A Study into Search Engine Marketing Practices in Ireland
Chris Barry and Debbie Charleton
Department of Accountancy and Finance, National University of Ireland, Galway, University Road, Galway, Ireland
Keywords: Information search, Search Engines, Search Engine Marketing, Website optimization, ethics.
Abstract: Researchers have identified the Web as the searchers first port of call for locating information. Search
Engine Marketing (SEM) strategies have been noted as a key area for firms to consider when developing,
maintaining and managing their Websites. SEM falls into two categories - ‘Search Engine Optimisation’
(SEO) and ‘Paid Search’. To examine how these SEM methods are reflected in practice, and the issues
inherent in carrying out SEM effectively, a survey was conducted amongst small to medium enterprises
(SMEs) in Ireland. The research reveals that Irish SMEs plan to spend more time and resources on SEM in
the future. Most firms utilize an informal SEM strategy, where SEO is perceived to be the more effective
technique in driving traffic to a company Website. Respondents cite the use of ‘keywords in title and
description tags’ as the most used SEM technique; while ‘Pay for Placement’ was found to be the most
widely used Paid Search technique. In concurrence with the literature, measuring SEM performance remains
a significant challenge with many firms unsure if they measure it effectively. An encouraging finding from
the study is that Irish SMEs adopt a positive ethical posture when undertaking SEM.
For many, online search has become an important
daily activity to navigate the Internet and has
triggered fundamental changes in the way people
seek and find information (Browne, Pitts and
Weatherbe, 2007). Boughton (2005) and Fain and
Pedersen (2006) have identified the Web as the
searchers first port of call for locating information.
Search Engines regularly feature amongst the most
frequented Websites and are a vital mechanism by
which e-commerce sites promote themselves (Jansen
and Molina, 2006). Given the importance of the
Search Engine as a method for finding information,
and the opportunity it presents to advertisers as a
marketing medium, Search Engine Marketing
(SEM) strategies have been noted as a key area for
firms to consider when developing, maintaining and
managing their Websites (Sen, 2005).
SEM has emerged as the main method firms use to
successfully increase the visibility of their Website.
SEM consists of a number of methods that broadly
fall into two categories - ‘Search Engine
Optimisation’ (SEO) and ‘Paid Search’ (Boughton,
2005; Jansen and Resnick, 2005; Feng, Bhargava,
and Pennock, 2007). SEO is the process of
identifying and fine-tuning elements of a Website in
order to achieve the highest possible visibility when
a Search Engine responds to a relevant query (Xing
and Lin, 2004; Zhang and Dimitroff, 2005). SEO
leverages the Search Engine algorithm to channel
users to specific Websites, the results of which are
referred to as organic results. Paid Search uses
Search Engines to trigger a display of
advertisements based on the topic or keyword
entered (Laffey, 2007).
A major factor in choosing one strategy over
another is the searcher’s perception of sponsored
listings (Paid Search) over that of organic or
editorial listings (SEO). Jansen and Resnick (2005)
suggest that searchers tend to trust the relevance of
organic links over sponsored links, whereas
Boughton (2005) argues that searchers more
commonly following sponsored advertisements. Sen
(2005) uses an analytical model to assess the use of
Paid Search over SEO. He finds that even if the cost
of Paid Search and SEO were the same, firms would
still select Paid Search as the most popular strategy.
Barry C. and Charleton D. (2008).
RESEARCHING SEARCH - A Study into Search Engine Marketing Practices in Ireland.
In Proceedings of the International Conference on e-Business, pages 339-346
DOI: 10.5220/0001910703390346
In contrast, Xing and Lin (2004) find SEO more
popular based on cost and due to searchers’
perceptions of Paid Search results. Jansen and
Molina (2006) surmise that a dual strategy of SEO
and Paid Search is the best approach having found
that Paid Search results are just as relevant as non-
paid results (SEO). Laffey (2007) discusses how a
strategy may depend on which Search Engine is
subscribed to. He reports that Google users are more
likely to click on organic results and least likely to
click on paid results, whereas MSN users are more
likely to click on Paid Search results.
