You probably think you know all there is to learn about search engines. But guess what? The whole process of getting your company’s site listed on the first page of search results (because 75% of people don’t look any further than that) is only going to get harder — much harder.

Why? The investors behind big brand engines like Google, HotBot, AltaVista and others, are now looking for payback. Search engines have to commit huge resources to finding, evaluating and listing sites in order to stay current — and unfortunately they’ve been inundated by unscrupulous businesses using automated systems which submit thousands of links in an attempt to raise their list positioning (95% of new listings are spam we’re told).

Desperate to avoid being ground to a halt by this, the search engines are fighting back. Click the “Add your website” link at AltaVista today and you can see they’ve incorporated graphics (that can only be read by a person, not a computer) as part of their submission process.


At search engine marketing company First Rate, CEO Jon Ostler says the days when the right keywords could ensure your company’s website would be easily found (for free), are numbered.

“There’s all sorts of different charges emerging,” says Ostler. “If a directory comes to your site and an editor reviews it, you will pay a fee for that. There is the pay for inclusion model where the search engine guarantees the automatic spider will come to your site and list it. Or you can pay for a ranking and appear on some search engines as a ‘featured listing”.

But do you really need them? If it gets too pricey could you just give up on search engines? After all, if you put your URL on your business cards and TV ads, people will find you, right? Well yes, but only those who actually see your business cards or advertising.

The cost of communicating to a global customer base is prohibitively high for nearly all New Zealand businesses and the internet remains by far the cheapest option. Plus, and this may be hard to believe, there are actually a significant chunk of internet users who use search engines to navigate. They do not understand the function of the browser address bar. Instead they click Explorer or Netscape’s “search” option and actually type a URL into a search engine’s query line, then follow the links. Thus, if your business doesn’t come up in a search engine query — they will never find you.

So what can be done? Ostler says First Rate’s “reason for being” is to assist businesses in developing a search engine marketing strategy. Search engines offer a huge potential benefit (particularly for a business operating in the export sector), but getting the best value for money from them is something that requires expert guidance. So what would be a typical scenario for a business approaching First Rate for assistance? Taking the hypothetical example of a two-person software development company, Ostler says:

“First we’d look at their product and identify who their target audience was. It would probably be expert consumers overseas, and also distributors and other potential business partners. We’d research what words and phrases people were using to describe that client’s product in searches. From that we would come up with a number. This is the size of your international target audience and based on that and the competition levels we’d say ‘we think it’s worth investing this much into search engine marketing”.

A typical fee for this type of work, he says, would be from $3000 to $5000.


Although the scope of a First Rate marketing plan ranges from research to site design to above-the-line promotion, the key to it all is understanding how web searchers use language.

“Take the shareware example. A company might say they offer ‘evaluation software’ or ‘trial software’ on their site, but they would be unlikely to say ‘free software’ because it’s not free — you get it for 30 days, or you get a restricted version. But all consumers call it ‘free software’, so there’s a lot of searches that say ‘free accounting software’, when what they mean is usually trial or shareware software. So it’s understanding the words that your target audience are using to find you, and putting that content on to your website.”

Once a company knows exactly what words or phrases potential customers are using on search engines, First Rate can then evaluate how many other sites a business will be competing with for any given search phrase. They can then refine their content to more specifically target their potential customers.

“A small company that’s exporting a unique product with millions of potential customers internationally, can’t afford to fly to the US and drive around every trade show and they can’t afford to advertise in the New York Times, but they can afford to do search engine marketing. Some of our smallest clients have some of the largest search engine marketing budgets and vice versa. It’s all based on how much you can gain from the search engines.”