BrightEdge Seeks Order, and Profits, in the Wild West of Search Engine Optimization

6/14/10Follow @wroush

There’s not much distance, in the minds of many Web merchants and publishers, between the terms “search engine optimization consultant” and “snake oil salesman.” That’s partly because SEO—the attempt to bring more traffic to a website by improving its ranking in the unpaid section of a search results list—is a messy art with many complex variables. It’s also because so many “black hat” SEO consultants prey on gullible clients, and try to game the search engines through underhanded tactics like keyword stuffing and invisible text.

Now there’s a new SEO gun in town—San Mateo, CA-based BrightEdge. Through better measurement and what it calls “pure white-hat SEO” techniques alone, the company can vastly increase the revenue its customers earn through traffic from unpaid search results, according to founder and CEO Jim Yu. (Also called “organic” results, these are the links that appear in the central column of a Google, Bing, or Yahoo search page. Which implies, I guess, that the pay-per-click ads in the margins are “inorganic.”)

BrightEdge announced the general availability of its Web-based SEO platform today, after three years in stealth mode and closed beta testing with a handful of customers like VMware, MySpace, and Branders, a marketer of brand-customized promotional products. BrightEdge’s service, designed for large enterprises managing extended Web properties, can provide a precise understanding of the return companies are getting for their SEO efforts, not unlike the statistics provided by paid-search platforms such as Google’s AdSense, Yu says.

There’s certainly room for improvement in what passes for SEO today. One study by Boston-based search engine marketing firm iProspect shows that AdSense ads on Google pages attract only 28 percent of users’ total clicks, while the other 72 percent go to organic results. “If organic search is driving three or four times the value of paid search, why do marketers focus first on the paid side? It’s because you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Yu says. “Google has done a great job of helping marketers measure the return-on-investment of paid search…but to do the same thing in organic search is nearly impossible. Our goal at BrightEdge is to make [organic] SEO as simple as pay-per-click.”

BrightEdge isn’t the first company on the enterprise SEO scene. Xconomy’s San Diego editor Bruce Bigelow has chronicled the rise of San Diego-based Covario, for example, as it helps giant customers like Intel, Adobe, and Procter & Gamble track the success of both their paid-search spending and their organic SEO efforts. But Yu, who formerly helped to run Salesforce.com’s AppExchange directory, says that his 25-employee startup, which has raised $8.5 million in financing from Battery Ventures, Altos Ventures, and Illuminate Ventures, offers truly different methods for quantifying and improving revenues from organic search.

One element in BrightEdge’s offering is what it calls “closed-loop analytics.” That’s really about the ability to track the impact of specific SEO-driven changes in a website’s content. BrightEdge’s servers constantly poll the search engines to see where a given page ranks for hundreds of key search terms. Importantly, they monitor incoming traffic to see how those page rankings translate into traffic and, ultimately, “conversions” (purchases, newsletter signups, or whatever BrightEdge’s client values as and end result).

This can help companies document the effect of relatively small changes in content. “We worked with a SaaS [software as a service] company that wrote all of their marketing materials to focus on the term ‘on demand,’” Yu recalls. “They had this software product–let’s just say for the sake of the example that it was for expense management—and they were calling it ‘expense management on demand.’ But that is not where its prospects were.” It turned out (to continue with Yu’s disguised example) that the company could attract far more organic search traffic simply by describing its product as expense management software.

BrightEdge Competitive Keyword MapAnother “completely new” capability that BrightEdge offers, according to Yu, is its “competitive keyword map.” The company tracks not just the search rankings of its own clients’ pages but those of its clients’ competitors. Meanwhile, it uses a proprietary combination of proxy variables to estimate the volume of competitors’ search-generated traffic. It displays all that information in colorful graphs that show how a client’s site is performing relative to those of its competitors in terms of the search traffic volume resulting from specific keywords.

“It’s an extremely powerful technology,” Yu boasts. He says a large online travel company used BrightEdge’s maps to identify keywords that it hadn’t even realized its competitors were using. By optimizing certain of its own pages to use those same keywords, the travel company saw a 40 percent increase in revenue from those pages over six months.

A final ingredient in BrightEdge’s package is its SEO management system. This is a tool that enables marketing officers who need to manage sites with thousands of pages to truly track performance across all those pages and coordinate optimization efforts. “In organic search, anybody who touches the website impacts SEO, so as the SEO manager, you have to get results through collaboration,” Yu says. “So this is really the first time where you have everybody in the company—the SEO guys, the community guys, the PR guys, the product marketing managers writing white papers—collaborating in an enterprise to actually execute.”

But even with all this power under BrightEdge’s hood, Yu says he’s aware that his company and other SEO players have an uphill battle to fight when it comes to public perceptions. All that snake oil, after all, can give an industry a bad name.

That’s part of the reason BrightEdge spent three years in stealth mode, Yu says. The company invested that much time because it wanted to build a reliable platform and prove its worth with an initial group of beta customers. “We are all about creating a lot of value for our customers, and that is very different than what has traditionally happened out there,” Yu says. “When you look at e-mail marketing, in the early days it had a poor reputation as well, but over time, as it moved from the fringes to the mass market, you have companies that have turned it into enterprise-class platforms like Exact Target and Constant Contact. That’s a natural evolution.”

Toward the end of our interview, I let my cynicism get the better of me, and suggested to Yu that in the end, both black-hat and white-hat SEO consultants are working against consumers’ best interest. All of them, I reasoned, are out to manipulate the supposedly unbiased organic search results that Web surfers see at Google, Bing, and other engines in their clients’ favor. Not surprisingly, Yu disagreed.

“That’s not at all how we look at it,” Yu says. “Our mission is to help customer connect with their audiences.” He compares BrightEdge’s service to the algorithms that Google employs to make sure that the most relevant ads, rather than simply the most lucrative ones, pop to the top of its AdSense listings.

“In this new era of online marketing, it’s not about the broad positioning, but how you connect with your audience—where are they, what keywords are they searching for, what content do you give them,” he says. “When you connect those dots you are complementary to the search engines. We believe that’s a very valuable mission that’s good for the marketers, for the search engines, and for search users.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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