players, the goal is to drive visibility through the leveraging of your domain expertise. (Who knows men’s fashion like you?) 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. And, once engaged with this content, the searcher is accelerated into your sales funnel at high-velocity, creating demand as he or she comes into contact with your site.

Content is hard 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’, they’re becoming a storyteller rather than a retailer.

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The apparel retailer is under attack. From direct brand solicitations to socially-savvy shoppers hunting through Polyvore and Shopbop, the apparel retailer has never faced so much competition. But, by focusing on the four pillars of search, the 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. PM Digital is a premier search engine marketing agency with a wealth of experience taking back a retailer’s voice in the online discussion.