Type the term science experiment into Google, and the first link listed will take you to the website of Steve Spangler Science, an educational toy and gift company. Each day more than 2,000 people find Spangler's site through search engines. They click through to shop for Insta-Snow Powder, refractor telescopes, and ant farms. And those click-throughs, which have helped push revenue to nearly $10 million, don't cost the company a dime.
Spangler, a former elementary school science teacher, uses what are known as organic or natural techniques to get search engines to rank his site highly. As the buzzwords suggest, it's a back-to-basics approach that puts a twist on the earliest search-placement strategies. In recent years, Web search companies, notably Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), have supplemented their traditional search results with links to sites that pay for prominence. Companies spent an estimated $8 billion in 2006 for sponsored links on search engines, according to the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, or SEMPO, a trade group.
But paying for play has become costly and unpredictable as prices for coveted keywords fluctuate--and usually rise. The average cost per click for the term DSL, for instance, was $6.82 in the first quarter of 2007, nearly twice the $3.46 it cost in late 2004, according to researcher Fathom Online. Meanwhile, new annoyances such as click fraud--in which, for example, unscrupulous competitors click your ads repeatedly to burn through your pay-per-click ad budget--have rekindled interest in organic search.
Many Web marketers already know the old techniques for getting to the top of Google: Dot your site with descriptive words, for example, or embed invisible meta-tags--basically, further descriptive words--in the page's code. Going organic effectively means combining established methods with newer strategies, such as frequent blog postings, tools that let visitors post their own content, and attractions such as video that can get attention from influential social media sites like Digg and Del.icio.us. Organic listings may be free, but the effort itself isn't always cheap. SEMPO estimates that companies spent $1.1 billion in 2006 hiring staff and consultants to boost their organic search rankings. Spangler pays up to $150,000 a year to his consultants.
Search engines constantly change the way they rank sites--Google's formula is top-secret--and Spangler, like a scientist, has continually experimented with strategies. He started a blog in 2004 on the advice of Web consultant Stephan Spencer of Netconcepts, who then spent months reviewing each of Spangler's posts and helping him tweak the language. For instance, Spangler titled one of his posts "Teachers in Florida explore hands-on science." Spencer told him nobody would ever search for that. Instead, he suggested, "Parents beware: Teachers gone wild," and advised Spangler to emphasize that science teachers were going wild about learning at a seminar Spangler organized.
When Good Morning America highlighted Spangler's Insta-Snow in a 2004 "Stupid Products" segment (it's a powder that fluffs up to resemble snow when water is added), he asked Spencer how to counter the negative publicity. The answer: "Blog that! It's great to be stupid! People are talking about it, so mention it and put some relevant links in your post." So Spangler wrote a post entitled "It's great to be stupid!" with links to the product, to the item on Stupid.com, and to Good Morning America. He included a quote from one of the anchors saying the product wasn't stupid at all.
Spangler's blog also came in handy in 2005 when he mixed Diet Coke and Mentos candy in a soda bottle, creating a chemical reaction geyser that soaked a news anchor on live television. The video was posted around the Web, and then Spangler blogged about it. Now, when Googlers search for several variations of the term Mentos, his website is listed "above the fold," meaning it's visible to most users before they need to scroll down the results page. Spangler also posted fun Web videos of himself performing other experiments. Other sites have linked to his videos, helping him gain ground in search rankings.
All these efforts have boosted more than Spangler's ego. After two years of working on organic search techniques, he has been able to rise to the top of many science-related searches. Referrals from search engines used to account for 10 percent of his site's traffic. Now it's 94 percent, and his e-commerce sales have doubled every year. The company projects online sales to exceed its established mail order business in 2008.
Despite the rise of blogging and online video, some of the old methods for getting to the top of Google remain important. Website headings should clearly state the theme of the page. Links should describe what they connect to instead of saying, "Click here." And every website should include a clear, accurate site map. Bear in mind, however, that overdoing it with these Web 1.0 tactics could actually hurt your ranking. If your website is flooded with hidden meta-tags or irrelevant content, it could be relegated to Google's "Supplemental Index," a listing of sites that Google trusts less and ranks low. That's a backwater you'd rather avoid.
Other old-school tactics have lost effectiveness as well. Swapping links with other sites can be useless because search engines now weigh the relevancy and quality of the links. "You can hurt your site by linking to bad neighborhoods, like a site that's just content stolen from other sites," says Todd Malicoat, head of Stuntdubl, a search engine consultancy in Troy, New York. The key is to develop content that users want to read. A clever Top 10 list might get you noticed on Digg. The surge of interest in watching online video has made video tutorials popular, especially when they are labeled with good captions, says Jeffrey Pruitt, president of SEMPO and executive vice president of the digital ad agency iCrossing. Spangler added a tool that allows his customers to share their experiments on his site.
If organic search sounds like a lot of work, it is. And it may take time before it pays off. Mark Levit, managing partner of VisAcuity.com, which sells reading glasses, says he spends five to six hours a week studying his results to see how changes have helped, or hurt, his organic results. Levit uses Google Analytics, a service that shows how customers get to a website and which pages they visit. He also uses HitTail, another online analytics tool, to see which search queries generate organic traffic. So far, his site, launched in June 2006, remains well down the list of searches for items like reading glasses. He says he'll be patient, since paid ads cost him between 25 and 30 percent of the gross sale price of a pair of glasses. "A sale from an organic click is much more profitable than a pay per click or a discount coupon," says Levit.