Visualize, then Optimize

Search engine optimization (SEO) can be a contradictory combination of science and intuition. On the one hand, as often practiced by professionals, it assesses the relevance of a Web page to a keyword in terms of measurable, concrete factors such as keyword density and backlink counts. On the other hand, the values assigned to those factors (What keyword density is required? How many backlinks?) can be loose. Often, they’re derived from an optimizer’s general past experience with other keywords on other search engines. In other words, those hard-and-fast rules turn out often to be indefinite rules of thumb instead.

Last fall, search engine marketing firm Fortune Interactive came up with a tool to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of an advertiser’s search campaign in real time on a real engine, plotted against real competitors: an application called SEMLogic that permitted advanced market research by looking at a client’s industry, competition and key search terms.

Just before the 2006 Ad:Tech San Francisco this year, Fortune Interactive began demonstrating a new virtual-reality module that applied the same principles of SEMLogic to advertisers’ actual Web pages, in order to point out which were best optimized for a specific keyword on a specific engine—and what still remains to be done to improve those rankings.

Both SEMLogic and the SEMasphere are the brainchildren of Fortune Interactive co-founders Andy Beal and Mike Marshall—particularly Marshall, who has a background that includes work in software engineering, e-commerce and artificial intelligence, and who now serves as Fortune’s technology vice president.

Basically, the SEMasphere tool represents each Web page related to a specific keyword or phrase as a sphere. It then plots the top 100 pages for that term—both the advertiser client’s and competitors’ pages—on a 3-D grid and uses more than 100,000 data points to position them according to their ranking on that specific term on a specific search engine.

Pages that would rank in the top ten for the term and engine being studied appear in yellow. Pages that would rank 11 to 20 show up in blue, and 21 to 100 are red. Spheres can also sport one to three stripes that indicate their relative optimization quality for that keyword and engine: the more stripes, the lower the quality.

In other words, advertisers who see their Web page for a certain keyword showing up as a red sphere with two stripes, and positioned far away from the center of the grid, can immediately know they’ve got some major optimizing to do on that page.

When it comes to making those changes, many SEO experts start off by forcing Web pages to conform to a template of factors that have worked in the past. But deciding what changes to make to improve a page’s ranking also varies with each keyword across all the search engines and depends on the competitive situation.

Clicking on a sphere in the display tells users how far the page it represents is from being optimized, Marshall says, and specifically what factors it’s weak on in order to be relevant for a given keyword/engine combination. “The display can tell us both how much work needs to be done, and how hard it will probably be to accomplish that work. That lets us prioritize what we’re going to do for a client, to select the jobs that will have the biggest, most visible impact on rankings,” he says.

That brings a precision to search engine optimization that was previously only available to pay-per-click management, according to Beal, Fortune Interactive’s president and CEO. “It kind of pulls back the curtain and removes the smoke and mirrors,” he says. “Using artificial intelligence and quantitative analysis, we can show our optimization clients the same comfort and knowledge that they get in managing sponsored links.”

Unlike a lot of technology or manual techniques where optimizers are predetermining what values are need to improve ranking, Beal says, SEMasphere has artificial intelligence that calculates those values on the fly, so that the application determines the relevant values for those factors.

“We never say to the platform, ‘Okay look for keyword density of 5% to 10%,’” he says. “Instead, SEMasphere tells us what we should be looking for with this particular keyword on this engine.”

SEMasphere also can be used to give advertisers and search ad agencies a very visual warning of competitive threats they might otherwise not notice. For example, in the demonstration, Marshall points to a listing ranked number 19, then zooms out to show that another ranking, number 84, is almost as high on the y-axis, although far away.

“That shows that there’s something number 84 is doing right that might pose a competitive opportunity against 19,” he says. “This allows advertisers to figure out who might be blind-siding them and take steps.”

The use of the SEMasphere tool will eliminate the need for much trial-and-error in SEO campaigns, according to Beal. “Often advertisers test different optimization measures over a number of weeks,” he says. “‘What would happen if we change the keyword density, or change the title tags?’ But with this tool, we’ll know exactly what to change in order to push our clients up into the top of the rankings.”

While it might take weeks for a newly-optimized page to show up in Google’s index, Beal and Marshall can plug that revamped page into the SEMasphere tool and get a quick read on how it will rank compared to competitors’ Web pages on the same term—another time saving in the SEO process.

And the SEMLogic application can also suggest other keywords that an engine might look for in a Web page optimized on a specific term. “If we’re optimizing a content page for the phrase ‘laptop computer’, the SEMLogic application reveals that to get a high ranking on Google, for example, we should also be sure to include phrases like ‘hard drive’, ‘docking station’ and ‘Wi-Fi enabled’,” Beal says. “Google is looking for changes like that to determine that you’ve not just added ‘laptop computer’ to your page but have really changed it to be more relevant to the theme.”

All this technology brings a precision to search engine optimization that was previously only available to pay-per-click management, according to Beal. “It kind of pulls back the curtain and removes the smoke and mirrors,” he says. “Using artificial intelligence and quantitative analysis, we can show our optimization clients the same comfort and knowledge that they get in managing sponsored links.”

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