Why Web design is an IT-marketing tug-of-war

TORONTO — The use of search engines as a tool to leverage Canadian businesses could certainly be higher, agreed the panelists at a discussion on the future of search engine marketing at the Massive Technology Show in Toronto on Wednesday.

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Part of that problem is the lack of education around the benefits of search engine marketing, especially among the small and medium-sized businesses, said Martin Byrne, national director of search marketing with Yahoo! Canada.

That lack of understanding around the approach likely stems from not being able to parse the results and visualize the advantages. Another panelist, Chewy Trewhella, customer solutions engineer with Google Inc., said the company recently launched analysis tools to help businesses measure the return on investment, and in turn drive that much-needed understanding.

There are also certain Web design elements that are counterproductive to successful search results. For instance, a common mistake is the abundant use of Flash. “All of us see Flash as a big unidentifiable glob on the page,” said Byrne, “As far as search engines are concerned, it’s just gibberish.” Instead, the developer should opt for putting relevant information about the business in the form of HTML that can be subsequently read by search engines.

But with the proliferation of Web sites incorporating an extensive amount of video, businesses will increasingly want to mimic that. In an effort to help businesses design sites to their individual liking, Byrne said Yahoo! will be launching its Search Monkey platform, open APIs allowing publishers to refine their Yahoo! search results for a particular site. “We can no longer be providing and defining the framework of how the universe uses the Internet when it comes to search engines,” he said of the third-party initiative.

An alternative, said Trewhella, is to look to other successful sites that are not relying on Flash and AJAX for the bulk of the page and apply that awareness to ones own business. He suggested learning from sites, such as San Francisco, Calif.-based video search site Blinkx, which uses a tool to transcribe video, therefore allowing search engines to pull certain keywords from the transcription.

Often, as much as businesses find it frustrating that different search engines – based on varying approaches and algorithms – turn up different results, it’s not a sensible option to standardize platforms, said Owen Sagness, vice-president of Microsoft OSG Canada for MSN.

For one, it’s an intellectual property issue, said Sagness, joking that “Google forgot to share their algorithm with us.” But innovation and competition is a great thing in a market that’s still immature, he said, and for “the users, it’s a good thing that we’re all attacking the problem in different ways.”

In an interview with ComputerWorld Canada, Trewhella suggested that businesses learn from Google’s Webmaster guidelines that are targeted at both the IT department who may be building the site, and marketing who may be writing the site content. Also, Google Sitemaps can help Webmasters diagnose issues they are experiencing with their sites, such as if they are having trouble crawling the site, if the page can’t be found, and if the page is timing out.

Besides staying away from using Flash on a site, Trewhella said it’s a good idea to seek out relevant blogs and forums to post mentions of the business. But overall, the key is to think about the way people conduct searches online “and that’s what a lot of new companies miss.”

But with any project that involves multiple departments, there’s bound to be a tug-of-war – a struggle between IT and marketing that Trewhella said he’s observed “all the time” in previous companies he’s worked with. It often involves a brand manager, or a person in a similar role, who has a particular idea as to what the site should look like. Trewhella said the solution is to apply robust analytics to ascertain exactly what approach is working best to drive traffic.

“Test and measure, test and measure. It sounds boring, but it works for us.”

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