Internet users expect the biggest brands to be at the top of search engine lists, but getting there, discovers Aleksandra Todorova, takes a lot of time and money.A recent survey by search-engine positioning company iProspect found that one-third of America's 175 million internet users believe companies found in top search results must be a major brand. For marketers and PR pros, that means one thing, says Dr. Amanda Watlington, director of research at iProspect: "The increase in web experience will slowly erode existing brands unless they engage in aggressive search-engine positioning. When a search-engine query is launched, there are only two possible outcomes for marketers: your website will be displayed to the searcher, or your competitor's will." If you want your client's website to outscore the competition, the choices are to pay, or to pay more. When starved-for-cash search companies discovered the pay-for-position and pay-for-inclusion models for their search engines, money became king in search-engine marketing. "If you don't want to pay at all, you are almost out of luck," says Michael Prichinello, VP of RLM Public Relations. "Even if you optimize your site the best you can, and pop up high on search results, you'll never get the traffic you want and will otherwise get by paying for placement." In an ideal world, paid and unpaid strategies would complement each other. In the real world, though, marketers advise their more or less budget-constrained clients to choose one, depending on what their goals are. If a company wants immediate results, its PR agency will recommend pay-for-position, a system of bidding with search engines for key search terms you want to be found for. Pay-per-clicks company Overture charges anywhere between a couple of cents to a couple of dollars per click on the search term you buy. The more popular the term, the costlier the charge. But your Google, Yahoo, or MSN listing will plummet the minute you stop paying. Dan Poincelot, creative director of netFeat, says it is a great strategy for short-lived events. "If you have a three-month PR campaign, pay-for-position is preferable because by the time you optimize your site the traditional way, your event might be over," he says. And it would also be a good strategy for e-commerce sites, according to Prominent Placement president Stacy Williams. "There is evidence that people who click through ad links are more likely to be shoppers who are aware they are clicking on an ad, so there is more e-commerce value placed on them," she says. David Dunne, EVP of Edelman Interactive Solutions, says his company always recommends a combination of two or more strategies. "If you're launching a new brand and you need quick visibility, we'd recommend paid placement to shoot your site to the top, but at the same time, we will go along with optimization that by itself would take 10 weeks to get you proper listings," he says. Pay-for-inclusion, where you pay a fee to each of the major search engines to get indexed on them, is less expensive, but takes longer and doesn't guarantee results. Think of it as a lottery ticket - you are buying your chance to win a fortune, but there are no guarantees that you will. Not getting listed, however, is unreasonable. "It's like when you open a store and you have an unlisted phone number," says Neal Linkon, director of communications with SpectraCom. How are your potential customers going to find you? But getting listed is only the beginning. To help customers find you, you need to optimize your site. But search-engine optimization (SEO) requires so much time and effort, most PR pros recommend to their clients that they seek the services of an SEO specialist. "The client could do SEO in-house if it is willing to make a conscious effort," says Adam Brown, director of eKetchum. Initially, eKetchum tried in-house SEO, but found out it was "a lot of work, and repetitive work," Brown says. "When we started working with SEO companies, we got a lot better bang for our clients' buck." So be it SEO or pay-for-position fees, there is no way other than the costly one. "We recommend to our clients that they set a budget to promote their site," says Mollie Henry, manager of communications technology with Katcher Vaughn & Bailey Communications. "It's much too competitive. A thousand other sites just like yours are competing for the number-one spot, and even if you design your site perfectly, you can't get to the top unless you pay." Should you decide to go ahead with in-house SEO, keep in mind that each search engine has its constantly changing idiosyncrasies. "The primary strategy I recommend for PR agencies is to keep in mind that search-engine optimization is not a one-time bang," says Damian Bazadona, president and founder of Situation Marketing, a company specializing in SEO. "You have to keep a close eye on the market, because it changes too often." A useful resource for keeping updated is searchenginewatch.com, which has the latest news, trends, and tips on how to get listed on all major search engines. And if you are still hesitating on whether to take the traditional SEO route, or to take out your wallet right away, keep in mind that both scenarios have their advantages. "Organic" SEO has the advantage of credibility, according to Williams. "Many people are more likely to click through on a true editorial listing rather than a listing they know is an ad," she says. (In June 2002, the FTC recommended that all search engines clearly distinguish paid listings from non-paid ones.) On the other hand, Williams notes, paid listings have the advantage of time, and you can start and stop an online campaign at any time. -------------- TECHNIQUE TIPS 1 Do carefully examine your client's brands and marketing objectives. That will help you choose the most appropriate search engine strategy. 2 Do ask your client to evaluate its budget - it plays a major role in your strategy choice. 3 Do work with a search-engine optimization company if you don't have the time or dedication for a long-term relationship with your client's website and the major search engines. 1 Don't underestimate the power of getting top search engine rankings for establishing a brand. 2 Don't recommend pay-for-position to a company on a limited budget. 3 Don't recommend traditional search engine optimization to a company on a tight deadline.