Starting a Search Engine Campaign

Persuading customers to buy what you have to offer at the right time and right place is one of the biggest challenges for marketers. But paid search engines have turned the tables, making it easier and more cost-effective for customers to find you.

Paying for performance on top positions and relevant keywords on Overture and Google (and broader reach through syndicated partners AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Lycos, etc.) is a great testing ground for DMers to leverage their skills to harness this powerful customer acquisition tool. With limited risk, the results of a well-executed paid search engine marketing strategy will yield higher click-through and order-conversion rates than most direct response initiatives.

Since shoppers don’t turn to search engines for everything they buy, you need to determine whether your product/service makes sense to pay for keywords. Ask yourself these simple questions:

1. Is your product/service an impulse or considered purchase? Considered purchases, such as a pedestal sink, work best because the shopper generally needs time to make that buying decision based on brand, price, convenience, service, free shipping, faster fulfillment, bigger selection, hard-to-find or some other benefit. Determine which benefits encourage shoppers to buy from you as opposed to your competition.

2. Are your competitors buying on Google and Overture? The more competition you have on your keywords, the more aggressive you may need to be. Conversely, if your competitors aren’t buying keywords, is it because your product isn’t right for paid search engines or that they haven’t found search engine marketing, which creates a first-mover advantage for you?

3. Do you have a well-designed Web site that provides a convenient, professional, secure shopping experience with easy navigation and good functionality to convert browsers to buyers? An inadequate site will turn shoppers away regardless of how much is spent on marketing to drive them there.

4. Do you understand the differences between paid search engines and traditional search engine optimization services? To become more competitive, buying top positions on relevant keywords usually is necessary or can augment an SEO campaign. However, many advertisers have been burned by the over-promise of the SEOs. Be careful, check references and negotiate performance-based contracts, if appropriate, to prevent unpleasant surprises later.

After resolving these questions, you are ready to follow these steps and apply your DM skills to begin a paid search engine marketing strategy:

Step 1: Create and refine your keyword list. If you haven’t discovered the Term Suggestion Tool from Overture (, spend time thinking of keywords related to your business. What keywords would a shopper search to find your product? Type in these keywords, and see other suggestions and evaluate the keywords based on relevancy and volume of searches.

More relevant keywords with lower volume searches like “Kohler pedestal sink” with 117 searches in July 2002 tend to be more specific and deliver a better-quality customer for a retailer selling high-end home furnishings than “pedestal sink” with more than 3,000 searches. Remove keywords that have more than one meaning such as “St. Thomas” (more than 29,000 searches), which is a destination as well as a bath product manufacturer, and find more specific phrases such as “St. Thomas sink” (117 searches).

If you have multiple categories/departments, building your keyword list can grow overwhelming. Group keywords by category/department. Within each department, consider breaking your list into tiers, placing your most specific keywords in tier one and broader terms in tier two, etc. Once you build this list, it can be used for Overture and Google.

Step 2: Write powerful direct marketing copy for your headline and text descriptions. This process is like writing teaser copy on the outside of an envelope for a direct mail campaign or the subject line of your e-mail newsletter to encourage the user to open the e-mail. The same principles apply with search engine listings. You have a split-second to set yourself apart from competitors. Review your competitors’ text descriptions and try to differentiate your message. Include selling benefits such as “Free Shipping,” “Low Prices” or “Shop in the Privacy of Your Home.”

Be sensitive to the listing guidelines and character requirements for each search engine because the editorial review at Overture and Google has become much tougher. Superlatives such as “greatest,” “best” and “lowest” no longer are allowed. Include the keyword in the title/headline and in the body text, if possible, to make your message more relevant to prospects.

Step 3: Assign relevant deep landing pages that correspond to your keywords for a particular product/service. You know how important it is to provide a convenient online shopping experience. Don’t hinder shoppers by taking them to an unrelated page or too deep into your site that they can’t hit the back button. This frustrates shoppers, and, more importantly, search engines won’t allow it.

Step 4: Track results by collecting relevant data per keyword per search engine. Whether you use a third-party tracking system or a home-grown solution, every DMer knows the importance of tracking any campaign. Buying keywords is no different. For example, every keyword for each search engine should have a unique tracking code in the landing URL. It’s helpful to track keywords by category, as I mentioned in Step 1, so you can run reports and see how one category and keyword performs over another.

Collect data from each keyword in each search engine on the number of visitors, orders and revenue so you can determine the return on investment and cost to acquire a customer given that keyword. This data will help refine your keyword list since it will determine which keywords generate revenue. Attach unique tracking codes to all landing URLs for each keyword for each search engine before submitting your campaign.

Step 5: Submitting to the search engines. Based on your budget size and the minimum spending requirements, you either will be assigned an account rep or need to submit the deliverables manually to the search engines. Submitting keywords manually is laborious since the search engines haven’t made it easy for advertisers to submit an excel file that can be imported instantly. Manual submissions require a small nominal fee to launch.

Step 6: Determine the best bidding strategy. Each search engine has its own bidding policies, and every advertiser needs to determine a threshold on spending to acquire a new customer and visitor based on revenue and profit margins. However, bidding to maintain a top position (generally the top three positions) will provide greater reach to syndicated partner Web sites. Don’t make the mistake of bidding to the top position without understanding the metrics.

Don’t be overly aggressive initially. Start with a small budget. As results improve, slowly increase your monthly spend. To help get you started, Overture has a bid tool to see how much your competitors are bidding on a particular keyword. Google suggests a maximum cost per click as you start submitting your keywords. Depending on which method of bidding you choose on Overture (auto or fixed), you may need to stay on top of your campaign and your ranking constantly if you have aggressive competitors.

Step 7: Monitor the results, test and refine your campaign. Google and Overture provide detailed reports on the traffic delivered to your site by keyword, but your own reporting will tell you what traffic and keywords actually converted to sales. Review your campaign reporting frequently. Determine which areas need improvement. Test one variable at a time, such as keyword list, headlines/titles, body text, Web site improvements and product offerings, to improve performance.

Work toward decreasing the cost-per-click and cost to acquire customers on each keyword while increasing your click-through and order-conversion rates. Review your keyword list at least monthly to see how you can improve overall performance. Delete keywords that aren’t delivering revenue and don’t justify the expense of the paid position. You may find that you started with 500 keywords and only 150 produce revenue.

Be patient as you learn to improve your campaign. Once you develop a profitable paid search engine marketing strategy, leverage your keyword list and negotiate deals with other cost-per-click search engines and directories to achieve even better results.

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