10-Minute SEO & SEM Audit: A response to La Grande Dame & the NYT

By BKV in Media Strategy on July 29th, 2010

Recently the New York Times published an article in their Small Business blog titled "Trial and Error with AdWords and S.E.O." In the article, the NYT interviews Catherine Wood Hill, co-founder of La Grande Dame, a boutique plus-size cothing retailer, about her experiences with SEO & AdWords. After 951 words, the outcome of the article sounds simple: AdWords, after multiple tests, was completely ineffective while SEO was an easy way to bring in revenue at little to no cost. Additionally, PR was a waste of money. The takeaway can easily be summed up in the last paragraph of the article: In June, the company spent just $30 on marketing, but had sales of $6,053 - up more than 50 percent from the previous June when Ms. Hill spent almost $14,000 on marketing. This is a flawed takeaway, to say the least. First, while she may have only spent $30, Ms. Wood also spent a significant amount of time every day building awareness to her site by commenting on sites and blogs she found via Google Alerts and other tools. (side note: the article positions this as a strong SEO play, however they forget to take into account that the majority of all blog comments are nofollowed, meaning they pass exactly zero value for SEO). So how much was that time worth? Because that is definitely a cost to the business. And how much previous media was running, both AdWords and PR, that could have increased overall awareness of the brand and driven sales? In the end, the 50% increase in revenue sounds unattributable to anything presented in the article. It might as well have been natural growth that any business sees in 1 year's time. But you didn't come here to hear about the flawed logic in a NYT blog article about a small online retailer, you came here to learn! And learning is exactly what you'll do, because between myself and the Interactive Media Director at BKV, Raphael Rivilla, we've put in a total of 20 minutes and audited both the SEO & SEM tactics employed and came up with a list of ways that La Grande Dame could take their online program to the next level. 10-Minute Audit: SEO First I'd like to comment on a few of that tactics Catherine Hill employed in an effort to increase SEO. She outlines 3 main points that impact SEO: content/keyword usage, inbound links, and good coding. Because she is not a programmer, Catherine focused on the first 2. While her use of keywords on the site is apparent (she uses the term "plus size" or "plus sized" no fewer than 10 times on the home page), Catherine has plenty of work to do. One click from the home page, at http://www.lagrandedame.com/Womens_Apparel/, she also uses the term "plus size designers" a number of times. This seems great until you realize that 3 of the 4 descriptive paragraphs are the exact same content. Repetitive, keyword heavy content like this can often come off as spam. There are plenty of other opportunities for keyword placement, especially when you drill down to product or category level pages like http://www.lagrandedame.com/Shop_By/Designer/Not_Your_Daughters_Jeans/ where the words "plus size" aren't mentioned anywhere than in the footer, where it will inevitably be discounted. Other missed opportunities by La Grande Dame include:
  • Image Alt Attributes are almost always missing completely
  • The home page and most interior pages lack the use of header tags, leaving no denotation of important elements on the page beyond bold/strong tags
  • URLs are not well structured, and should opt for the dash (-) instead of an underscore (_) to break words apart
  • Additionally, the use of upper-case letters in URLs has created canonicalization issues, where http://www.lagrandedame.com/Womens_Apparel/ and http://www.lagrandedame.com/womens_apparel/ both deliver the same (now duplicated) content, potentially splitting those hard earned links up between multiple versions of the same page
  • Another big find when looking at URL canonicalization is that 302 (temporary) redirects are used to redirect non-www pages to www pages. These redirects do not pass link authority, again squandering the value that link building may be bringing to the site
As you can see, there is a lot that can be done by La Grande Dame from an SEO standpoint, and all of this was found within 10 minutes. Think what a full SEO audit would pull out for them. 10-Minute Audit: SEM (AdWords) Because we know very little about what La Grande Dame was running in AdWords, this will cover some of the more advanced options available to an online retailer that they were most likely not taking advantage of. In 10 minutes we came up with a number of ideas, including:
  • Advanced use of landing pages. Was La Grande Dame sending all the traffic to the home page? If so, pushing keywords to internal pages (or even SEM specific landing pages) will most likely increase conversion rates significantly.
  • Varying ad copy. Was the ad copy specifically written towards the search terms? We're good ad groups used? What about Dynamic Keyword Insertion? Varying ad copy to increase relevancy will not only increase click through rates, but also decrease CPCs as quality score increases.
  • Strategically set up campaigns. Separate campaigns should be created for each brand. Why cap the budget for all of your keywords? Cap those that are low converters while ensuring that high converting keywords are running as often as possible.
  • Ensuring correct match type is used. Was everything set on broad match? My bet is yes! There is far more to AdWords than broad match. Strategically employ exact, phrase, and even negative keyword matching to capture all of the keywords that apply (and filter out those that don't).
For high ticket niche items, one should not only track and value one time-direct sales, but look at the cost-per-new-customer driven by the media, and understand the lifetime value around the customer. A more robust strategy around offers, special events like trunk shows, or closed private deals should be used to capture email addresses for future marketing offers, alongside the expectation of direct sales. A direct sale driven by the media and a cost-per-sale driven by the click can be shortsighted, especially for a smaller retail business that targets higher end audiences. There are plenty of other discussions to be had about SEM, especially for an online retailer with such a seemingly popular niche (searches for "plus size clothing" exceed 200K searches per month alone). If La Grande Dame can't get AdWords to pay out for them it isn't because AdWords doesn't work, it's because it takes a bit more time and expertise to figure out just how to use it. After that, it's often a gold mine. On one final note, something we didn't talk about was the value of PR. Think PR doesn't bring value to your site? La Grande Dame got a link from nytimes.com, a high authority site, as well as a number of deep links from this post, all of which would not have happened without PR. The value of those links are far more then the $500 monthly fee she was paying alone, regardless of the traffic and brand awareness the PR was also building. Kyle Wegner is the SEO & Emerging Media Manager at BKV. He also podcasts at The Business of Tech and you can find him on Twitter @kwegner and on Google Buzz.