A Snapshot of the Australian SEO Market

Monday, 7 May 2007

From The Australian, April 19, 2007

THEY'RE the new online gurus, search engine specialists able to earn $500,000, including bonuses, in the fast-growing internet marketing sector.
With paid search marketing forecast to grow to almost $1billion within three years, the increasing cost of buying keywords has sparked a boom in search engine optimisation, the art of manipulating the formula that search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and MSN use to rank websites in their so-called natural, free or organic search results.

SEO specialists such as Chris Dimmock, chief executive of Cogentis, founding moderator of global forum Search Engine Watch and one of the first Australians to receive the Google stamp of approval for search marketing, are at the forefront of the newest revolution.

"It's a bit of an arms race," Dimmock says. "If content's king, links are queen."

The likes of Dimmock optimise a site by ensuring search engine spiders, or the programs that trawl the web indexing sites, can find enough triggers on a site relating to particular words, brands and topics to rank it highly against those terms.

The accepted ways to optimise a site include enriching the content to include more keywords relevant to a business, structuring the information architecture so it is accessible by search engines, and encouraging other relevant sites to link to it.

"There's a lot of link-baiting," Dimmock says. "Making good (controversial) content that people want to link to. It's about creative ways of getting people to link to your site."

The holy grail of SEO is to appear in the first three to five results on the first page of the search links generated when someone types a relevant keyword into a search engine, and people who can achieve this are among the most expensive internet marketing talent around.

Tim Macdonald, a former journalist who began dabbling in SEO at Fairfax Digital, co-founded search marketing firm the Found Agency three years ago.

It is known for managing to get the top local ranking when the term "search engine optimisation" is typed into Google.

Macdonald says people who know the tricks of the trade start at salaries of about $120,000. "The best ones - and there are a handful - earn $200,000, with bonuses," he adds. "One guy I know received $500,000 on bonus. If they're really good, the value (to the client) is there."

In Australia, SEO practitioners say it is a $20 million industry, but the growth is outpacing even the $250 million paid search sector, which grew 80 per cent last year.

Dimmock, who optimised Australia's biggest portal, ninemsn, and also works on Myhome.com. au and Reader's Digest, claims to have increased relevant traffic to sites by up to 400 per cent.

"Most SEO that we do is about new client acquisition: reaching people who don't know about you," he says.

24/7 Real Media bills itself as the biggest SEO agency in Australia, with about 53 clients, says managing director Robbie Hills.

"It's a cost to a company to increase traffic that's going to

do something at the website," Hills says. "You can develop an SEO strategy that will attract the type of visitors you want (such as to make a purchase)," he says.

If small to medium-sized businesses reliant on search engine traffic to generate leads have been quick to cotton on to SEO, large retailers and brands are among the worst.

When the words "running shoes" were typed into Google for this story, no shoe brands appeared among the top natural search results. Asics scraped on to the bottom of the first page. Nike, one of the world's biggest brands, was nowhere to be seen until Nike was typed into the browser.

The Nike Australia website, it turns out, commits one of the cardinal sins of SEO: it is built in JavaScript, a computer language that is not easily accessible by the spiders, or programs that search engines use to trawl the web and index sites.

A 2005 British survey from Net Imperative found more than 80per cent of the top publicly listed companies had websites with accessibility issues; Dimmock estimates the ratio is similar today in Australia. "Using pictures of words, rather than html-coded words: that's a fatal mistake made by most of the major retailers," Dimmock says.

According to Macdonald, who is due to complete the sale of the Found Agency to the Photon group later this year for an estimated $3 million, SEO has doubled in size over the past year and has a long way to go. "Only about 15 per cent of searches in the paid search category are currently being commercialised, so there's a huge amount of growth in that," he says. "More people click on the natural search results than paid search."

A site in the top natural search position will usually attract three to four times more clicks than a sponsored link. "People trust Google's algorithms to choose the most relevant results," Macdonald says.

The Found Agency works on travel industry websites Travel. com.au and Lastminute.com.au, which previously ranked poorly on search engines because a lot of their content could not be accessed by spiders. It's understood the sites have seen a 57 per cent rise in their international flight bookings after being optimised.

Jamie Silver, a former LookSmart employee and co-founder of Melbourne-headquartered digital agency Clear Light Digital, says the search engines publish guidelines on how to optimise sites but do not always make it clear which techniques contravene their rules.

SEO experts need to know many of the other tricks used by so-called "black hats", such as hiding white text on a white background to boost a ranking, serving different content to a search engine spider than to a consumer, and planting links to your site in abandoned blogs. Silver says these practices are "a risk": search engines will delist companies found to be flouting their rules. "There's a split in the world of SEO between the world of black hat and white hat," Silver says.

"Black hat is very much about doing things to trick and fool the search engines to achieve an artificially high ranking. (Search engines) operate on broad principles: you should be optimising the site for the user experience rather than to improve your Google ranking.

Read the story from The Australian website