Online Exclusive: How Do You Know If You're in Trouble?

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Your SEM management probably knows more about search than you do. So how can you evaluate whether they're doing a good job? This week, we'll suggest four areas to look into that give you a hint of how healthy your search engine marketing campaign really is.

By the way, if you're in retail, now's a particularly useful time to look into what's going right and what's gone wrong. The high traffic volumes that holiday shopping produces mean you're dealing with a very large sample size of your market. Now's the time to see how you're really doing.

1. Are your ads in good positions? Your ad position determines your ad visibility, which determines your click-through volume. If you don't get a good click-through volume, you can't drive conversions.

The only exception to the rule is SEM purely for brand exposure: All you care about, in SEM for branding, is being seen. Immediate conversions, in branding, don't matter as much. But if you're trying to get noticed, visibility is more important -- not less important.

So take a look at where your search ads are. Are they in high positions? If not, there's a good chance that your ads are invisible to searchers. We're not saying you should throw all your money out the window to get the top position on every term -- and there are actually times when the top position is less valuable, not more. But if your ads are consistently showing up low, it's worthwhile to have a talk with your SEM manager about why that's the case.

2. Do your searchers convert? Take a look at your site's logs and do a quick comparison: How many people came to your site through paid search ads, and how many conversions have you gained?

The name of the game in search is to get as close as possible to a 1:1 ratio of click-throughs to conversions. Click-throughs cost you money; you need conversions if you want to get ROI. If you're getting a strong click-through rate but a low conversion rate, you're wasting money on non-converting PPC traffic.

Of course, a 100 percent conversion rate is highly unlikely. And there's often a lag -- searchers might come to your site, leave and take some time before they return to convert on your site. Or they might never convert on your site, but they'll convert through your call center or your store (higher-level SEM metrics would be able to track that kind of information). But comparing your conversion volume -- however well you can track it -- to your click-through volume will give you a ballpark answer to whether you're making money in search or if you're losing money.

3. How are you doing on your branded terms? How are your competitors doing on those terms? Take a quick peek at your branded terms. Do your ads appear on them? Do your competitors' ads appear on them? As we've stressed a lot in this space, your branded terms are often the most valuable terms you've got. They're the terms that are likely to attract your highest levels of qualified traffic because people searching on those terms already know about you and are interested in finding you.

We're not just talking about your biggest terms, either. The more specific a term goes into your branding, the more valuable that searcher tends to be for you. People looking for "Photosmart R817," "Air Zoom Vitesse" or "Zenith cruise ship" might be closer to a conversion than searchers for "HP," "Nike" or "Celebrity Cruiselines." If they know so much about your brand terminology, they've done a good deal of research already; making a purchase should be a next step they'll take very soon.

If your competitors are advertising on branded terms, and you're not -- or even if their ads are more visible than yours on those terms -- you might be looking at losing your best traffic to your competition.

4. Where do your affiliates appear in search? Your affiliates aren't in business to help you. They're in business to make money. Forced to decide between doing what's best for you and making that fast buck, a lot of affiliate marketers choose the fast buck.

In search, that might mean bidding on the terms you're already bidding on yourself, so they can steal your traffic away and, effectively, charge you high prices to get it back. Even if they don't steal your traffic, you're still left with jacked-up bid prices -- because you're bidding against your own affiliates. Your affilates also can take half the traffic they've gathered from your market and sell it to your competition.

There's been a lot of cracking down on rogue affiliates in the past year or so, especially with Google's rule of one landing page advertisement per search engine results page. Affiliates have tricks to get around that rule, and they're often tedious and/or difficult to spot. But you can be on the lookout for the rogue affiliates that Google doesn't catch -- the ads for (a common affiliate redirect URL that goes to your own home page, that appear on the same search engine results pages you're advertising on. If you see that kind of redundant advertising, your affiliates are bidding against you. We've been amazed by how often that happens, and to whom.

There are a lot more tricks like these four to look into to tell you how your SEM is faring. But these four are a good place to start.

Bill Wise is CEO and David Pasternack is president and co-founder of, New York. Founded in 1996, Did-it delivers profits for advertising clients in search marketing through their SAT Search Methodology -- the unique union of strategy, analytics and technology in one SEM firm. For more information, e-mail them at or visit

Bill Wise is CEO and David Pasternack is president and co-founder of, New York. Founded in 1996, Did-it delivers profits for advertising clients in search marketing through their SAT Search Methodology -- the unique union of strategy, analytics and technology in one SEM firm. For more information, e-mail them at or visit

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