The First Page
What would you do if you were an online payment gateway looking for more sign-ups? Advertising offline would be fumbling in the dark, because your potential clients are all online and Net-savvy. Advertising online in the form of banner ads is an option, but since your potential clients are actively looking for solutions on search engines, your best bet would be to hope that you show up when they search.
Actually, simply hoping will not do it. CCAvenue, an Indian online payment gateway, did not just sit hoping. They got their site professionally optimised, and the results are patent. When you type in "credit card processing india" (without the quotes) into google.com or google.co.in, CCAvenue comes up first. And even something like "set up a merchant account" brings CCAvenue up third on google.com and second on google.co.in, and "credit card payment setup" brings it up sixth on google.com and first on google.co.in (in all this, we're not talking about sponsored links). CCAvenue doesn't rank so high for these keyword searches on the other search biggies-the ranks on MSN are just around the 10 mark, With Yahoo!, the ranks are somewhat lower.
It's remarkable that an Indian company tops the search with such generic keyword searches. And it's all courtesy the search engine optimisation (SEO) that eBrandz, an SEO company based in Mumbai, did for CCAvenue.
Advertising, SEO, And More
We've mentioned SEO briefly in The Future Of Search (Digit, August 2005). By a popular Web definition, SEO is "the term used to describe the marketing technique of preparing a Web site to enhance its chances of being ranked in the top results of a search engine once a relevant search is undertaken. A number of factors are important when optimising a Web site, including the content and structure of the Web site's copy and page layout, the HTML meta-tags and the submission process."
We were clear that it would be a waste of money to rely on traditional methods of communication to bring in new customers
Vivek Nayak, CIO, CCAvenue.com
We turn to the relationship between advertising and SEO. Advertising works differently in the online world. Offline, advertisements are there for everyone to see; but who sees them, and do they act upon what they see? Online, if you consider your page listing on a search engine as an ad, who sees the ad is not an issue-you know that the people who see it are actively looking for you. The issue is whether they see it at all.
The issue thus becomes one of visibility, and ad campaigns become online visibility campaigns. There are several approaches a company can use. One amongst these is organic SEO campaigns-organic search results are the natural results that occur in search engines, the left-hand results.
Getting back to the point: how come "credit card payment setup" brings up an Indian contender-CCAvenue-first in Google, when there are so many global players out there?
Small Companies Can Beat Global Giants
"You have the potential to get lots of recognition for a reasonable price," says Vishwas Patel, CEO of Avenues (the parent company of CCAvenue), about search services such as Google's. "You might not have a big budget, but if you know your way around, you can beat any Fortune 500 company in the visibility game."
Small companies beating global giants in marketing and advertising? That would sound like a happy pipe dream for most CEOs of small or medium-sized companies. But it's not all that far-fetched, because there's a fundamental difference in the way visibility on the Internet works.
In a traditional marketing campaign, a large organisation typically unleashes a multi-media campaign across a city or area, hoping their target audience will notice. But 50 per cent of advertising money is wasted: the message does not reach the intended audience. Pioneering Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker, considered the father of the department store and of modern advertising, is credited with this infamous comment about advertising: "Half of the money I spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half."
Exactly. The problem is, not even the best brains in the business-including expensive media consultants-have a clue about which 50 per cent is wasted.
Now consider the value of a medium that tells the marketer exactly who is viewing the message and what effect each message has. Yes, the Internet has the power to let you intrude on a potential buyer's attention. But more than that, it has the power of presenting your product to him in a shopping cart, taking his money and closing the sale in an instant.
So naturally, the marketer who brings his message best to the customer will be the winner. Budgets are important, but the right techniques, much more so.
In this context, all a small company needs to do is bring in visibility experts in the online space and give them a brief. These visibility experts-the so-called SEO companies-specialise in search engine marketing (SEM) / SEO campaigns. If the campaign is successful, a company's Web site comes up tops for the keywords associated with their business. The audience is extremely targeted-they're actively searching for your product or service! And by having a presence on the first page of search engine results, an organisation can differentiate itself from the competition.