Several optimizing SEO techniques have been
identified. Some of these include: providing
keyword rich Website content throughout all Web
pages (Seda, 2004; Schultz and Fristedt, 2005;
Dawson and Hamilton, 2006); using keywords in the
title and description meta tags in the Website code
(Zhang and Dimitroff, 2005); and keeping the likes
of flash, graphics, forms and frames to a minimum
(Schultz and Fristedt, 2005; Dawson and Hamilton,
2006). Mentz and Whiteside (2003), Oliva (2004),
Seda (2004), and Schultz and Fristedt (2005)
recommend a link development strategy whereby
other good quality and relevant Websites are used to
develop or implement a link back to the company
Paid Search takes a number of different forms.
Paid Placement is where, in response to a particular
search term, a firm pays a fee for their link to appear
on the search results page, for example Google’s
AdWords. Paid Inclusion is where Search Engines
are paid to index pages from a Website (Thurow,
2007). These results can often be mixed into the
organic/editorial listings on the search engine results
page (SERP). For example, Yahoo and other Search
Engines firms offer Paid Inclusion programmes for
this purpose. At present Google does not offer such
a service (Mangalindan, 2003). With Paid
Submission, advertisers pay Search Engines to speed
up the process of having their Website reviewed
more quickly than they would under a free
submission (Sen, 2005). However there is no
guarantee that it is accepted and included in the
SERP (Thurow, 2007). Contextual search is another
type of Paid Search whereby search results are
returned based on user behaviour and relevance
rather than matching keywords (Vine, 2004), for
example Google’s AdSense programme. Local
search allows advertisers to target local customers in
a geographic region rather than marketing to a
generic audience (Jones, 2006). Google permits this
feature through its AdWords programme.
There is widespread recognition of the
importance of using performance metrics for SEO
and Paid Search in order to achieve a competitive
advantage (Weischedel, Matear and Deans, 2005;
Fain and Pedersen, 2006; Laffey, 2007). However
despite theses calls there is general consensus
throughout the literature regarding the mis-use of
measurement tools for SEM (Weischedel et al,
2005). Some SEO measures put forward are: setting
a baseline to measure inbound links to a site, where
a company should continue to improve the number
and quality of inbound links to increase the site’s
page rank; and site usage statistics (Schultz and
Fristedt, 2005) where the likes of Google Analytics
can be used. Zhang and Dimitroff (2005) and Seda
(2004) recommend tweaking different SEO aspects
of the Website and then measuring the change in
rank of the Website on the SERP on a continual
basis. Paid Search measures put forward include:
Cost Per Click (CPC) where the cost to an advertiser
to generate one click is monitored; Cost Per Mille
(CPM) where the cost to display an advertisement a
thousand times is recorded; Cost Per Action (CPA)
which monitors the cost for actions such as signing
up for a new account or making a sale; and
Conversion Rate which is the ratio between CPC
and CPA (Fain and Pedersen, 2006). Smith (2002)
discusses conversion metrics as a key tool for
measuring ROI. Another important and commonly
used measure is Click Through Rate (CTR). CTR is
the ratio between the number of times a Web link is
displayed against the CPC (Kumar and Shah, 2004;
Fain and Pedersen, 2006).
Ethical practice in SEM is an increasingly
important consideration for all stakeholders (Palmer,
2005), particularly searchers who rely on Search
Engine to organise and distribute returned results in
an ethical way (Zimmer, 2006). Ethics takes two
forms - the responsibility of Search Engine operators
and the onus on Search Engine marketers to conduct
themselves ethically. Conflictingly, it is in the best
interest of Search Engines operators to push for paid
advertisement (that generate revenue) rather than
organic results. This leads searchers to be concerned
about SERP results since some Search Engines do
not disclose the difference between sponsored and
organic search results (Moxley, Blake and Maze,
2004) - a clear breach of any assumed ethicality.
