Online Exclusive: The High-Stakes Game of Alternative Keyword Lists

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It's September, so it's time to buckle down and start planning for the holidays. Because, for the retailers among you, you know that the start of September means there's only four months left until December's gone. And getting ready for shopping season means getting ready for awfully expensive keywords.


Largely, high keyword prices are a natural, if very ugly, byproduct of market forces. Just like everything else in the Most Retail-ful Time of Year, high holiday demands drive up prices. What makes matters worse, though, is that many of the high-priced keywords aren't purely competition-driven. They're insanity driven.


Someone - one of your competitors in the search space, to be exact - decides that the most important thing on earth, no matter what the cost, is getting the top PPC ranking on Google. She'll pay through the nose, teeth and peppermint-filled stockings to get there. No, it's not rational. No, it might not even be the smartest strategy for that advertiser, or even a smart strategy for her. But it's a major driver in search costs, year round.


And, as anyone who ever saw a fistfight over Tickle-Me-Elmo knows, the holiday season only makes insanely competitive people more insane.


Brings a whole new spin on holiday blues, doesn't it?


The way out. But not to fear. There really is a way out. Often, with a very heavy dose of creativity, you can substitute a lot of less expensive keywords for a few very expensive ones. Maybe, for the target market that you're dealing with, a combination of slang terms, local colloquialisms, and synonyms would do the trick just as well.


A really simple example. In the Yahoo system, the current maximum bid for the term "Apple" is 71 cents. If you're selling apples, though - not computers - you might not want to compete with technology customers for traffic (not to mention that people selling apples run the risk of gaining irrelevant traffic on that term; but that's a discussion for another time). But simply by adding an "-s" - and bidding apples instead of apple lets your maximum keyword price drop significantly: Yahoo lists that maximum bid at 10 cents.


Make enough major and minor creative changes in keyword choice, across the board and you could be looking at great click-throughs for holiday terms this season, with a lot less of the expense.


Some words of caution. While this sounds like a simple, wonderful way out of a lousy situation, it isn't as simple as it sounds. Because getting an expensive job done with bargain keywords is like any other case of cheap goods: sometimes, you've landed a real hidden gem; other times, you get what you paid for.


Put differently, alternative keywords can be the classic high risk/high ROI investment. If you're selling toys and bid on the keyword "toys" in mid-December, chances are you'll end up paying a lot of money. At the same time, though, you probably are guaranteed to get a lot of relevant traffic. If you try to outsmart the market by bidding on the probably less-expensive term "plaything" - well, you have found a term that means the same thing, but best of luck to you.


But like many risky, high-ROI endeavors, it's really not risky at all if you know what you're doing. In fact, bidding intelligently, rather than simply doing what everyone else does (unless you know, for a fact, that what everyone else is doing is intelligent), is absolutely the only way to succeed at getting the best keyword bids.


The question you need to ask is if you know what you're doing.


What to look for. To see if you - or whomever is handling your SEM - knows enough to create alternative, cheaper keyword lists, ask yourself three questions:


· How well do your SEM-handlers know your market? If they really understand how your market thinks, acts, and talks - as well as or better than you do - then the answer is, they know your market very well. If they don't know your market at least as well as you do, you might want to think twice about risking losing out on the guaranteed high-traffic terms, even if they're expensive, in the name of getting a cheaper keyword list made up by people who might not know the terms your customers are using.


That means making sure the people handling your SEM talk with your marketing people (or your other marketing people, if you're managing it in-house), a lot. Of course, the more your SEM-handler is used to creating customized solutions, the better they'll be at figuring out how to create a keyword list specifically targeted toward a given market.


· How well does your SEM firm (or in house team) understand how keywords work? If you get your keywords wrong, the best ads, landing page and deeper-page conversion architecture on earth won't mean a thing. Because the wrong keywords mean that your potential customers simply won't see you. So it isn't enough to understand the kinds of terms your customers use; you need to understand exactly how keywords operate. Without that, you could be doing things all wrong.


· How powerful is your tracking and testing? One of the best way to minimize risk, in any arena, is to keep a constant eye over it. If you're using highly sophisticated metrics tracking and analytics - including real-time metrics tracking - you'll be able to see what doesn't work very quickly, and change it.


If your SEM is powerful enough, and customized enough, to manage all these things, then alternative keyword choice might be an excellent option for saving money in the thick of holiday keyword price increases. Or any time of year, for that matter.


If you aren't so sure you're able to manage these things well, though, you might just be safer paying through the nose with everyone else.


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