Tough Choices in Search

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It's exciting to be an online marketer today, but it also can be confusing. Every day, it seems, another new interactive channel comes along whose boosters hype its amazing opportunities for marketers to reach their targeted audiences. Among this emerging media smorgasborg are Search marketing, podcasting, affiliate marketing, online video marketing, viral/Word of Mouth marketing, and even ads embedded in video games. In a perfect world with more than 24 hours in a day and no caps on marketing budgets, it would be great fun to play with all of them.

Unfortunately, the world that real online marketers live couldn't be more different. Marketing money is scarce, time is scarcer, and at the end of the day, you're judged by the results you achieve, not the technologies you've evaluated. For these reasons, many marketers have chosen Search, because, to put it simply, we know that it works. But Search comes with its own tough choices; choices you need to make whether you're launching a new Search campaign or tweaking one that has been up and running for a while.

Tough Choice 1: Which Search Engine?

Google, with nearly 50 percent share of search queries, is naturally the preferred choice for many marketers because it delivers an enormous volume of clicks. With an enormous distribution network that pushes ads through other well-trafficked portals such as AOL, Lycos, Ask.com, and others, you can reach more people with a Google campaign than on any other search engine.

But just because Google is #1 doesn't mean that you should ignore the lower-trafficked engines such as Yahoo, MSN, and Ask.com. They might not be able to deliver the click-volume of Google, but may offer you better conversion rates (our own studies of conversion rates bear this statement out). Depending on your business, you might also investigate IYPs (Internet Yellow Pages) or shopping comparison engines.

Running a multi-engine Search campaign involves more work than running a campaign on just one engine, which is one reason that many marketers prefer to either deploy technology that can automate this process or outsource the task to an agency (See Tough Choice 3 and 4).

Tough Choice 2: Which Keywords?

The cornerstone of your campaign strategy is the keywords you select. But do you "go broad" to capture more traffic (at the risk of suffering a lower conversion rate and lower immediate ROI), or narrow-cast your selection to those keywords most likely to be used by your prospects when they're in the mood to buy something? Be aware that broad terms ("digital camera") may not provide any immediate ROI, but that you may still need to buy them because many users hunting for product information execute multiple searches, refining these queries as they grow closer to an action. Unless you've bought the broad terms that lead them into the buy funnel, it will be harder to catch their interest with a lower-volume, higher-converting specific phrase (such as "Nikon D50 with 200mm telephoto lens") that they'll see when they're closer to the end of the buy funnel. (Note: whichever keywords you choose, you'll need to monitor their performance continually to separate performers from non-performers. Make sure that you've built your campaigns with enough granularity to do this; in Google, this means breaking out each keyword into its own Ad Group.)

Touch Choice 3: Which Technology?

Google and the other engines have made it easy to get up and running with a basic PPC ad campaign in a matter of minutes. But as your campaign grows in size, you may discover that you may need to make more changes, more frequently, to your campaign to ensure its profitable operation. Because the price and position of PPC ads are assigned dynamically in a realtime auction, a campaign that's profitable for you at 1 PM may be failing by 4 PM, unless it's tweaked.

There are many off-the-shelf ROI-based campaign management tools that can help you replace the time-consuming manual campaign management tasks that can make running PPC campaigns an insufferable grind. They can provide relief for those struggling to run campaigns manually. But be aware that it is impossible for any technology vendor to provide an "off-the-shelf" tool that's going to automatically make your campaigns profitable. Also, just because you have a good tool in place doesn't mean that your campaign is as efficient or as profitable as it might be. Tools, however valuable, will never be aware of the details of your business operations, your competitive landscape, or your business goals, but must be operated skillfully by those who are.

Tough Choice 4: In-house or Outsourced?

Many small marketers I speak to are running their Search campaigns in house, doing Search in-house does involve costs, some of which are easily quantifiable (paying staff, licensing technology, and training) as well as costs that are less tangible, such as opportunity costs (what other initiatives could these people have pursued had they not been charged with managing the campaign?) Unfortunately, in many organizations, Search is a task that's simply added to the workload of employees (typically in the Marketing or IT departments), who already have their hands full with mission-critical other tasks. While it's possible that such overworked personnel can conduct a profitable campaign, it is also possible that they will fail.

Outsourcing Search may make sense for your business if you lack the internal resources to carry out effective Search campaigns. The best SEM agencies will provide extensive consultations about your business goals, a highly customized campaign, frequent reporting, and a measurably higher ROI than you'd have gotten from an in-house Search campaign. Agencies usually work on percentage of media spend; they justify these fees by (hopefully) demonstrating that such costs always will be less than the profits realized by running more efficient campaigns.

These are just a few of the tough choices you'll find in the world of Search. Unfortunately, there is no standard template for success, and as conditions change, you may need to respond with a new choice (this is especially true with Tough Choices 3 and 4). Making tough choices always will be a part of running a business, which, I suppose, is one of the things that makes running a business so interesting.

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