Other concerns are expressed about: unethical link
development such as when a site is found with
identical link development on other sites that are
completely unrelated; bogus blogs generated to
include links to increase the Website’s rankings
(Economist, 2006); ‘Black Hat SEO’ where popular
ICE-B 2008 - International Conference on e-Business
links are rented out from quality Websites and
hidden links are placed on prestigious sites unknown
to their owners; and Web spamming where invisible
or unreadable text, or excessive use of the same
word are used to fool the Search Engine spider into
thinking there are certain keywords on the Website
(Esparza, 2007). Click fraud is also discussed at
length in the literature (Asdemir and Yaha, 2006;
Laffey, 2007). It occurs when an advertiser falsely
generates clicks on an ad with the only goal of
increasing the payment to the advertiser.
The broad objective of this research effort was to
examine SEM strategies of small to medium sized
enterprises (SMEs) in Ireland. It was also designed
to: identify the specific SEM techniques used; reveal
which strategies are perceived as being more
effective; discover if SMEs use performance
metrics; to investigate if firms consider an ethical
perspective when undertaking SEM activity; and to
identify the main challenges faced in undertaking
SEM. The research method used was an extensive,
quantitative survey. The population from which the
sample was drawn possessed the following
attributes: an SME operating in Ireland with an in-
house marketing manager or specialist in a
marketing department and an operating company
Website. The sampling frame was selected based on
the research questions, as well as the attributes listed
above for selection. The sample information was
compiled from Kompass, a business database listing
companies in Ireland. A total of 95 responses were
received out of a sample of 623, giving a response
rate of 15.24 %. The data collection method chosen
for this study was a self-administered postal
questionnaire and a matching Web-based
4.1 Website Development
Most firms that participated in the survey develop
and manage their Website internally. While one
third outsource the development of the Website they
still manage and update their Website in-house. The
significance of this is that most respondents have the
capacity to carefully manage their SEM strategy
with expertise based in-house. For these firms
technical aspects of SEM should not be a barrier to
understanding or developing online marketing
4.2 Nature of the SEM Strategy
Concurring with recommendations elsewhere
(Ostler, 2001; Porter, 2002), two thirds of those
surveyed describe their SEM strategy as closely
aligned with their firms overall business strategy.
This finding suggests firms have moved beyond
experimentation and approach a more mature
relationship between their online and broader
Many respondents (46%) revealed their SEM
strategy was of an informal nature, while (39%)
reported a fairly formal or a formal SEM strategy.
The remainder indicated that they did not carry out
any SEM strategy. This contrasts with the
exhortations of writers that recommend a strategy
formulation to achieve sustainable competitive
advantage (Varadarajan and Jayachandran, 1999;
Novak, Hoffman and Yung, 2000; Schultz and
Fristedt, 2005; Sen, 2005). In relation to the
effectiveness of their SEM strategy, nearly three
quarters of respondents agreed they would consider
their SEM strategy ineffective if it did not return
their company’s Website link on the first page of the
SERP. This finding is reinforced by research that
suggests searchers view at most the first few pages
of the SERP (Lempel and Moran, 2000; Zwick,
Rapport, Lo and Muthukrishnan, 2003).
