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The Holiday Guests You Want the Least

The holidays are a great time to meet new people … just not in search engine marketing.

Often, a new guy will show up for the holidays. Sort of an unexpected guest. Someone entirely outside the normal gang of 10 or 20 competing firms in your sphere – the ones you fight with so much, they get written into your business plans, your company memos, your quarterly presentations, and so on. We mean someone unexpected.

Unexpected, you should realize, is bad.

Here’s one scenario. An alarmingly deep-pocketed upstart comes on the scene. All he’s looking to do is get together some inventory, a Web site and the most efficient advertising campaign possible. The type of advertising he chooses is paid search. The goal he has set for himself is making the most sales possible, at the quickest pace. And he wants to make a killing by Jan. 3.

By the way, this is just a theoretical scenario. In real life, you could be dealing with tens of competitors just like this guy.

But back to our story. Because he’s trying to make a lot of sales quick, your competitor is likely to open shop at a high-traffic time of year. Because he’s trying to get the most volume, he’s likely to bid the most money on the highest traffic keywords.

As it happens, the best time of year to hit the highest retail traffic tends to be holiday shopping. And perhaps the highest-traffic group of terms around is branded terms. The holiday shopping season, you might notice, is now. Your company, you might notice, has branded terms.

This is to say that, as you’re reading this article, an entirely unexpected, high-stakes, no-holds-barred competitor could be neck in neck with you on your own branded terms. Or you could be losing to him on those terms by a lot. Or, if there’s many of them, to them by a lot.

Now a bit about SEM traffic on branded terms. Branded traffic is highly likely to convert. It comes from the searchers who’ve been exposed to your offline and online marketing, know your brand names, and think of your products first when they’re shopping in your sphere. In other words, they’re the people your marketing dollars have worked on best. And they’re the people who are good bets for an easy sale. After all, they’re looking to shop for your brand.

But now, things have gotten complicated. After you’ve spent all that money to get your market to seek you out – specifically in places like search engines – you’re suddenly facing a whole new level of competition, in those search engines themselves.

You might get lucky. The only harm the added competition on your brand terms might cause might be a huge spike in bid prices. That isn’t good, but it still means you’ve gotten off easy. Because a deeply unfortunate alternative is losing this unforeseen bid war. If that happens, you’re facing a scenario of the wildcat’s ad being more visible than yours. That means they steal your best traffic. Which, again, is the traffic you’ve already spent the most money to create.

Of course, this kind of threat isn’t so rare. You’re always facing the threat of losing to the competition on your own brands – it happens to businesses all the time. Often, they’re not aware of it. The only reason we’re bringing it up now is that holiday shopping is a time when the threat becomes particularly pernicious and particularly unpredictable. So you need to be especially on guard.

There are ways of handle a crisis of unexpected competition. Talk to your SEM management about how you deal with competition overall and how you deal with unexpected change. Find out if the unexpected is written into your SEM game plan or if it’s dealt with as an afterthought. Look into how flexible you really are in responding to sudden shifts, how prepared you are to react to emergencies, and pay special notice to how well you’re doing on your branded terms. All these things are a start.

But, again, be on guard now. Being prepared for unexpected guests is crucial, and can mean the difference between having a very happy holiday – and facing the holiday blues.

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