Five years ago, internet marketing via the world wide web meant primarily finding ways to make the underlying HTML of a website best match the expectations of the leading search engine, which at that time was AltaVista.

How things have changed; selling via the web has crashed and risen again since then. As well as that, AltaVista has been eclipsed by newer technology, exemplified (for now) by Google.

The rise of Google to the pre-eminence that AltaVista once had reflects Google’s different approach ­ it works not so much by analysing the content of a website as by assessing how useful the rest of the internet finds that site, with linking to and from other sites being a primary measure of usefulness. The search engine optimisation techniques based on content and meta-tag data that worked before are more or less useless now.

Enter the new wave of internet marketing and analysis, as typified by Auckland-based First Rate. According to First Rate’s chief executive Graeme Frost, there’s much more to the business than simply looking good to search engines.

“Although one of the fundamental components of the businesses is search engine optimisation,” Mr Frost says, “we take it a step further. First Rate combines not only search engine optimisation, which is still the most efficient way of driving traffic to your site, but also search engine advertising. And with the help of our Media Tracker software, detailed recording of site visitors and analysis of what the results of their visits were.”

The Media Tracker software First Rate has developed is, Mr Frost says, the key differentiator between his company and other web marketers. With its help, First Rate customers can work out which parts of their website are actually producing commercial results, with every action taken by a website visitor tracked and recorded.

At the most elementary level (as most people will probably have noticed by now) banner ads, which a few years ago were the focus of much effort on the part of web developers and graphic artists, actually don’t work very well: hardly anybody ever clicks them, which means they’re expensive for the number of clicks they attract.

“Quite often they’re $4 a click,” Mr Frost says. “We guarantee less than $2 a click through our search engine optimisation work and usually we manage less than a cent a click.”

Even search engine advertising ­ which usually means those discreet little advertisements that come up at the side of results from Google searches ­ works out more effective than banners, at a mere 30c a click or so.

“Search engine ads are sold at auction, so the most popular search words, such as ‘rental cars,’ tend to be very expensive. But careful selection can help. To take tourism as an example, obtaining a good ranking for your site with search terms such as ‘tourism New Zealand’ is very hard, because there are so many existing sites that are already ranked.

“Narrowing your terms down to ‘bungy jumping in Queenstown,’ for example, can produce better results because although there are fewer people searching for those terms your site is sure to rank higher on search engine result pages.

“Analysis of words that are actually used by searchers shows some are disproportionately ignored by site owners. For example, the word ‘cheap’ is a very popular search word, yet hardly anybody wants to use it. As a result, somebody has set up and as far as I know they’re getting plenty of traffic. What appears to be a bad retail word actually works very well on the web.”

Graeme Frost’s first principles for commercially successful websites:

  • Be clear on your online business vision and strategy before you start. For example, a site can be used to support customers, qualify prospects, enable transactions or help build the companies brand and market position. This strategy should be set at the highest level before you start, not drifted into. Do not trivialise the effect of the web on your business’ future.
  • Set a website marketing strategy. How are people going to find your site? Why would they spend time in it? What is going to attract them back? A website without a marketing strategy is like the ultimate hard to find café ­ empty. This is a job for your marketing manager, not your web developer.
  • Do your market research ­ which of your products or services are most popular online or how do people buy them?
  • Look for opportunities to add value to attract visitors to your site. For example, if you are selling digital cameras have comparisons and reviews on your site.
  • Know your enemy. On the web your competitors are different; by benchmarking their tactics it is possible to learn from your competitors’ successes and failures.
  • Ensure your site is easy to use. The average site could increase sales as much as 79% through improved usability. Try buying something on a site like ­ it all should be that easy.
  • Get other related sites to link to yours. Not only do users follow links but search engines consider them when ranking your site.
  • Optimise your site. Fifty-five per cent of all web traffic comes from search engines. You need to be on the first page of as many relevant search phrases as you can.
  • Advertise your site. Small text-based ads can be placed on search engines for specific search phrases. These are a very cost-effective way of getting qualified traffic to your site immediately.
  • Measure your success ­ not only the number of visitors and where they came from, but what the business result of their visits were. This may be sales, revenues or something like registrations to an email list. At last you can measure the performance of each component of your marketing spend.