An overwhelming number (91%) listed Google
as the Search Engine most subscribed to for
indexing by companies. This is followed by Yahoo
at 65%, with MSN coming significantly behind
(29%), while AOL, Alta Vista and Ask only
received a very small percent. These findings are in
line with findings elsewhere by Schultz and Fristedt
(2005) and Taylor (2007). Schultz and Fristedt noted
that Google receives the highest number of keyword
searches followed by Yahoo. The findings here
suggest Irish firms are aware of the importance of
subscribing to the most popular search engines to
target the largest possible market. It may also
suggest that many of these SME’s are subscribing to
Google because it is free, whereas subscription to
other search engines such as Yahoo and MSN incur
RESEARCHING SEARCH - A Study into Search Engine Marketing Practices in Ireland
4.3 Types of SEM Strategy Used by
The literature suggests a key factor in a firm’s
choice of SEM has much to do with how searchers
perceive organic versus sponsored results (Seda,
2004; Boughton, 2005; Jansen and Resnick, 2005;
Sen, 2005). If firms are reading searchers correctly,
they are choosing to focus on SEO. Nearly half of
respondents indicated that they predominantly use
SEO for SEM (see Figure 1). This concurs with a
European report conducted by SEMPO (2007a),
which found that French, Spanish and Italian
advertisers focus more on the use of SEO over Paid
Search. In a similar type report on the US market,
SEMPO found that over three quarters of
respondents use SEO as their main form of SEM
(SEMPO, 2007b). A third of those surveyed here
report that they use a combination of SEO and Paid
Search, while few respondents reported that they use
Paid Search only. This latter finding would suggest a
clear view of Irish SMEs that Paid Search on its own
is not capable of delivering searchers to their
Website. The position would seem to be vindicated
by a recent Amarach Consulting report showed a
clear majority (82%) of searchers admitting to rarely
or never clicking on sponsored results when
conducting a Web search (Amarach, 2007).
Figure 1: Type of SEM Strategy used.
When respondents were also asked which SEM
strategy they perceived to be most effective in
driving traffic to their company’s Website, most
(61%) indicated SEO while only 10% believed Paid
Search to be so. This view concurs with Xing and
Lin (2004) who argue SEO is a more cost effective
and viable long-term option. They posit that as Paid
Search costs rise, SEO costs will remain constant.
Only 11% thought Paid Search and SEO were as
effective as each other.
4.4 SEO Strategy Techniques
Respondents cite the use of ‘keywords in title and
description tags’ as the most used SEO technique,
followed by use of ‘keywords throughout the whole
Website’ (see Figure 2). The first of these findings
contrasts with the recommendations of Seda (2004)
and Schultz and Fristedt (2005) who state that
keywords should be used throughout all pages of the
Website content. While Dawson and Hamilton
(2006) advise minimizing the use of graphics, forms
and frames, a significant number (22%) employ this
technique. The use of these elements often restricts
spiders from reading the Website, thereby affecting
its Search Engine ranking.
About half (46%) reported ‘refreshing page
content’ as a regularly used method - although a
useful ingredient, it seems slighted elevated when
contrasted with the literature. Surprisingly, few cited
‘link development’ as an applied method to carry out
SEO despite the exhortations of writers. While it has
been suggested that techniques should be used in
tandem in pursuit of optimal SEO, the variability in
the logic and operation of each Search Engine’s
algorithm means differing techniques may be needed
to achieve effectiveness across each Search Engine.
Q.6 SEO Techniques used
Type of Technique
Number of Respondents
Use of keywords in title and
description tags
Use of Keywords on the home
page only
Use of keywords throughout
the whole website content
Rounti nely refreshing web
Use of Cascading Stlye
Keeping the likes of graphics
Link Development (Affiliate
links with other websites)
None of the above
Other (please specify)
Figure 2: SEO Techniques.
4.5 Paid Search Strategy Techniques
When SMEs were asked about their most used Paid
Search technique, Paid Placement was ranked first
(see Table 1). Given the dominance of Google, this
finding echoes the literature’s claim that paid
placement is Google’s only Paid Search offering.
The much smaller numbers for Paid Inclusion (9%)
and Paid Submission (9%) appears to reflect the less
widespread use of Search Engines like Yahoo and
MSN who offer both types of Paid Search.
ICE-B 2008 - International Conference on e-Business
Table 1: Paid Search Techniques used by Respondents.