Because of cost limitations, therefore, what a small Indian company would be looking for is a good Indian SEO company. But after the Dotcom bust, there were very few left. Ideally, that shouldn't be the case, because doing good SEO boils down to superior human intelligence-raw smarts. And hey, who scores better in that department than India?
eBrandz.com is an example of an Indian SEO company that rivals the best in the world.
The Client: CCAvenue
At a basic level, Avenues (the parent company of CCAvenue, as mentioned) is a payment gateway services provider that enables Web sites to collect funds through credit cards or directly through customers' Internet banking accounts.
Avenues has an 85 per cent share of the Indian market. It is the largest integrated e-commerce solutions provider in South Asia. Headquartered in Mumbai, it has subsidiary companies incorporated in Singapore, Hong Kong and Delaware in the US. The Avenues support and development centre is based at Santa Cruz in Mumbai.
A partial customer list includes the Indian Ministry of Information and Technology, the Press Trust of India, The Indian Express, Business Standard, Greenpeace, The Leela Hotels and Palaces, and BharatMatrimony.com.
Relying On The Medium
CCAvenue's target audience is, naturally, e-commerce stores. It's physically impossible for them to have a sales team that can cover the length and breadth of the country and market their services to individuals or mid-sized companies. Nor did they think it advisable to advertise on popular portals.
Vivek Nayak, CIO at Avenues, explains: "Right from the outset, the management at Avenues was clear that in a specialised domain such as payment gateways, it would be a waste of money to rely on traditional methods of communication to bring in new customers.
SEO is effective. Period! The reason not everyone is doing it is because there isn't too much awareness about it
Milind Mody, CEO, eBrandz.com
"Since the Internet merchant base space was very small, we felt the best way to bring in customers was to use the various opportunities available within the medium itself. With this in mind, the Avenues management started looking for a partner who would assist them in their endeavour. There weren't too many credible players in this emerging space, and eBrandz seemed a serious player."
Nayak continues about eBrandz, "They were deadly serious about the domain. They were proactive in their approach and constantly pushed the CCAvenue content management team to fine-tune content. Their research process was the most comprehensive one we found. All in all, it came down to how passionate they were about the business." And thus, CCAvenue chose eBrandz as their site optimiser.
How They Did It
So what exactly goes on when an SEO company optimises a client's Web site? First off, the complexity of the optimisation process increases with the complexity of the Web site itself. If it's a simple site with static HTML pages, the process is relatively simple. If the site has programming or is database-driven, the SEO company has to understand the process flow and see if these processes, programming and database architecture are search engine-friendly. If not, the client needs to make changes to the logic.
Second, in the case of a multinational Web site that has a presence in several countries â€“ say the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia, in addition to India-a company such as eBrandz would have to set up an architecture in such a way that the international Web site ranks on google.com, with the local site ranking well on the local engine: for example, the .co.uk site would rank well on google.co.uk, the .in site would rank well on google.co.in, and so on.
To improve the client's rankings (in organic SEO), eBrandz researched and understood how search engines work, and used that knowledge to improve the client's site, making sure search engine crawlers were able to properly read and understand the client's site. Such research is ongoing, because search engine algorithms change over time; you can't have it all figured out once and for all.
However, even after an all-out effort, organic SEO campaigns can fail, for a variety of reasons. Results cannot be guaranteed, but the first step is keyword research. For the CCAvenue campaign, eBrandz identified keywords such as "payment gateway india", "credit card processing", "merchant account india", and so on.
CCAvenue's initial Web site did have good content. It explained CCAvenue's strengths vis-Ã -vis that of their competitors, and the features and benefits of using their service. That should have been good enough, right? Actually, no. CCAvenue's Web copy did not have any of the keywords that eBrandz researched. eBrandz convened with the CCAvenue content management team and began the process of including many of those keywords in the Web site copy. eBrandz also completely rewrote all their <title> and other meta-tags to incorporate the keyword research and accurately describe CCAvenue's services to visitors as well as search engine spiders.
