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Anyone doing business on the Web probably knows the importance of getting prominent placement in search engines. But Jim Yu, founder and chief executive of a startup called BrightEdge, said that until now, the process has been too mysterious — there are lots of search engine optimization (SEO) managers and consultants, but no good tools to help them improve search results in a coordinated way, with measurable results.

That’s in contrast to the advertising that runs alongside search results. Search advertising can be managed through sophisticated tools offered by companies like Marin Software, not to mention features offered by Google itself.

Why the difference? Yu said it’s easy to figure out the financial return of search ads, where you’re paying for each click or purchase. With SEO, things are more complicated: “You need two completely different sets of data — what’s happening in the search engine and what’s happening on my website. This is a really hard problem to solve, and you can spend days and weeks in spreadsheet hell.”

Naturally, that’s where Yu’s San Mateo, Calif.-based company comes in. Even though it’s officially launching its BrightEdge SEO Platform today, BrightEdge has already been working in stealth mode for the three years, and has signed up big-name customers including virtualization company VMware, security software maker Symantec, social network MySpace, and real estate startup Trulia. BrightEdge says its customers are earning more than $1 billion total from their SEO. (The last two companies are interesting examples because MySpace is trying to regain some of its lost luster, while Trulia wants to keep pace with competitor Zillow, which is more popular by most measures, while also chipping away at established real estate sites.)

There are three big pieces to BrightEdge’s technology. First, it offers an analytics dashboard that connects revenue with SEO, allowing companies to quantify whether an SEO campaign is paying off, and allowing them to focus on the campaigns with the best return. Second, it monitors competitors’ websites and creates a map of search keywords that seem to be paying off for them. And it helps coordinate efforts throughout a company, so different departments can share recommendations and results.

BrightEdge has raised $8.5 million from Battery Ventures, Altos Ventures, and Illuminate Ventures.

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