Total Responses Percent
Pay for Placement 33 38%
Paid Inclusion 8 9%
Contextual Search 7 8%
Paid Submission 8 9%
Local Search 13 15%
one of the above 25 29%
Other 3 3%
The significant number that does not use any
Paid Search technique (29%) most likely reflects the
earlier finding that reported SEO as the more used
and effective technique. The reasonable level of
Local Search is supportive of Laffey's (2007)
observation that this method assists the smaller
business compete with the bigger players on a global
scale and helps target specific geographic markets.
4.6 Measuring SEM
4.6.1 SEO Measurement
Traffic measurement was listed as the most used
method for measuring SEO campaigns (see Table 2),
concurring with the views of Zhang and Dimitroff
(2005) and Friesen (2007). Traffic measurement is
the most popular measure for SEO in practice, using
tools such as Google Analytics. This was followed
by ‘measuring link popularity’, as recommended by
Schultz and Fristedt (2005). Disappointingly,
‘setting baselines and measuring the impact’ did not
rate highly, despite its advocacy (Schultz and
Fristedt, 2005). This technique should be more
widely deployed since it is a true indication of a
ranking on the SERP at one point in time, versus
where it is at a future time having carried out SEO
improvement measures. Worryingly, nearly a quarter
said they do not use any method to assess their SEO
initiatives. Given the current spend on SEM in
Ireland and the expected growth of this form of
online advertising (Taylor, 2007), this is a matter for
Table 2: Measures of SEO.
Frequency Percent
Measuring Link popularity 33 37%
Setting Baselines & Measuring 11 12%
Traffic Measurement 58 64%
one 18 20%
Other 6 6%
4.6.2 Paid Search Measurement
On measuring Paid Search campaigns, firms
indicated that both Traffic Measurement and CTR
were jointly the most used methods (see Table 3).
Fewer use Conversion Rate despite the view by
Smith (2002) that conversion metrics are a very
important tool for estimating ROI. Smith discusses
how traffic measurement used to be the most
appropriate measure, but the consumer conversion
rate is now considered to be more important, where
traffic measurement is more useful for analysing
SEO initiatives (Zhang and Dimitroff, 2005; Friesen,
Table 3: Measures of Paid Search.
Respondents Percent
Conversion Rate 23 29%
Click Through Rate 35 44%
Traffic Measurement 36 45%
one 30 37%
Other 3 4%
Reviewed at length in the literature are the large
numbers of Websites that do not measure their Paid
Search initiatives (Weischedel et al, 2005; Fain and
Pedersen, 2006). This corresponds with the
significant proportion here (37%) that indicates that
they do not use any metrics to estimate their Paid
Search efforts. This finding may be explained by the
recognition throughout the literature that Paid
Search lacks sound measurement tools (Weischedel
et al, 2005). Nonetheless, implementing a Paid
Search campaign and not measuring its outcome is
RESEARCHING SEARCH - A Study into Search Engine Marketing Practices in Ireland
4.7 Effectiveness of SEM Measurement
Opinions are divided evenly regarding how firm’s
believe they are effectively measuring their SEM
activity. Nearly half believe that they are effectively
or very effectively measuring it, however the
remainder are not at all happy with their current
SEM metrics (see Figure 3). This view compounds
the argument in the literature regarding the
availability of effective tools and justifies why so
many are discontented with their current
arrangement (Fain and Pedersen, 2006).
Figure 3: Effectiveness of SEM Measurement.
As argued by Smith (2002), businesses using
relevant metrics have a greater opportunity to
achieve a competitive advantage. Metrics also
provide valuable information about consumer’s
online behaviour. Clearly much needs to be done to
improve the satisfaction of firms in assessing the
usefulness of their SEM effort.
4.8 Ethics and SEM
Respondents overwhelmingly agree that ethical
considerations are a very important part of both their
SEO and Paid Search campaigns. In concordance
with this belief, there was general consensus that
firms would have ethical issues in commissioning
‘all forms’ of Paid Search. Respondents strongly
reported that they would only commission Paid
Search that was transparent to users. These are very
positive findings and would suggest that SMEs for
the most part act ethically when undertaking their
SEM and have given consideration to ethical issues.
