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Search THIS: Seven Steps to Rational SEM

Search THIS: Seven Steps to Rational SEM Kevin Ryan

Search engine marketing is often likened to the Wild West due to its lack of standards, industry guidelines or any form of regulatory body. As an advertiser seeking a search engine marketing (SEM) provider or solution, you are likely to witness a broad spectrum of offerings, cost structures and promises. From what I’ve seen, the Wild West would be a calm alternative to what marketers often experience.

Today, SEM is a full-on "Black Hawk Down" day at the Bakara Market.

But help is on the way, with organizations like the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), which seeks to educate the industry about SEM, and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) which currently has efforts underway to develop standards and, like SEMPO, seeks to educate and increase awareness of the search universe. These organizations have professionals (including yours truly) in the industry who donate their time (hopefully) to help the cause.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished and while industry organizations are hard at work, there are opportunists out there dying to take advantage of the confusion. Worse, industry pundits can be heard complaining about the time it takes to achieve results. If, heaven forbid, an initiative does move forward, the same schmoes often emerge to take shots at the effort. While I can agree that no system or organization is perfect, some of the gratuitous whining is now permanently lodged in my craw.

So, for the “action now” junkies -- along with the whiners and people forced to act within the confines of a bureaucratic process -- I would like to offer the following support. 

What’s A Boy To Do?

People with the least influence and the most to lose from organization tend to be the ones who complain incessantly about efforts to apply common sense and discipline to chaos in an organized manner. Most are would-be entrepreneurs who have little or no appreciation for having to meet the needs of a large-scale constituency, successfully navigating political dynamics of biblical proportions, or couldn’t hack corporate life in the first place -- hence the title.

A wise old client in wise old firm once told me, “Any idiot smart enough to get venture capital can go and start his own firm, name himself the chief strategic something and break all the rules. Show me someone who can turn the aircraft carrier in an established firm; that’s an accomplishment.”

The wise old client has since started his own firm with some v.c. money. In any case, the blunt reality of any large guideline or governing initiative is that it requires massive campaigning and education to form a solid foundation. This process takes time.

I have the unique privilege of hearing complaints from both sides of the fence. Advertisers sound off about the pitfalls in seeking an SEM provider. SEM providers and agencies complain about lack of willingness on the advertiser’s part in accepting a possible shift in paradigm to accommodate the needs of search.

In the absence of formal declarations of war and the subsequent mutually-agreed upon treaties, I have assembled --in an easy-to-use letter format -- the collected gripes from both sides of the battlefield with the hope of moving seven steps closer to finding common ground.

The Advertiser’s Letter of Appointment

[On official stationery]
[Key Contact Name]
[Key Contact Title]
[Valued Firm’s Name]
[City, State, Zip, Planet]

Dear [Valued Partner’s Name]:

Thank you for agreeing to be our search engine marketing provider. We at [insert advertiser name] are thrilled to be in partnership with [insert valued partner].

Though no industry guidelines are in place for search engine marketing, we fully expect to experience the following throughout our mutually beneficial relationship.

  1. You will not bombard our IT/ Webmaster/ Site Designer with requests to change site architecture without consideration for our site’s user experience.

  2. You will not invent your own marketing language in the hopes of confusing us in order to create perceived value, e.g. Google Dance Disintermediation.

  3. You will provide us with sound advice and practical implementations to help search     rankings without implying that you can fool or trick search engines.

  4. You will not guarantee optimized positions while supplementing your reports with paid search, or leave out critical information such as the site in which our guaranteed ranking is to appear.

  5. You will not invent your own ROI metric system to justify the costs of your services, cite press releases as “news” or mentions in pseudo “SEM guides” as points of credibility.

  6. If results are not achieved in a timely manner you will not blame the following:
  a. Acts of God, i.e. Google
  b. Our IT department
  c. Our Ad Agency/ Ad Server

  7. You will work with our other marketing/ advertising vendors without quibbling over budget real estate to create a unified, integrated marketing program.

Please send your contract posthaste as our legal representation is in desperate need of a means to increase their billable hours.


[Key Contact Name]

The SEM Provider’s Response

[On official stationery]
[Key Contact Name]
[Key Contact Title]
[Advertiser’s Name]
[City, State, Zip, Planet]

Dear [Advertiser’s Name]:

Thank you for selecting us as your search engine marketing provider. We at [insert valued partner] are thrilled to be in partnership with [insert advertiser name].

Though no industry guidelines are in place for Search Engine Marketing, we fully expect to experience the following throughout our mutually beneficial relationship.

  1. Your IT/ Site Provider / Site Designer will keep an open mind (between viewing episodes of "Deep Space Nine") as we recommend site architectural changes to help with positioning.

