Search Engine Marketing — Part II

Thursday Mar 17th 2005 by James Maguire

A discussion of the tools and techniques that merchants use to maximize their paid search strategies.

In case you had any doubt that purchasing keyword search terms is a constant practice among Internet retailers, take a gander at this fact: in the last quarter of 2004, Google, the powerhouse seller of keyword search terms, topped $1 billion in ad revenue — the first time it had broken the $1 billion mark in a single quarter.

And Google is just part of the pie, with Yahoo and MSN, as well as a bevy of smaller engines also selling keyword search terms. According to Merrill Lynch, the total market for keyword search in 2004 was $3.8 billion, or more than 40 percent of the total $8.7 billion Internet ad budget.

The increasing revenue of these keyword sellers demonstrates a key fact: many online merchants see paid search as a critical sales driver. In other words, if you want to grow your customer base, you've got to buy keyword terms on search engines.

Yet the question remains: what is the best way to do this? Part One of this series detailed the leading strategies used by many merchants. In this part, we talk with Fredrick Marckini, the CEO of iProspect, an industry expert who advises myriad e-tailers about paid search techniques. Also contributing advice is Ben Perry, iProspect's manager of paid search programs.

Helping Small Fry
Although many of Marckini's clients have deep-pockets, he recently took on a very special customer: his father. Marckini Sr. is an e-commerce newbie, and his site, Boston Environmental is a relative newcomer to the Net. The paid search strategy Marckini recommended to his father is typical of how he might advise an SMB e-tailer.

To get started, Marckini first asked his father for a list of keywords, then he expanded the list. The finished list totals some 20-to-30 phrases — not single keywords. (Eight of these terms received no clicks at all.) "We put him into Google AdWords because it has a regional capability," Marckini says.

This geo-targeting capability lets merchants restrict their ads to display in select areas of the country, in this case, only Massachusetts. Geo-targeting lets the keyword pricing low but still remain effective. The strategy worked.

"My dad has all these ads running in the Yellow Pages, and last year at this time his business was dead. Now here he is, with the phone ringing off the hook from [paid] search," says Marckini.

Remarkably, the budget for the keyword purchase was minimal, about $100 a month over the first two months. Part of his father's success, Marckini notes, is that many search engine users do not distinguish between paid and free search. They call Boston Environmental and say, "you were first in the search results," apparently unaware that the company paid to be listed on top of the page.

Cross Media
Marckini suggested a media-savvy technique to his dad. "Any time he's talking to the media, he can think about words that are causing his phone to ring, and put those into his interviews so they get into the articles and result in more searches," he says. The point is for merchants to use consistent language across all their marketing efforts, from e-mail newsletters to print advertising.

This strategy multiplies the effectiveness of the keyword buy, Marckini notes. "Your marketing has to acknowledge that people search, and you have to recognize that the keywords that are successful in search have to be integrated into all of your other marketing activities," he says.

Marckini sees it all too often: a company's PR department puts out a press release that introduces a new product, with a set of catch phrases built around that launch, but no one tells the search group. "The biggest waste in search engine marketing these days is the lack of integration in the broader marketing mix."

The "Ah Ha" Moments
Even as Boston Environmental succeeded with its new paid search campaign, it learned a shocking fact: the keyword that is driving search does not appear on its Web site. "You're not going to get a ranking on natural [unpaid] search if you don't have content around a keyword," Marckini notes.

Companies often ask Marckini to evaluate their search marketing prospects. "There are two questions that always trip them up. I say to them, 'What's your most important keyword?' They tell me, and I [search their site] and the word doesn't appear on their site," says Marckini.

That's the first of two "ah-ah" moments. Marckini then brings up the Overture Keyword Selector tool and enters in that merchant's favored search word. Often, "no one searched for that word — so they want to get a high ranking for a word that no one is looking for."

Moral of the story: always make sure that there is indeed interest in the keyword phrase you're buying. On the other hand, he notes, "When you can, own a unique word. If you can, name your products after words that are easy to spell and don't have English language equivalents."

The result is a small body of documents — probably leading only to your site - if someone searches for them.

Bid Management
Getting the most from a search budget requires constant measuring of that campaign's results. "A lot of people aren't doing that or aren't doing that well enough," says Ben Perry, iProspect's manager of paid search.

Paid search is unique in the world of advertising in that buyers bid on terms, unlike in radio or TV advertising, where ads prices are (mostly) set. "There are efficiencies that can be wrung out of the auction process that most people don't take advantage of," Perry says. "Research shows that about two thirds of people are using unsophisticated strategies to manage their bidding."