Moxley et al (2004) view Paid Search
advertising as misleading for information searchers
as Search Engines often do not disclose the
difference between paid and organic results. So
while the most frequently subscribed to Search
Engine firm, Google, (who clearly display the
difference between sponsored results and organic
results on the SERP) is used, searchers may have
some confidence that firms are acting morally.
Nevertheless, as Search Engine marketers change
their Search Engine provider and develop their
strategies (say to less transparent operators like
MSN), an ethical policy should be carefully
SMEs were more indifferent to whether their
users were aware that they were using Paid Search.
However, to a great extent it is outside of their
control since the Search Engine firms design and
deliver the SERPs. While Search Engine marketers
might lobby those Search Engines that do not
disclose the difference between paid and free Search
Engine results, it is really up to consumer watchdogs
and government agencies to ensure consumer rights
are protected. Since there are a significant number of
respondents who were unaware of what constitutes
ethical SEO, these bodies have an important role in
educating firms on the consequences of using third
party marketing practices that are of questionable
ethical merit and of other SEO practices such as
Web spamming and unethical link development.
4.9 Challenges in SEM
When firms were asked about the main challenges
encountered when undertaking SEM, the greatest
one reported was competing for and achieving a
high rank on the SERP. While earlier firms felt they
were carrying out their SEO effectively, it still
reflects the imperative for any SEM, which is to
deliver users to their Website. A related challenge
widely cited was the shortage of measurement tools
available for SEM. Closely related to achieving a
high ranking is the respondent’s concerns with the
Search Engines algorithm. This will always be an
ongoing challenge for marketers as Search Engines
never disclose their ranking algorithms.
A significant number cited knowledge of SEM
practices in general as an obstacle, indicative that
much remains to be understood about this form of
marketing for SMEs in Ireland to fully realize the
opportunities it offers to their broader marketing
initiatives. Dedicating time, budget and resources
were listed by many respondents as a barrier to
adopting SEM. This finding again illustrates SME’s
lack of knowledge of SEM. Given the projected
growth of SEM as a marketing medium - dedicating
time, budget and resources is a crucial element in
carrying out any SEM strategy. Managing keywords
remain a major element for both Paid Search and
SEO campaigns. In contrast, unethical competitor
practices (click fraud, Web spamming and unethical
ICE-B 2008 - International Conference on e-Business
link development) are not a major concern for
SEM is a growing strategy that firms use to improve
the visibility of their Website so that searchers are
delivered to the company Website to achieve their
informational or commercial goals. The findings
here suggest that Irish SMEs plan to spend more
time and resources on SEM in the future. It is also
clear that SEM strategies needs to be more formal in
nature, in line with recommendations made
elsewhere. While it is to be expected that an
important business initiative begins in a casual and
experimental manner, very quickly the importance
of aligning the effort with organisational strategy
becomes evident. A fundamental mission of a SEM
strategy, and clearly identified by respondents in this
study, is to achieve a top position on the first page of
the SERP.
The study also reveals that the great majority of
respondents use SEO or a combination of SEO and
Paid Search. Despite the general lack of
comprehensive tools to measure SEM effectiveness,
firms seem to have a clear preference for SEO at this
time and perceive it to be more effective. To
reinforce the perceptions of SMEs it is evident that
SEM initiatives need to be measured with
appropriate tools so that outcomes can be fed back
into the strategic decision making process. What
also emerges is that firms need to increasingly
consider the behaviour and geographic location of
searchers as an integral part of their SEM strategy.
An encouraging finding from the study is that
Irish SMEs adopt a positive ethical posture when
undertaking SEM. On a cautionary note however,
since Paid Search is, for now, less widely employed,
the more obvious ethical problems with it do not
present themselves. Vigilance to give users
transparency in recognizing paid versus free search
results must be part of a firm’s SEM strategy is
searchers are to remain confident in the integrity of
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