  2. We recognize that SEM requires a very specific knowledge base and promise to explain our efforts in either plain English or marketing speak, e.g. Google Dance Disintermediation.

  3. We promise to provide you with sound advice with the understanding that you will actually implement our recommendations in a timely manner.

  4. We recognize there are very few guarantees in the search engine optimization process.

  5. We promise to be forthcoming with cost per click structures in both the paid search realm and optimization while helping you understand your own ROI requirements.

  6. You promise to maintain staunch vendor governance policies making certain each firm understands the role it will play in your brand’s success. This will reduce budgetary real estate quibbling.

  7. If you execute the above, we won’t have to blame any of the following for bad results:
  a. Acts of God, i.e. Google
  b. Our IT department
  c. Our Ad Agency/ Ad Server 
Enclosed please find our contract. Thirty-seven pages of innocuous word gravel that even our attorney’s can’t decipher.  We wish yours the best of luck. Please countersign it and return one copy for our records.


[Key Contact Name]

Consensus: Chaos Compendium

We are not there yet. The medium, let alone search, is still too young to start applying complex defining characteristics to the structure of guidelines. Industry initiatives move forward as quickly as the process will allow. The ill-intentioned activities of the few have a demonstratively negative effect on the many working to make everyone’s experience a bit more bearable.

Like so many other principles of life, the first step forward often requires a little common sense.

About the author: iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. He is currently Director Market Development of IPG’s Wahlstrom Interactive where he provides guidance in directional online marketing to Wahlstrom’s prestigious list of clients and sister agency brands. Kevin wishes to acknowledge with heartfelt thanks the creators of the film “Black Hawk Down” for bringing wide-scale public awareness to the heroes who fought, and the ones who died in the selfless interest of protecting those who could not protect themselves.

Meet Kevin Ryan at Search Engine Strategies on March 2, 2004.

For more information about selecting a search marketing partner, visit
iMedia's Search EngineConnection

Simplicity has always been a good approach for effective marketing and branding communications. Logos like Bass Ale (Britain's first registered trademark), fonts like Helvetica, and the classic Volkswagen ads are examples of simplicity that revolutionized the advertising industry.

And if anything, the distinction that simplicity can bring is more important in today's cluttered, over-saturated media environment than ever before. Consumers see an estimated 3,500-5,000 marketing messages a day. They literally don't have the hours in the day to digest all the ads marketers push at them. So if you want consumers to consider reading your message, make it at least appear to be a quick read.

Of all the things you can do to make virtually any form of communication better, this is the most important.

Strong yet simple concepts also tend to work much better across multiple media. And the more a big idea transcends different media, the more efficiently that campaign can be developed, which leads into the next point.

When I was looking for that elusive first copywriting job in advertising, a creative director told me that I could probably get a gig with a portfolio of nothing but good billboard concepts because billboards have the most foundational elements of what good marketing communication is about -- strong graphic images and brief text that pops.

Today, the banner represents that same format. It's highly limited, both textually and graphically. So ideas developed for that format will likely work across a much wider media scape. It's much easier to add production value to a simple concept than it is to take an idea that relies on high production value and boil it down to a stark version of its former self.

When you start with banner development, you'll force yourself to think high concept, yet low production cost. And if you're dealing with budget constraints, that's a good place to be.

It also sets us up well for the next section -- testing.

One of the online medium's most overlooked capabilities is testing strategies and display ad concepts in the most natural environment possible -- a real ad in an actual media placement.

I've talked to numerous researchers and statisticians and have never found anyone who has said this wasn't a legit test, assuming you apply standard controls for messaging and media variables.

You can test messages across strategic directions or creative tactics. And don't rely on production techniques or gimmicks. You're looking for foundational insights that will drive creative development across a range of media. So if what you've developed is specific to online production, you'll skew the results.

Use a single format -- ideally a rectangular format, like the 300x250s, because they have a more universal shape that won't demonstrate a bias toward a specific message type. The results will almost always be relevant and insightful.

It doesn't take a large ad budget to make this process pay off, either. A test can be done for a small percentage of most campaign budgets, and the increased performance across the entire campaign should more than compensate for the testing round.

Early adopters of technology often suffer a lot of headaches while trying out the latest insanely great thing.

In contrast, marketing is where first movers often have significant advantages. The first banners pulled unreal results by today's metrics -- because they were new and web pages weren't so flooded with them. When Flash ads first came out, they almost always drove campaign performance up in large increments because they were the only thing with fluid motion on the web at that time.

Today's new technologies can generate the same effect.

