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Forget 'I need hits' and start thinking 'how do I get customers?'

By Robin Houghton
Posted Friday, October 29, 2004

Why search engine marketing should be about attracting customers, not 'driving traffic'. Includes a case study illustrating how ' visitor hijacking ' doesn't work.

I've always had a problem with standard online marketing industry terms such as 'driving traffic' or ' generating hits '. When we use search engines we have a goal in mind. We are looking for an answer and the majority of us don't want to be hijacked, hoodwinked or driven down a blind alley. Think of how you use the Yellow Pages. How would you feel if you called what you thought was a plumber, only to be told 'Sorry, we can't mend your burst pipe - but can we interest you in a swimming pool?'

On the internet, this happens all the time when we follow search engine results that appear to be what we are looking for. Whose fault is it when they are not? The accuracy of these results (or lack of it) is for the most part down to website owners. Whether it's due to stealth tactics or plain sloppiness, we are constantly being misled, and certain industries seem more prone to it than others. I have a particular bone to pick with travel sites. Since travel was one of the earliest industries to embrace e-commerce, researching and booking travel online should be a stress-free experience ... shouldn't it?

Case study: searching for ferry information online

September 2002: We wanted to take the car on a day trip to France to stock up on wine in time for Christmas. We preferred the Newhaven-Dieppe route because Newhaven is only a 15 minute drive from home. We knew that during the winter months the Seacat catamaran didn't run - but we HAD seen a big yellow ferry in port. So all I needed to know was whether there was a ferry operating throughout the winter, and the times/prices of crossings.

Solution: go online and search for 'Newhaven-Dieppe ferry crossings' on Google.co.uk

The first result is: 'P & O Stena Line' - hmm, didn't think POSL covered the Newhaven-Dieppe route? Still, I click to see. I'm faced with a page saying 'Welcome to POSL', a menu of 10 links across the top and 13 links down the side, a large ad for a sales promotion blinking at me plus a booking form centre page. No indication of where I am in the site. After reading all the menu links, none of which appear to be what I'm looking for, I decide to just try going through the booking process and see what happens. The first drop down menu is 'Departing from' - and the choice is Dover, Calais or Zeebrugge. Nul points.

Back to Google - 2nd result: Newhaven to Dieppe Ferry Tickets - (http://www.cross-channel-ferry-tickets.co.uk/newhaven-dieppe/)

This sounded promising. I clicked on the link and then a second link to 'book Newhaven to Dieppe Ferry tickets' which brought up a booking form. This time, although the route is available, I have to specify an exact date, the make of car and even the registration number before I can get a quote. The result? 'Sorry, we were unable to find any matches for your search, please try again.' Does that mean there's only one ferry a week, and I happened to ask for a day when it didn't run? Does it mean there is no crossing all winter? Or that this agent only deals with Seacat and no other operators? I've no way of knowing.

Back to Google - the next two results turn out to be short break operators selling 3 or 5 day packages - not what I'm after.

Next up was 'Ferry Crossings :: SUSU Travel :: Travel at its finest' - but it brought up only a 'Error 404 - this page cannot be displayed' message. Grrr.

Finally I try clicking on 'Yahoo! Travel Deals Ferry Savers' - this took me to a page with a list of current deals from a variety of operators. One is 'Newhaven - Dieppe, standard return for car and up to 9 passengers - £318 book before 30/9/02' Although this seems expensive, I click on it anyway and am taken to the homepage of Ferrysavers.com. This lack of a specific 'landing page' is particularly annoying since it means starting the search all over again. And, - surprise, surprise - the advertised fare is not to be found.

The result: half an hour later, no one had answered my question, and my negative impression of online travel agencies in general had been reinforced. The internet is my profession - so if I can't navigate my way through the murky online travel waters successfully, who can?

What we can learn from the mistakes of others

In an ideal world, good search engine marketing helps both advertisers and customers. It matches up needs with solutions, it filters out timewasters (from an advertiser's point of view) and it makes searching a simple and fruitful task. Higher standards of professionalism would up the credibility and reliability of the internet for many people. It would encourage more of them to actually use it, more often, and for humdrum, daily tasks.

I can only plea to advertisers: re-craft your search engine key phrases and descriptions so as not to waste people's time. Make sure search results link to the relevant pages on the destination site, not the homepage. Give visitors a site map. It makes sense not only from the customers' point of view, but from a commercial one also.

C'mon, folks - this is 2003! Why are so many websites still applying mediocre and unprofessional tactics? I for one am looking forward to the day when website owners think less about 'I need hits' and more about 'I need customers'.

About the Author

Robin Houghton advises small businesses and non-profits on how to make the most of their marketing budget, specialising in online. With a masters degree in Digital Media, she also writes for a variety of offline and online media.