A True Alternative to AdWords?

Paid Search Marketing Jun 18, 2006

Can HitTailing be a TRULY VIABLE alternative to AdWords?

The slow momentum build will try the patience of most marketing professionals. But backed up with SOME other form of outreach, whether it’s AdWords, hiring a PR firm, or doing some media buys, it should make the wait less painful. The waiting cycle can be 2 weeks to a month before ANY visible results. And it can be many more months before enough momentum is built to start reducing keyword buys. And it could be a year or two before you are confident enough to stop keyword campaigns altogether. Yes, HitTailing can be a long, difficult road. Cost, quality, speed: pick any two. If you want speed, stick with PPC.

But since your ability to track return on investment is nearly perfect, when it finally does kick in, you can respond so that the effect is that much more dramatic in the next cycle. And since your investment is really only your time writing and polishing your craft, the cost of customer acquisition will be low indeed. And the effect improves if you take multiple suggestions per cycle. It’s like having many plates spinning. Acting upon suggestions results in more suggestions, and so on. Take my advice, and target every logical suggestion that comes in during the initial round.

We have at least one anecdotal story of a company that was using the HitTailing technique, and secured vast numbers of diverse keywords in their industry. It was backed up by the company’s powerful non-Internet-based word of mouth that went back to the days of the Amiga Computer. The product was so compelling and the following so fanatical, that they often spontaneously search on the product’s name without even knowing that they’re still in business. So, the first round of suggestions had to do with the company’s name. And it was easy to secure top positions across the board (Yahoo, Google, MSN, etc.). But the next round was more difficult.

No one knew what to call the industry. Some wanted to call it “dynamic signage”. Others wanted to call it “intelligent signs”. There was a hot debate. But in the entire industry, I believe I was the only one who knew, because I had my finger on the pulse of the potential customer base by closely monitoring all the search engine traffic that I could. I rolled out new content based on tiny clues, and watching for emergent behavior. And that emergent behavior was “digital signage” — a perfect benchmark keyword for long tail writing. There were endless varieties on this: electronic displays, retail TV, captive audience networks. There was literally no end. And you had to capture EVERY VARIATION to aggregate enough customers worldwide for a decent market. And I did.

When GoTo.com came along, I insisted that the company invest in PPC. We had to have as many things going for us as we could. I was working on commission at the time, and I was crazy-determined to pull out all the stops. I told them if they wouldn’t invest in PPC, then I’d put my own money into it. It wasn’t until years later when they read about it from other sources that they thought it was a good idea (and their own). In a funny twist, I produced for them the discussion where I urged for this (repeatedly) in the very system I built to track sales leads. How short memories are! There was no denying it. They were thought-followers even though they had their own in-house leader–banging his head against the wall in frustration–documenting the head-banging in a process that eerily foreshadowed the blogging movement.

Little did I know that all the while my future employer was hard at work institutionalizing PPC, while I was focusing on the reverse mission of natural search. Connors’ client and founder of Idealab was being ridiculed at the TED Conference (Technology Entertainment Design) for mixing church & state–putting PPC listings at the head of Inktomi search results that most of the popular meta-search sites used at the time. Well, GoTo was bought by Yahoo for over $2 billion, so I guess Bill Gross had the last laugh. Incidentally, Inktomi was also bought by Yahoo, completing the “compete-with-Google” equation. But all this time, natural search optimization has still not matured as a market… and probably never will.


Because almost no approach to search optimization can mature as a product and last for very long. As fast as it starts to go mainstream, it becomes a vehicle for spamming, and the search engines adjust. We saw this happen with WebPosition Gold. It is still an excellent product, but never as effective as in its early days. The search engines “heal” and go on the offensive.

And YES: writing for the long tail of search is a variation on an SEO-product. But it’s a variation that we’re endeavoring to take control of and stem the tide of spam before it happens, by illuminating a path, based on good ideas and the writer’s art. Only in this way will natural search optimization stabilize and be sustainable in a peaceful co-existence with the search engines.

I’ve been resisting describing why this will work, because it will sound a bit wacko to many readers. But the idea has at least become at least a little bit mainstream with the movie “A Beautiful Mind”. If my theory works, then we achieve a Nash Equilibrium that I guess has about 5 years of life in it before the fundamental rules of the game change too radically for the same strategies to apply. It will take the next generation Internet before that occurs, for reasons too numerous for this post (subject matter for another post). Suffice to say, a true broadcast model over IP changes everything, and the opportunity for disruptive innovation expands ten-fold. Something will eclipse today’s search model, though I know not yet what it is (or do I?).

But for now, we’re stuck with Google, Yahoo and MSN with competitors nipping at their heels that do ALMOST the same things. Local search will improve, and have map features that will blow the mind. Social bookmarks and all sorts of voting and communication channels will be introduced. But fundamentally, the same simple dynamic that made Google into a super-brand will rule. And that rule is simplicity in the default search. And as long as that’s true, AdWords is the FAST way in, while natural optimization is the BEST way in.

So, for what I believe to be the next five years, targeting natural search in the exact same fashion that you CAN do today is worth it. But not by spamming! Not by automatically spinning out 10,000 pages! But by intelligent and deliberate HitTailing. There IS a difference, which the true disciples of HitTailing will be able to tell you with increasing fervor over the coming months. If no one else CAN find your page, except for those who are particularly interested in the narrow niche that you genuinely targeted, because you have genuine goods in that space, then are you spamming? No! Of course not. And if you have endless legitimate ways to discuss your niche, which happen to align to search patterns that you are privy to know, then you are targeting intelligently. And you will eventually have the option of declining to participate in paid keyword campaigns. You are a HitTailer.

  1. Avatar

    I’ve just signed up and am VERY impressed with what I’ve seen in the last couple of hours. Its very exciting to see the flood of black!

    One thing that I feel is sorely lacking, especially as you try to sell people on the long tail idea (I’m sure its a new concept for many customers) is the tracking of conversion rates and amounts. This tool would be 1000x more powerful if it could show me my ‘Most Valuable Keywords’ – which keywords have the best conversion rate and highest order value. That way, I can evaluate not only the volume but effectiveness of top ten vs. long tail keywords.

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    I’m sorry to go completely off topic here but you might want to add a feedback form (with a large textarea) in Hittail. Hittail looks very interesting but it could be so much better (usability, userfriendlyness, design, …). If you want my professional feedback, add the form 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Mike Levin

    Feedback form… and FORUM are on the way.

    Regarding the conversion tracking, we’re giving that A LOT of thought. It’s not as much of a no-brainer as you may think, considering our strict privacy policy and non-persistent cookies. But we are looking closely at it.

    Thanks again for the feedback!

  4. Avatar
    Mike Levin

    Since this post went up, there has been quite a bit of traffic to this post by people looking for AdWords alternatives.

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