A sophisticated bidding strategy, Perry explains, uses a formula for computing return on investment to determine bid level. That formula can be called "Return on Ad Spend," which is the amount of revenue divided by the cost that it took to create that revenue.

Simply put, a merchant computes, based on their conversion rate, the maximum amount they can spend on paid search, per click, and still make a profit. And once you reach the maximum bid level — based on the formula - the bid should go no higher. Of course a merchant's conversion rate is key here, he notes. "If your conversion rate is twice that of your competitor's, you'll be able to bid twice as high as them and be equally profitable," says Perry.

Some merchants bid so high "that there's no number of conversions that could justify it — they'd be better off buying their own product," Perry says. Indeed, a surprisingly common mistake many merchants make is "bidding with their heart instead of their head," Marckini says. This happens when keyword buyers decide they have to be top-ranked on a given term, even when it's not making money for them.

Some merchants do this for branding purposes, and this can make sense, Perry says. He's aware of a company that spends lavishly on a given term, just to keep their competitor away from it. "It's not an ROI issue, it's a brand issue," he notes, "and that's a fine reason — if your company has the money to spend on it."

However, aside from that one exception, "Letting your ego dictate your bids is usually a bad idea for people," adds Perry.

Bidding Tools
Many merchants use software tools to help them manage their bids. At the most basic level, a merchant can set up an Excel spreadsheet that lists all their search terms, with amounts paid for each over time, and the corresponding profit and loss.

At a higher level, many vendors sell software tools that aid keyword bid management by letting merchant plug in all their own variables. For example, Avenue A offers one called GoToast. Overture offers a tool exclusively for use on Overture.

There are two types of bidding software tools, rules-based and global. A rules-based agent lets a merchant enter a rule that says, "don't bid higher than this set amount." This helps merchants maintain a disciplined, profit-based focus on their bidding.

A global agent, a much more advanced tool, lets a merchant raise and lower bids on all his or her keywords simultaneously. So, for example, if a given keyword jumps in price, the software agent lets you float your bid higher on that term, while lowering bid amounts on less active words. This type of tool is good for managing paid search campaigns that use dozens or hundreds of keywords simultaneously.

The best global software agents are capable of "learning." That is, the software can watch and respond to patterns in the marketplace. So the software tool may, for example, withdraw bids on Thursdays because past patterns tell it that Thursdays are unproductive days.

Of course, a merchant can always simply "set it and forget it," Marckini notes. However, "the question is, how well will you be doing?"

"You can, with some experimentation, discover what keywords convert at what prices — it will save you a lot of time," he says. "And then you can set your bids and leave them, knowing that you'll make money as long as you get a click at that level." But, "you're never going to maximize your return," he says. "You're never going to optimize your campaign manually, because a human being can never optimize as efficiently and as thoroughly as a true bidding agent will."

Bidding agents help e-tailers keep up with the ever-changing nature of the Internet. As more and more merchants open online stores, bidding on ever more terms, suddenly a bid amount that use to win second or third rank placement now falls to fifth or sixth place.

"So the market grows ahead of you, and your ROI goes down every single month," Marckini says.

A software bidding agent, in contrast, lets a merchant to bob and weave with the market, diverting money from less profitable keywords to allow greater expenditure on popular (but more expensive) keywords.

Staying with the Biggies
"The three search engines that must be considered in your paid search advertising are Yahoo, Google and MSN — no matter what," Marckini says. "The point is, Yahoo and Google gets you MSN and AOL."

"MSN is really ramping up its footprint in the marketplace, so we expect them be particularly aggressive in growing their market share," he says. The second tier search engines, like Dogpile and Findwhat, might hold some value, "but you don't want to pursue them at the expense of your strategies focused on the four major engines."

However, Perry adds, "It depends on your vertical. If you're a retailer, it makes a lot of sense to be in a shopping engine. If you're a B2B site, it makes a lot of sense to be in, because they have a business audience."

And Don't Forget Free
According to research by iProspect, 72 percent of Google searches follow links in the natural (unpaid) search area, which means that paid search ads attract only a minority of searches. With this in mind, Marckini advised Boston Environmental (his father's site) to maximize its paid search investment, then focus on organic search.

Paid and unpaid search work together: the process of buying keywords helps a merchant better understand how to build unpaid results. Specifically, e-tailers will learn which words are the most effective words to build content around.

While Marckini believes strongly in the benefit of paid search, he stresses that merchants must constantly strive to improve their unpaid search ranking. "If you focus on paid search to the exclusion of natural search, that is folly," he says.

Adapted from, part of's

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