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You Can’t Hide From MSN, Part 2

How well do you diversify your search engine marketing? If the answer is a bit too uniformly, or a little too arbitrarily, you really could get hurt in the new world of MSN Search.

But first, a recap.

Last week, we started our discussion of how MSN Search is about to change the entire search game, to the point that anyone who doesn’t know how to play by MSN rules might as well just sit it out. In that piece, we focused on AdCenter – MSN Search’s new, demographically targeted PPC ad system – and how using MSN Search’s targeting in the wrong way might be worse than never having had the option of targeting to begin with.

This week, we look at how another first-tier search engine means that you can’t just operate on the keyword level any more. You have to diversify on the engine level.

Already, MSN Search is considered a top-tier search engine – along with the other two top tier engines, Yahoo and Google. But by next year, it’s set to become a top-tier engine of an entirely different kind: not the lowest of the top tier (which it is now), but a real equal to Google and Yahoo. Or, just maybe, bigger than either of them.

That’s a real possibility because MSN Search is now poised to buy in to AOL, adding its 75 million users to its current search base. Industry experts are talking about Google and Yahoo facing a serious traffic threat.

Meanwhile, the three engines in question aren’t just three of a kind. MSN Search, Yahoo and Google are completely different SEM venues, each with its own set of rules, and its own set of users. Google’s predictive-bidding based Quality Score, MSN Search’s targeting-centered AdCenter, and Yahoo’s price-based PPC algorithm (which has started its own take on targeting, as well) are as different from one another as, well, Google, Yahoo, and MSN.

Because each engine is so different, succeeding in SEM across all three engines means everyone who wants to succeed in all three must master:

· The unique PPC advertising algorithms and systems, for each engine.

· The ways different search engines attract different populations.

· The ways the same searchers use different search engines differently.

· How the above three items play out in your industry and for your specific business and SEM goals.

In other words you’ll have to learn how to diversify perfectly across the engines.

It’s a bit like driving a car over multiple terrains. The better you are at knowing when and how to switch gears, and what gears to switch to, the more fun you can have. The less you know about different gears, the more likely you are to wreck your car. Diversifying well across the engines is having fun. Failing to diversify is wrecking your car – and, more importantly, your PPC campaign.

Which brings us to the point of keyword-level campaigns. By “keyword-level,” we mean focusing your attention on the success or failure of each keyword, without asking larger-picture questions about campaign focus and ad spend.

We mean questions like how much success on any given keyword is actually worth to you, in a particular search engine, given that engine’s pricing system. Or: which searchers use which engines. Or: how quickly each engine reacts to changes in your click-through rates. There are any number of other questions that could make pulling money, changing strategy, or increasing focus from one engine to another crucial to your campaign; but looking only at keyword-level success ignores these crucial questions.

Of course, that need to make choices is there, even in a purely Google/Yahoo world. But the more you’re stuck facing more than one giant, the more serious engine-level questions will become – and the more inadequate keyword-level solutions will be at answering them.

We’re not saying that keyword-level solutions can’t diversify well enough to get good results. A lot of the keyword-based systems can create real lift, even across many engines-especially for campaigns with less complex needs. We’re also not saying that keyword-level success isn’t important: keyword-level success is, undoubtedly, the most important first level of a strong campaign.

But the problem is that dealing with campaigns purely on a keyword level can’t possibly bring your campaigns as far as they can go, given the new reality of a three top-tier-engine world. And, while keyword-focused campaigns will continue to see positive results, competing campaigns, managed through macro-level strategy and keyword-level detail, will end up doing better. That means that, even with positive results, the keyword-level campaigns stand to lose in the long run. And the long run might not even be so long, in the a world as unforgiving as SEM.

Of course, losing isn’t something anyone wants to do. Unfortunately, though, given the high number of keyword-focused solutions out there, it’s something businesses who try to hide from the new world of MSN Search will be doing a lot of, in the near future.

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