These can be both rich media production technologies and media placement technologies. The reason new marketing technologies work is simple: Almost all of them focus on one of two things. They either focus on improving the odds that your message will get to the right person, or they focus on improving the impact of that message when it reaches that person.

Assuming your message is relevant, there isn't much else that matters outside of those two factors, until the viewer arrives at the destination or conversion point.

So give new technologies a shot. Again, you don't have to spend a lot to get a sense for whether or not they're going to pay off across the larger media spend.

Search and display shouldn't conflict, but rather work like tag team partners -- the more seamless the transition between them, the better. In fact, the more successful your entire campaign is, the greater role search will play.


People hear about products in different ways. Sometimes it's in an ad. Sometimes it's in a news article. Sometimes it's a personal recommendation. And when they hear about said product or brand, they typically don't drop everything they're doing and run straight to the point of purchase (if only). That means they go searching for it at a more convenient time.

So make sure that you factor "searchability" into your campaign. If you look at your banner, print, or video ad, can you imagine what the viewer might be searching for after seeing it? If not, you may need to be a little more specific if you want consumers to ever find your product. Clear brand or product names are essential, as are any other key parts of the message, like the name of a special promotion.

This "searchability" is even more important for companies that don't have a lot of brand awareness. After all, if you know the brand well and can recall it, you can always go search its site. And that idea sets up the next point nicely.

If your advertising campaign has worked, it will likely lead the viewer to a search engine. And from there, the consumer hopefully ends up at a page on your website. If that search results link isn't dead on, they'll often jump over to your homepage.

Unless you have the customer loyalty of Apple, don't bet on customers knowing your product's name when they arrive at your site. More likely, they'll only remember your brand name, maybe part of the product name, and have a vague idea of what the ad said.

This is more problematic for companies with a lot of products because they tend to have more marketing messages out there for their various products, all creating noise and confusion. And even if the consumer remembers your product's name, it's going to be harder to find that product among the many featured on your website.

If consumers arrive at your homepage, you want to get them to their point of interest as quickly as possible. Consumers typically spend only seconds on a web page before clicking or leaving. Every second that passes in which they can't find what they want, you're increasing the odds they'll split. If you're spending big money on a campaign, support it with navigational aids on your homepage.

The multipliers of social media simply offer too much potential to ignore. The average Facebook user has 120 friends. With the new Facebook design, it's more likely than ever that if any of their friends are interacting with your brand on Facebook, it will end up within their view.

So at the very least, post product and campaign information on your Facebook page as part of a routine content updating schedule. Offer social media "share" options on key website pages, and consider adding such options to creative assets if there is room, as in an expandable banner.

As was recently pointed out, we're already seeing Twitter and Facebook driving traffic at levels that compete with Google. And whatever other formats emerge in the future, social media seems to be here to stay.

The need to get more out of less isn't a recent phenomenon, but rather a continual trend in the marketing world. So while these tactics may seem like ways to deal with current economic problems, they're actually practices that can simply help you improve performance of your campaigns.

And no matter how creative your shop is, if you're not taking ROI issues into consideration, however you define them, it's likely your clients are. So now might be a very good time to start thinking about them.

Doug Schumacher is the president and creative director at Basement Inc.

Remember: You cannot not communicate.
This is a line that I first came across via designer David Carson. It shouldn't need a lot of explanation, and it serves as a useful reminder to brands: If you think running boring communications is a way to avoid making a strong statement, it's quite likely having the opposite effect.

A great example of a brand that understands this concept is the pre-flight safety video on Virgin America. How many miserably sterile versions of that same message have I sat through on other airlines? And then one day, I get on a Virgin America flight, and it's like a breath of fresh air. That simple, animated video did more for my impression of an airline than any $300,000 commercial I've ever seen.

I also equate this bit of advice to brands that think they can avoid being the focus of conversations by staying out of social media. All they're avoiding is the awareness of the conversations they should be at the center of.

In a single video, Virgin America did a great job communicating that it is different from other airlines.

As a marketer, you need to start thinking more like a startup.
The lines between startup business model, product idea, and brand experience are pretty thin these days. For brands, that presents the double-edged sword of having an opportunity to develop big, market-making ideas, but also realizing that a high school kid could produce the same thing in his bedroom over spring break. (You probably heard that a 14-year-old recently built an app that knocked Angry Birds off the top free game slot in Apple's app store.)

We're in an era in which individuals or small groups are producing things that formerly only large companies or well-funded startups could. (This is something I report on frequently in my weekly Creativing posts.)

So how do startups and small companies succeed where so many brands fail?

If you read any of the venture capital bloggers (Fred Wilson is one of my faves), you'll start to see a term come up frequently in their lists of what makes a great startup company. Adaptability. The old "speed boat vs. oil tanker" analogy.

