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If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us. –Adlai E. Stevenson Jr.

Anyone out there old enough to recall what life was like before the big search engines like Google, Yahoo Search and Microsoft offered the enormous virtual pathway to knowledge that has forever changed the way information is gathered and disseminated? Hard to believe that 550 million U.S. and 2.7 billion global searches are conducted daily worldwide.

Clearly, there is no longer anywhere to hide- now it’s all out there for the hunting, pecking and searching. And that can be a really good thing when you know how to get yourself, company and/or cause out from under the radar and into the Web strobe light of awareness, recognition and hits.

Now only a very small minority don’t search on line before making a purchase decision. A recent study Google ( now so pervasive we’ve added it to the lexicon as a verb) undertook with Forrester Research shows 80% of respondents rating the Web as the number one resource for finding information prior to a purchase, whether on line or off.>/p>

Data further indicated that 64% conduct research on line for a purchase they then make offline, indicating that even companies who sell entirely off line (lawyers, doctors, architects, engineers, accountants and many more) must have an online presence to carry the target from a casual search of key terms that might fit your category or industry (and your competitors) straight to your Web site, in the most direct possible way.

Your site should be relevant enough to jump up in the search engines databases because online and offline, as long as one can remember, information still leads to awareness and influences the buyer to make a purchase decision. A recent Piper Jaffray survey showed that 96% use a search engine to locate and learn more about professional service firms and professionals; 93% use it for health information; 89% for entertainment and 78% for real estate. What that means is that a company can’t afford not to optimize its online presence in today’s super e- highway.

So how does all of this work? The search engine, which is in essence an information retrieval system, leads you to content via search terms that relate to your industry in general or your company in particular. When Google rose to success in 2001, they were using PageRank and link popularity, in addition to 150 other criteria, to assess the relevancy of a Web site. The algorithm remembers where it’s been and the cross links join those into groupings that can raise your chances of being found in a search.

Web search engines store information about Web pages, which comes straight from the Web and are retrieved by a Web crawler (or spider, as it’s sometimes called) that follows the links it sees. Web page content is analyzed and then indexed based on key words that are on the site, and how relevant or popular that particular site is. So in essence, search engine optimization (SEO) is an attempt to improve the rankings for key words in search results by improving a Web site’s content, structure and links. If you go to search “real estate listings in Charleston”, you want to be the first realtor that best matches those search terms.

Search engine marketing (SEM) employs different marketing methods to increase the visibility of a Website, such as search engine optimization, as noted, and pay per click, where a company bids on key terms, the price of which can fluctuate based on the popularity of and demand for that term or terms on a given day. SEM can also involve paid inclusion, which feeds listings into search engines, most often shopping and price comparison sites (think bizrate.com or NextTag).

Paid direct links (vs. natural links that may be embedded within a site) are ad links, sometimes purchased from a search engine site. They’re like the links you see to the top or right of the Google et al search page(s) that companies pay for to increase the chance they’ll pop up faster in the search results. Paid link brokers have made a fortune selling these links, but they do pose issues for the search engine algorithms by changing the landscape of paid vs. natural links and the site’s almost autonomous (think site-inherent, earned) vs. forced (think paid, sponsored) popularity.

Two other search tricks of the trade to consider are “social media” optimization, which places opinions, thoughts and commentary within online communities via blogs, for example, hoping to spread ideas virally. Video search marketing places short video clips on sites (a highly popular one of which is YouTube) to be picked up by search engine crawlers/spiders and then promoted via better ratings.

And since we all know that the one constant is change, and the online marketplace by nature changes instantaneously, buckle up fast, as evidence of the almighty dollar behind the web comes in the form of mergers and acquisitions the likes of Microsoft buying digital marketing firm aQuantive, and global communications firm (and former employer) WPP Group buying 24/7, and Google outbidding Microsoft for DoubleClick, a leading online advertising, “rich media” agency.

These deals alone represent about $11 billion changing hands but maybe that’s small change to these media buying giants when you consider that advertising revenues are increasingly shifting to online and interactive channels (projected by Microsoft to be $40 billion this year). Change, change, kaching!

So this just scratches the surface of all there is to know about the power of search engines and how to make them work for you. The internet has forever changed the way businesses promote themselves and now that we know just how many (and often) consumers flock there to learn, find and buy now’s the time to rev up your engines, search and be found.

Elizabeth L. Boineau runs E. Boineau & Company, a strategic marketing communications and public relations firm based in Charleston.  You may reach her at eboineau{at}eboineauandco.com.

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