In the West, a major industry sprang up to help sites get noticed on search engines, but not yet in the Middle East.
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The next time you go online and use a search engine like Google or Yahoo to look for a hotel, retail store or other product or service, consider this: the results and even the way they have been ranked may have been influenced by companies using search engine marketing. The tactic aims to increase the traffic to a company's website by ensuring that a search engine such as Google finds and includes the website in its search results. The higher a website "ranks" in the search results, the more people will visit that site.
There are two approaches to search engine marketing. Some companies opt for good old-fashioned paid advertisements in the sponsored links section of a search results page, located at the top and right-hand side of the page. The search engine employs a pay-per-click revenue model, charging the company every time somebody clicks on that company's ad. The cost per click can be as low as 30 fils. The other technique, called search engine optimisation, involves trying to get a company's website into the so-called organic search results section: the rankings that are based on a website's perceived relevance to a search query.
Search engine optimisation is a versatile tool that, at its most basic level, involves listing keywords that are invisible to an internet user but that a search engine can read and use to decide the relevance of the website to a search query. Search engine marketing is a rapidly growing field in the West. The North American industry grew from US$9.4 billion (Dh34.5bn) in 2006 to $12.2bn last year, according to the US-based global Search Engine Marketing Professional Organisation (Sempo). It is projected to balloon to $25.2bn in 2011.
But it has been slow to catch on in the Middle East, largely because businesses in the region are "very ignorant" about the medium, says Husam Jandal, an internet business consultant with the Canada-based WSI Internet Consulting. "In general they are very ignorant about the fact that their potential clients and existing clients are using the internet, while they are not [doing so themselves]," he said, at a seminar about search engine marketing held in Dubai Media City.
"I think we're still behind when it comes to the business community recognising the importance of being in front of their potential clients." There are 43 million Arabic-speaking internet users, according to a report by Maktoob Research, a Jordan-based web portal and research firm. Some 65 per cent of young people in the Arab world cite the internet as their primary source of information. But it is not enough for a company just to have a website, Mr Jandal said. It has to be picked up by search engines.
"With more than 90 per cent of all traffic generated on the internet coming from search engines, it is important for the local business community to identify various ways of utilising these internet tools to achieve the desired visibility for their businesses," said Mr Jandal. Five of the six most frequently visited websites in the UAE during August were search engines, with Google and Yahoo topping the list, according to Alexa.com, a web traffic information company.
But how can companies get a search engine's attention? According to Mr Jandal, search engines do not consider how much traffic a corporate website gets, or how influential the company is in its industry. "What the search engine looks at is the content of the pages and its relevancy," Mr Jandal said. Having a domain name that reflects what a company does is "vital". "Don't call yourself www.welcometoourcompany.com because that doesn't give any information about what you do, what you sell, and the search engine will not give the page value," he added.
Applications like Flash should also be avoided because search engines cannot read them and will skip over to other websites, excluding the Flash site from the search results. A company's website should be easy to navigate, uncluttered and have an attention-grabbing message that invites the user to interact with it, said Mr Jandal. In addition to driving traffic to a website, search engine marketing can also yield valuable information about how people are interacting with a company's website, including how many times they return to it, how long they spend on it, where in the world they are accessing it from and in what language.
"It can help answer questions about why and at what point visitors are abandoning your website and if your website design is driving people away," said Mr Jandal. "Keeping a visitor on your website can be converted into a sale or into them calling you." The idea is to continuously monitor this type of information and change your company's website design, its keywords or its content if the market research warrants it.
"We have to build an effective funnel to ensure all of the traffic to the website will either be converted into a sale or will help build your brand," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org