Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Savvy Search Strategies

Buried in MarketingSherpa’s annual search survey (http://www.marketingsherpa.com/) is some very useful advice on how to use search engine optimization and pay-per-click tactics based on the input from 3271 active marketers. Here is my reading of the tea leaves.

1. You gotta do both to win. Invest in search engine optimization (CEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) to drive traffic to your site. Marketers are much happier with PPC now that they are getting the hang of it. SEO continues to be a cat-and-mouse game between search engine programmers and marketers.

2. The average investment is between 40 and 50 percent of budgets, for both b2c and b2b players. Most marketers expect this investment in to increase over the next 12 months.

The promise of cost effectively delivering interested prospects to a site is a very easy sell internally and this promise added to the general media hype about search makes for a relatively easy budgeting case even in tight-fisted companies.

It’s a fair bet that funds for SEO and PCC are coming from funds formerly slated to outbound acquisition e-mail; a tactic widely seen as on the wane in terms of value and ROI. It is no surprise that spending on search was up 177 percent over the past 12 months and only 21% of those surveyed said they aren’t doing search marketing.

3. The more search is used; the costs grow and conversions plummet. It is almost an economic law. As a medium matures the costs go up as competitors swarm in and prospects get divided among more and more competing brands. In the end, search, like TV, will yield less at higher price points. This process has clearly begun.

4. To find the right niche and to channel the best prospects to their sights the average keyword volume was up 90 percent to 17,314 keywords in 2005 over an average of 9100 in 2004. This number of keywords and the variations thereof mandate dedicated resources and probably some moderately sophisticated software to manage these campaigns where marketers scatter PPC ads over many more categories and subcategories in search of competitive advantage.

5. The best players are using veteran SEO agencies with sophisticated tools to manage and measure these buys. This isn’t something that you can have somebody in the marketing department pick up and handle in their spare time.

6. The Holy Grail is keywords that not only create clicks but that bring site visitors that engage with your site. This process is called “conversion.” This usage of the word is unique to the search community. It should be distinguished from the usual direct marketing meaning of this term which implies somebody took a desired action, identified themselves, signed up for something or actually bought something.

This is a particular dynamic of the search business where the interests of the media
(e.g. Google and Yahoo) and the interests of their clients diverge somewhat. The search engines get paid on every click. They care, though not all that much, who clicks or what the clickers end up doing. As fewer people who click engage, give up their e-mail addresses or buy stuff, search marketers redefine success.

7. Initially search delivered eager-to-buy prospects; people who self identified their interests and the urgency of their need by clicking on your key word. Now the promise of search marketing is beginning to shift. Rather than expect an immediate conversion from clicker to interested prospect, instead now measure some combination of engagement and brand awareness. As search marketing grows and becomes part of the media landscape it performs just like everything else. Response rates drop.

8. Finding the Holy Grail is about creative. You may be wondering how creative you can be with a 3 word headline, ten words of copy and a unique URL. But that’s the game. In fact the space restrictions are even more onerous since most ads include the words CLICK NOW or CLICK HERE.

9. Copy testing has become a separate thing all together. And not surprisingly agencies, especially agencies new to search marketing, are much more eager about creative testing than company marketers are; probably because they want to burn up more hours learning the business at the client’s expense.

10. In finding a platform for testing, Google and Yahoo/Overture are the whole act. Everybody uses them. In fact between 50-80% of marketers don’t even mess with the other 12 second tier search engines. Though given how cheap they are, many agencies are inclined to work them into the mix to bring overall cost-per costs down.

11. This near total dominance by two platforms is driving Microsoft to covet the pot of gold they are NOT earning and to devise technology to differentiate their offering and woo the search marketing crowd. Microsoft’s nascent adCenter is being tested in Singapore and France. It promises to offer more sophisticated search targeting by marrying key words with 400 million stored profiles across Microsoft’s portfolio of sites and services. They are threatening to roll it out in the USA in October or November 2005. They have the cash, the clout and the company to sell this idea and gain huge buzz and awareness. But the big money won’t change hands until they prove that the targeting , the interface and the results are better.

12. And if you aren’t baffled by search marketing or you don’t fear Microsoft, consider the research done by Marketing Experiments. They put 9 press releases on the Web using BusinessWire (http://www.businesswire.com/) and ran simultaneous PPC campaigns on Google. Over the same period of time, they attracted more clicks from the PR effort at dramatically lower cost-per-clicks than for clicks coming from relevant targeted key words.

So maybe search is our most effective current traffic building or perhaps it’s all a tempest in a teacup easily trumped by clicks from content.

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