Three magic words that boosted a Canadian firm’s online sales

Bill Dalton went online one day in 2005 only to find that his nurse uniform sales business had been scrubbed out of the top search engine results.

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The Charlottetown, PEI small businessman had relied on certain key words for years to drive traffic to his business’s Web site, Scrubs Canada.

But all it took was one major search engine’s routine formula shakeup to wipe him out from the coveted top 10 results.

“The search engine got a cold, and so did I – because I was no longer in the top results,” Dalton recalls.

Now he’d have to find another way to draw eyeballs to his online uniform sales page.

For Dalton, the answer was paid search advertising.

He bid on narrowly focused key words, and geographically-targeted his campaigns to keep payments low and Web hits high. The Maritimes businessman knew he’d hit success thanks to three words – “tall nurse scrubs.”

“I decided just to try the key words in an ad, and I saw immediate results – that day, and ever since,” he says. “If I was selling cars, it would be very expensive. But I’m a small businessman so it’s cheaper.”

As Canadian consumers increasingly turn to the Web for business and recreational activities, advertisers are lagging further behind, industry insiders note.

They say traditional media giants appear stuck in a mass-message groove and aren’t spending big bucks on wooing Web surfers, despite the significant amount of time Canadians spend online.

“Today consumers spend anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent of their free time online, but marketers only invest about seven or eight per cent of their money in online advertising,” says Owen Sagness, vice-president of Toronto-based MSN Canada.

“There’s a big gap between where the money is being spent and where the eyeballs are.”

With consumers rushing online, there’s opportunity for smaller businesses to compete with Bay Street bigwigs, according to Kenneth Wong, professor at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont.

“Online advertising is one of the last marketing bastions that doesn’t depend on big scale to be successful,” he says.

Nor is it something traditional advertising agencies tend to do very well, he adds. “Even those who claim to be fully integrated often only have one or two guys sitting in a closet somewhere.”

Major search engines offer self-service approaches to online advertising that is easy for a small business or individual to set up.

You just choose what key words you want to be associated with your Web site, and make a bid on what you’ll pay per click. The highest bidder wins the advertising associated with those key words.

Advertisers used to traditional media want to push a generic message across to thousands of users.

Experts say they are missing out on the finer points of search engine advertising that allow an advertiser to hone in on specifics such as geography, demographics and even user behaviour.

Small companies might shy away from online advertising because they think they’re unnecessarily making a pitch to the entire world, says Jeff Lancaster, managing director with St. Louis, Mo. search marketer Outrider LLC.

What they don’t realize is that many search engines allow you to target even a specific town.

“If you’re a dog walker in Milton and that’s all you want to target, then you can drill down to that area,” he says. Outrider uses geo-targeting in almost all of their client’s campaigns.

Advertisers also can take advantage of the analytical tools offered by major search engines like Google and MSN.

The tools give businesses a window to look at what sort of consumers they’re attracting, and the tools only require that users paste a line of code into their Web pages, says Ken Headrick, director of products and marketing at MSN Canada.

“The analytical details are absolutely free and great tools for advertisers to use to drive their campaigns,” he says. MSN’s analytical tools even predict whether a surfer is male or female based on their past viewing behaviour.

Search advertising can also specifically target consumers engaged in certain behaviours, which can be an effective way of presenting your brand in a specific context.

MSN Canada sponsored OTX Research to do an international study on Web habits and found certain activities resulted in users being more accepting of advertising.

Users engaging in information access-related activities such as reading news online were the most open to advertising, the study finds. But they were also more likely to have awareness of advertising presented to them.

Surfers shopping online and doing other financial transactions were the next most open-minded towards advertising, but less aware of advertising presented to them than the previous group.

Overall, the research shows consumers don’t immediately shrug off advertising if they find it is relevant to what they’re doing at the moment, Headrick says. “It’s not about you targeting your customer; it’s about your customer targeting you.”

Dalton echoes this view.

People have a different frame of mind when they’re searching and are more likely to pay attention to your advertisement. He points to the steady flow of traffic to Scrubs Canada’s campaign as proof of that.

Now Dalton is drilling down to even more niche markets (based on sizes and special needs) for his uniforms, and building up organic search engine optimization around the paid-for terms.

“If you want a stable online business and traffic you can count on, search engine advertising is a necessity,” he says.

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