It also turned out that CCAvenue hadn't been maintaining server log files. Analysis of server log files can reveal crucial information like the number of unique visitors per day, the main traffic sources, the traffic from major search engines, major keywords from each search engine, the major keywords that generate signups (for each search engine), traffic from the top 50 cities around the world, how often major search engine robots visit the site, and even things like the number of times the site was bookmarked.
eBrandz started maintaining CCAvenue's server log files, and started keeping track of their visitors, signups, and the other statistics mentioned above. Apart from this, eBrandz also analysed which areas of the Web site visitors were clicking and which areas they were avoiding. eBrandz put a signup button in and around where visitor clicks were high!
When Do The Results Show Up?
Currently, for a new site, it takes about two months for search engines such as MSN to show results. Yahoo! shows results in about three to six months. Google takes much longer to rank new Web sites-approximately six to eight months. The time taken for results to show up also depends on the indexing cycles of the search engines.
For the CCAvenue site, eBrandz got results in about two to three months for India-related keywords such as "payment gateway india" and "merchant account india". eBrandz did not stop at thatâ€“they also got results for international keywords such as "payment gateway", "merchant account" and "credit card processing".
eBrandz is still optimising the site: the payment gateway industry is very competitive, and the SEO company needs to keep competing to be one up on their client's competitors.
After eBrandz (consistently, month after month) top-ranked CCAvenue on all the major search engines, in a span of two years, CCAvenue managed to sign up more than 4,000 Indian e-merchants-and grabbed 85 per cent of the Indian payment gateway services market share.
They did not spend any money on other forms of advertising nor did they open any offices elsewhere in the country. They didn't suddenly go the conventional way and put their feet on the street to do proactive marketing either. They relied only on SEM for visibility, and it has paid off.
Nayak says, "Without any traditional marketing channels in place or extra visibility efforts, Avenues has grown to become the #1 player in South Asia. This has largely been possible due to the efforts and commitment put in by the eBrandz team."
Vishwas Patel, in fact, goes so far as to say, "We get about five signups every day, and the sole credit goes to the SEO work that has gone into the site." That's testimony enough that SEO works!
We get about five signups every day, and the sole credit goes to the SEO work that has gone into the site
Vishwas Patel, CEO, Avenues
Looking At The Future
The online advertising market was pegged at $4 billion at the end of 2004. This figure is expected to jump to close to $30 billion by the end of 2006. With such figures, we might well ask: can any site at all be optimized to reach the top 10 or 20? If everyone decides to use SEO, who will be on the first page?
First off, the advantage of using SEO lies with small organisations. They are usually quicker on their feet-they can take quick decisions if they understand that by making certain changes, SEO can actually help in bring more business. Large corporate sites and Fortune 500 companies are rather unlikely to change their Web sites to gain the SEO advantage. They have a long decision-making process, and by the time they decide on anything, chances are search algorithms will have changed.
Now, Milind Mody, CEO at eBrandz, explains that if all companies in a domain-say payment gateways-decided to hire SEO companies, the job of ranking in the top 10 would become much more difficult. Only experienced (and knowledgeable!) SEO companies will be able to get their clients on the first page of the results. Like we mentioned earlier, it's a question of raw knowledge superiority. We're headed towards a global game that will reward luck less and less and brains more and more.
One related question we haven't asked yet: if SEO is so effective, why doesn't everybody do it? Mody avers, "SEO is effective. Period! The reason not everyone is doing it is because there isn't too much awareness about it.
"This is a very new industry. And it has not even reached half its potential. Many good SEO companies are working for themselves and not accepting any clients: they know how to get traffic online, so they create their own sites and promote them-then sell the business to offline merchants. "SEO companies are the kings of the online world." That makes sense. If you're talking about business in a world where anyone with a glorified typewriter can get on cyberspace, but where attention spans are limited to a minute or a page, it's all about visibility. And if you can get someone else-or yourself-seen, you're king!