What's in a word?

Retailers can't afford to ignore the Web as a key marketing vehicle. Whether posting a simple infor­mation page, or creating a full blown e-commerce site, today's retailers are discov­ering their Web sites — and the roads that lead to it — are an integral part of their marketing budget.

"If you build it they will come but only if they can find it," says Marty McGinnis, retail technology expert and President of McGinnis & Company. "There needs to be as much thought put into the search process as in the content of your site. Ask yourself, how often do you do a search and look at the hits on the second page?"

It's a fact that even the best sites in the world won't garner sales if you don't do some work behind the scenes to make your presence known. That's why resourceful retail marketers are always on the lookout for traffic-building channels and tools that can help spread the good word and draw more clicks.

Rising above the clutter Mastermind Toys for example, has found that with a bit of effort it has been able to beat out Amazon and other major players when it comes to online searches. Do a Google search on certain keywords or phrases — such as "educational toys," "Playmobil" or "Groovy Girls" — and voila! There's Mastermind Toys sitting comfortably at or near the top of the page each and every search.

It has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with strategic thinking. What Mastermind has done is a classic example of the art of search engine opti­mization (SEO).

As Jeff Quipp , President of Ajax, Ont.-based Search Engine People explains, "Category searches are getting more and more prevalent. Each search can use hundreds of different variables to determine your placement on a Google page."

To try and understand the mechanics of search engine optimization would take a sci­ence degree and a working knowledge of algorithms. In simple terms, search engines are designed to organize all available infor­mation so people can find it. There are two types of searches: by company name (much like the White Pages in a phone book); or by keyword or category (like the Yellow Pages).

The way to optimize the process — and make your way near the top of the list every time a keyword is entered — is to ensure your site is search engine friendly and con­tains the right keywords in the right places. Of course there's much more than just plug­ging in your favourite words here and there on your Web pages to make it happen, which is why there are experts on the process.

The discipline also requires constant vigi­lance to stay on top — along with a good head for knowing when to pick your bat­tles. For example, optimizing some key­words just isn't worth the effort, Mastermind President Andy Levy explains. "It would be a Herculean effort to optimize a brand like Lego or generic words such as 'robots,' so it's not worth beating our heads over that. But for terms like Groovy Girls or Playmobil, optimiza­tion works well for us."

You have to know how to define rele­vant keywords and their potential, con­firms Quipp. "Most retailers can't go for 'toys' or 'flowers' if they don't dominate the space. It's just too competitive. The more specific the keyword choices, the better the conversion."

Whatever the complexity of the under­lying technology and processes may be, a good search engine optimization strategy works. Since investing in the strategy in partnership with Search Engine People, Levy reports the percentage of total online sales quickly grew from nominal to well in excess of the two-and-a-half per cent industry norm.

While he won't give away too many trade secrets, Levy does say that since Mastermind has been focusing on the SEO side of the marketing equation, "I can say: mission accomplished. Online sales have grown dramatically year over year, and we've been extending our brand to markets outside the Greater Toronto Area. In fact, since investing in search engine optimization, a vast majority of our sales are from outside the GTA."

Butch Langlois, CEO of Truition, sup­pliers of e-commerce software for retail­ ers, agrees savvy Web marketing is integral to online success. "The Web is a great lev-eler if you know how to work it. You can have your brand alongside a Wal-Mart or a Best Buy. It's really pretty amazing how, with the right tools, you can build your brand to a worldwide audience."

No matter how great your Web site might be in terms of design and ease of use, a lot of online success comes down to having your name where it needs to be — especially when one considers that almost 90 per cent of consumer online purchases are initiated by search­es says Langlois. "If you're not in that search term, and not optimized to be part of that search, you'll lose out on a huge opportunity."

- by Denise Deveau