Search Marketing: An Inexact Science

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"Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity." -- Gustave Flaubert

Once upon a time, I wrote that quote on a piece of paper and tacked it to my wall. I recently remembered it -- sort of. I couldn't recollect the exact words. Truthfully, I couldn't remember much. I remembered the gist of it, and that there was something about dancing. I also remembered the source was French. I decided it was time to refresh my memory, so I went to Google to see whether I could track it down.

I started with the search phrase "french authors," which led me to a page with French authors sorted by century -- a boon because I was pretty sure the quote was from the 19th century. The act of searching got the neurons firing, and I scanned right down to "F" to find and recognize Gustave Flaubert as the source of the quote.

I also thought the quote started with "language is," so "flaubert language is" formed my next search. Voila! Several citations showed up in my search results.

All the citations varied, and some did or did not include "bears" as the audience. The imagery of dancing bears gives the quote panache, in my opinion, so I changed my search to "flaubert language bears." I found several translations of the original French and decided on the one above as my favorite.

What my process of searching highlights is that I didn't arrive at my desired results from the first key phrase; rather, it took several attempts -- refining further each time. I am not alone. According to a recent comScore study, consumers searching for computing or consumer electronic products use an average of four key phrases in the search process. Consumers who end up purchasing products search an average of 12 key phrases before buying.

That's a lot of searches. Yet, if you catch a searcher early on in his/her search and your listing answers his/her query, you have established a connection. If it happens a few more times, the bond strengthens. If you reach a searcher more than a few times and the searcher ends up buying from you, that's the beginning of a relationship. Of course, odds are that a given advertiser is only showing up a few out of the 12 times, unless it has made a great effort to reach more.

When advertising with search, you should have a number of opportunities to reach prospective customers. The questions are, when do you try to reach them, and what impact will you have?

This involves identifying relevant key phrases (opportunities to introduce your goods or services), and ensuring your ad or landing page (your introduction) ranks high in the results. The ad or page commonly includes your 10-second pitch, as well as the relevant key phrases.

But that may not establish a connection, and it certainly doesn't sound like the beginning of a relationship. Imagine walking in to a sporting goods store and saying, "I'm going skiing, but I don't know the first thing about boots. What do I need to know?" Then, the salesperson responds with, "WE HAVE GREAT PRICES ON ALL THE TOP BRANDS OF SKI BOOTS!" Relationship over.

If I search for "what to look for in a ski boot," I'm not ready to buy. I've probably only just begun my 12 searches. The best thing a Web site can do at this point is to engage me with information about ski boots in general.

As an advertiser, you need to understand what is going on inside the searcher's head. You also should seek visibility across the full range of searches, from the most general to the most directed. Ideally, your listings will appear at various points in the search process with appropriate ad creative at the ready and will direct him/her to landing page content that is relevant to his/her current state of mind. Those initial impressions can determine whether there's hope for the start of a relationship.

Getting inside the searcher's head is not as hard as it sounds. If you are currently doing keyword advertising, your list of key phrases probably falls into natural classifications. Here is a somewhat random sample of a few of the things people are searching for right now around the Web (as observed on dansko clogs, native american jewelry and pet odor control.

* Dansko clogs is very specific. It is appropriate to present this searcher with Dansko clogs, pricing and an option to buy.

* Native american jewelry is more general. This searcher could be looking for information about Native American jewelry or sites to buy Native American jewelry. A good landing page might include some information about Native American jewelry as well as a selection of products or categories.

* Pet odor control is an informational search. While this searcher may be receptive to products, he/she is faced with stinky pets and doesn't know where to start. The best result here will emphasize options for pet odor control, possibly with links to resources and more information. What is important to remember is that searchers like this will probably leave without purchasing, but may eventually buy. If you can win their confidence and trust, you have a much better chance of converting them to buyers when they're ready.

To make sure you are visible to searchers throughout the search process, you will probably need thousands of key phrases in your repertoire. This, too, is not as hard as it sounds. Many agencies offer keyword research as a service, and there are various search management tools that help you do the research yourself.

If you do it right, you will connect with a few of the searchers out there and form lasting relationships. Of course, doing it right is subject to human nature and the dynamics of language. While it is important to approach your online marketing with analytical rigor, it is equally important that you remember the person sitting on the other side of the screen -- even if they're only looking for French dancing bears.

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