For most organizations, search drives the bulk of traffic to their web and mobile sites. Even if you have a powerful brand and a loyal following, search traffic can represent 50% of your visitors (your site analytics system, such as Google Analytics, will give you a fairly precise accounting). Even in news sites with high traffic and loyalty, I have noted that up to 90% of the visitors are referral traffic, meaning they came via a link on another site, primarily a search channel, and not from a direct visit to the home page. (This is why I often say “Google is your real home page.”)
I have written previously about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the way to improve your natural ranking in the search engine results, notably on Google and Bing. For many marketers, SEO is the most difficult and the most misunderstood. Countless search agencies make a living by peddling SEO voodoo tactics. But as I discussed in previous posts, the principles are actually fairly simple: the trick is to get the right people involved: content (editorial), marketing, and technology all need to work to make SEO a success.
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) , also known as pay-per-click, is the paid search side. There is no voodoo here, right? What could be simpler than selecting your most important keywords and bidding on the traffic they bring? Well, here again, the principles are simple, but there is some real work involved to make effective use of your SEM campaign budget.
There are two main players in paid search, and for most marketers, the first hurdle is in learning how to use their systems for managing the keyword buys. Google AdWords controls the proverbial 800 lb gorilla’s share of search marketing (I’ve been administering Google Adwords campaigns for 10 years, so many of my examples will be from Google). But Microsoft’s Bing is nevertheless important, in part because it is the paid search engine driving the new Facebook Graph Search. While the interfaces may seem daunting at first, there are plenty of tutorials and guides, so you should be up and running in an hour or two.
Now, what is the real work involved? There are three main areas:
- Competitive analysis (start by compiling the right list of keywords, negative keywords, and exact-match phrases)
- Keyword management (bidding and campaigns, search networks, geographic targeting, scheduling, and negative keywords)
- Analytics and tuning (performance and conversion monitoring, multivariate testing, weeding out expensive bad performers)
SEM Part 1: Competitive Analysis
Chances are, you can probably come up with a good list of keywords off the top of your head. (Remember that keywords include key phrases, as single words are often too generic to be effectively targeted paid search terms.) Competitive analysis means writing up a list of competitors and adding their keywords to your list as well. There are even ways to discover which keywords they are buying.
First, visit their site and do a “view source” on their pages. You should be able to see a line near the top that looks something like this:
<meta name="keywords" content="[comma-separated list of keywords]" />
These keyword meta-tags may be fairly generic for a home page, and become quite specific for individual pages. News and magazine sites tag each story with relevant keywords, while commercial and non-profit sites list their most important products, services, and concepts.
The use of keyword meta-tags is a holdover from an older (and many consider obsolete) standard, so they don’t appear on many modern sites, including this WordPress blog. (For WordPress, simply look for the more relevant “tags” listed at the bottom of each posting; this is also the case for almost all news and magazine sites.)
Naturally, you can also scan the text of each page for important keywords, and if this is indeed a competitor, you will already be familiar with many of them. Keep in mind that you may use different keywords, jargon, and acronyms than your competitors, often for the same concepts. Include these variants if you want to attract their traffic.
Next, type these keywords into a search engine, typically Google, but also try Bing. Who comes up in the sponsored search listings? If these are competitors, include them in your analysis. If not, think about why the keyword is being targeted by these advertisers. Are these keywords too generic, and likely to drive expensive but entirely irrelevant traffic? Or are the keywords used because these advertisers are also targeting your demographic? This is a creative tactic that you could employ as well: for example, perhaps you are a charitable foundation promoting children’s education; you could purchase keywords related to other types of child welfare, targeting an already sympathetic demographic of potential donors.
Whenever you see a non-competitor using your keywords, write down any potential negative keywords, that is, words that might help filter out unwanted traffic. For example, if you are a news organization and want to own the keyword “New York Mets” then you might identify “baseball cards” and “books” as negative keywords, because you aren’t selling those items.
Also note any exact-match phrases: keywords that are best preserved in a precise word order. Search engines will weigh each word in a keyphrase more or less equally, in any order, with only a slight favor (if any) given to the exact phrase. So for example, typing software banking into Google gives largely the same natural search results as banking software. But you’ll notice that the sponsored results vary quite a bit; this is because banks favored the exact match “software banking” (attracting users who want to do Internet banking) while software vendors purchased “banking software” because that more closely matched what their customers are searching for.
The SEM systems themselves also generate lists of relevant keywords based on the keywords you enter into their analysis tools. They know, statistically, what alternative phrases users also employed in search (when they used the keywords you specified), and they know what alternative keywords other organizations are buying when they also bought your keywords. It’s sort of like the Amazon feature “people who liked this book also liked…”
The goal is to create a spreadsheet with the first column containing the keywords you feel would best attract visitors to your site, including a notation as to which are best purchased as “exact matches.” In the columns next to each of these keywords are the list of negative keywords that would help filter out unwanted visitors—those who are not actually interested in you, and whose clicks would simply drain your pay-per-click budget.
This can be a time-consuming process, but as with almost all digital marketing initiatives, the time invested will more than pay off, and it’s a lot better than just tossing money at the SEM vendors.
Keyword management and performance analytics will help you minimize paid clicks that convert or perform terribly. In a poorly managed SEM campaign, “high click rate bad performers” can actually eat up the lion’s share of your SEM budget.