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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 December, 2003, 09:32 GMT
Clever marketing boosts internet sales
By Marc Webber
Reporting for BBC News Online

Christmas tree, BBC
Shopping has started early this year

Internet retailers with little or no money to spend on marketing are using ingenious ways to make sure they're 'top of the shops' this Christmas.

Their drive for new methods of generating trade has become even more urgent now that Google, the biggest internet search engine, has changed the way it decides what websites appear first when you type in certain keywords.

Now, partnerships with other firms chasing similar customers, and a focus on already-loyal online buyers are fast becoming the central strands of marketing philosophy at many small internet shopping concerns.

Partnership drive

"The days of so-called 'Google-dancing' where companies concentrate on trying to beat the search engine algorithms is coming to an end," said Dixon Jones, managing director of internet marketing consultancy Receptional.com.

"The little internet retailers are better off spending what little resources they have on creating links with firms after the same type of customers.

"It costs nothing to have a link put on someone else's site, but the benefits on your bottom line could be excellent, because you are connecting with exactly the right clientele," he added.

Alex Murray is internet manager at fine wine firm Berry Brothers & Rudd.

His firm has benefited from a number of affiliation programmes.

"We recently teamed up with a luxury property rental firm. They allowed us to place cards in their castles, advertising a special offer on our website. It was a very worthwhile promotion and we noticed a substantial rise in sales. It's certainly something we will do again."

Shopping portals

Online stores are also making sure that their products are placed on high profile shopping portals, opening up new markets abroad.

Madeinsheffield.com sells goods like cutlery and pewter hip-flasks which are made in the Yorkshire city.

Its managing director, Wendi Hebb, says "We've done a couple of deals with retail portals in the UK and US which has really boosted our order numbers without costing us a penny.

"For example, there's a company called Catalogue City online store. They rent our product inventory to Sky's website. It means we have products on their website, they take all the orders and we get the money."

Print advertising

If they have any above-the-line marketing money, small e-tailers tend to shun the internet when they spend it, choosing instead to buy ad space in magazines targeted at their specific trades.

It may be a less than perfect way of getting orders, but most, if not all, e-tailers rely massively on word of mouth as a key marketing tool, as Alex Murray of Berry Brothers & Rudd points out.

"Reputation and recommendation are crucial for us. We're averaging a thousand orders a month. When you have that sort of numbers coming to our site every month, you get a clear indication that people that have used us one month are telling other people to use us as well," he said.

Search engines

But many of these firms still admit that getting click-through activity from search engines is still a major driver of their trade.

As a result, they are now paying money to search engines like Google for guaranteed links to their site from certain keyword searches.

Wendi Hebb says: "Two-thirds of our trade comes from search engines. So we will do anything to protect our place on such searches. If that means paying for keywords, then so be it."

However, the launch of a new service from Google next year may put an end to the need to buy a guaranteed spot on search engines.

It is currently testing a new project called Froogle, where web retailers will be able to list their site, along with special offers, for free.

This will reduce the opportunity for e-tailers with money to jump to the top of the results pile for a keyword search.

And that will boost the drive to use other marketing methods.

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