The Business End of SEM: It's More Than Just a Numbers Game

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In 1995, just having a Web site was cool, and promoting it was simply unheard of. Back then, Google was just an infinitely large number used by geeks and mathematicians to determine the probability of getting a date with Pamela Anderson.


Fast forward to 2000: Almost all businesses had a Web site (some even funded by a business plan sketched out on a bar napkin), and Google was becoming a popular method of locating sites of interest. Some marketers even allocated a small portion of their Super Bowl media budget for search engine programs.


It's now more than halfway through 2005, and things are just a little bit different. Not only are a vast majority of businesses online, but they derive significant value from that presence: reducing costs, generating leads and converting sales. Google is now a verb, and its stock broke 300. Search is essential to business success. Search engine marketing has been validated repeatedly as the most cost-effective (and measurable) form of lead generation available to marketers today.


So how did we get from Google noun to Google verb in less than 10 years? A sea change occurred in both technology and mindset. Businesses understand the value of the Internet as a sales and delivery channel. Marketers understand the value of the Internet as an awareness, branding and lead generation tool. Web sites have evolved from brochure ware to highly interactive business and sales tools, and search engines are the primary driver of visitors.


A disconnect, however, has arisen over the past few years. As Web technology and marketing methodologies mature, there is a greater opportunity for fragmentation. Internal departments (sales, marketing, IT and operations) are becoming more siloed and competitive. External advertising, public relations, direct response and interactive agencies are fighting for the same marketing budget.


Like many marketing initiatives, search engine marketing integrates into all marketing disciplines and touches all internal teams in some manner. For businesses to have a strong bottom line, the top line has to support SEM initiatives. By determining where and how search engine marketing affects internal and external resources and activities, businesses can build a framework for success. Key elements are outlined below.


Branding. One of the most intangible and difficult to quantify elements of a business is its brand identity. Search engine marketing has an increasingly important role in the development and evolution of a brand, starting with the name. If a new company decides on a name for which a .com domain is unavailable, it increases the danger of impeding its name recognition, as the URL may be difficult to find.


In a similar manner, choosing a unique brand name may allow for better trademark protection, but makes search optimization more challenging (in terms of generating awareness via popular search terminology). The same applies for new product and service names.


The short answer is to purchase trademarked terms via pay-per-click advertising, as you control the keywords, copy and landing page. With PPC, you pay only for each visitor, thus getting the benefit of free impressions or "branding." PPC also is an excellent way to build and protect the good will of existing trademarked terms.


Marketing. The marketing team typically develops a plethora of collateral materials and tools to promote their company. Search engine marketing offers the business a chance to leverage those materials and tools to generate additional visibility. For example, media kits, direct response campaign landing pages and ad copy are all useful in creating optimized content for search engines.


Monitoring (and participating in) newsgroups, blogs, threaded forums and discussion lists offers insight into customers and an opportunity to build a relationship with key constituents. This also makes the Web an ideal tool for crisis communications, investor relations and grassroots marketing. Since most marketers now control corporate Web sites, having a content management system that is search engine friendly also is critical.


Sales. As discussed earlier, search engine optimization and PPC are highly cost-effective and measurable lead generation tools. Seamlessly integrating SEO and PPC efforts into the sales process has been a focus of successful companies in the past few years. Plugging in various lead generation and sales funnel activities (affiliate programs, downloads, registrations, demos, orders and inquiries) to the customer relationship management platform will ensure higher sales volume and margins.


Operations. Few search engine marketers have a holistic approach to their craft. Most view their role strictly as a way to generate revenue on a cost-per-click or cost-per-lead basis. A more valuable and enlightened perspective is to understand that there are other valuable constituents that search engine marketers can positively impact besides leads and sales.


Any company with high visibility in search engines will benefit from cost-effective recruiting efforts, reinforcing credibility with vendors, partners and shareholders and an ability to decrease costs and increase margins through analysis of detailed return on investment data originating from search engine marketing efforts.


If you or your company still believes that search engine marketing is only good for feeding the sales funnel, you should continue spending your entire marketing budget on one of those Super Bowl commercials.


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