What they're seeing in business after business is that things change. Frequently and abruptly. Often, successful businesses go through multiple iterations before making it to a successful model. And it's not like the marketing world is changing at a snail's pace these days. But for various reasons, ranging from a risk-averse culture to overly centralized management, many brands have trouble adapting.

Social media is one example of how brands are adapting. It's hard to imagine a network TV spot running without a high-level marketing person approving every last word. But some Facebook brand pages are reaching comparable numbers of people. Yet there's a lot of messaging going out that can't possibly go through the same approval process. The only way that can happen is by distributing responsibility across more people within the company.

She's probably creating the latest gaming craze.

Recognize that content is the new marketing.
The content a company produces is probably the most accurate form of marketing communications a company can deliver. If the company really understands its industry, then it should be able to produce good content. If not, it will show. Another plus to content development is that when your content is remarkable, you've already answered many of the questions around what your marketing messages should be.

One challenge with the content direction is that, upon mention of it, the client team worries that the CEO is going to have to be pushed to blog, and the agency creatives think they're going to get to create a sitcom. Usually neither idea is the right one.

If a company really feels it has strength in a given industry, yet isn't producing content that supports that position, then at the best the company is leaving some money on the table. At the worst, it's leaving itself vulnerable to someone coming in and grabbing that valuable leadership position.

What's also interesting about content marketing is that some of the companies that have been really good at traditional TV advertising seem to get the content game intuitively. Both Nike and Apple have demonstrated that content runs an extremely broad gamut. Consider a product like Nike+ and its complete digital experience, as well as the conference presentations of Steve Jobs, which pull millions of views. Both are forms of content that are very tough to compete with.

Don't bet against building 43.
Building 43 is where the web spam team at Google is housed. This is a building packed with some of the smartest people in the business, all working to preserve the value of Google's most precious asset: its search results.

I'm a strong advocate of good SEO practices, and I have big respect for the thought leaders in this space. What those experts almost universally agree on is that one of the best tactics to getting good search rankings is to develop quality content relevant to your business. Furthermore, companies should distribute links to that content to influential sites and publishers that cover the topic, in hopes that they'll realize the value in your content and share it with their audiences.

That tactic works today, and it will most likely work for years to come. Why? Because it's what's best for the consumer. And linking consumers to high-caliber content on the subjects they're searching for is imperative if Google wants to maintain its search industry dominance.

Does creating that content take work? Yes. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

Some SEO practitioners would like you to think that, with a few tricks, they can blast you to the top of Google's search results. Just realize that if those tactics do anything other than help the consumer find highly relevant content on your site that's better than anything else out there, you're attempting to outsmart the system. In other words, you're betting against building 43. 

Remember that user experience design is more important than ever.
Several years ago, Facebook was about widgets. Then overnight it becomes about the news feed. The iPad has, in one year, become the most quickly adopted consumer electronics device ever. And by most accounts, tablet sales are poised to explode. We're talking about a computing experience that didn't even exist a year ago.

The percent of the media we consume that we'd classify as new media is expanding every year.

New media is new to everyone. New to the users. New to marketers. New to developers. Figuring out these new experiences isn't easy, but unfortunately that doesn't minimize the need for a great user interface.

User interface is often the difference between accomplishing a task quickly and not -- between satisfaction and frustration. It's the difference between a good brand experience and a bad one. If your project is about creating a brand experience, a bad user experience will only ensure failure.

The long-term trend is for tools to get more and more sophisticated.

Own your content.
Having a Facebook Page is great and all that, but don't put your website in moth balls. And while most brands probably aren't seriously considering something that extreme, I have seen it done. And it can be easier to just publish your content to your social media properties and leave it at that. But there are a lot of compelling reasons for taking the effort to put your content on your website.

  • Improving search rankings: You want to own as many high-ranking search positions for as many of your valuable keywords as possible. Having a website (or several of them) is a great way to do that.

  • More marketing tools: Even a large social media site like Facebook has definite limitations. If your own site is a hub of activity, you'll have another set of tools you can work with to build engagement with segments of your target audience.

  • Easier implementation: Today, there are plenty of tools to facilitate managing content across multiple property types.

  • Better site integration: With web technical advances like Open Graph, a brand's website and social media properties are becoming more and more integrated. That means an experience created around one is more likely to have a ripple effect on the other.

  • Dynamic mobile experience: Facebook's current iPhone app leaves a lot to be desired with regard to brand Pages. If you've been publishing good content on your site, it's probable much of it will translate to a WAP site.

  • Tides shift: There was a time when brands were scrambling to figure out MySpace. Having your content distributed across multiple destinations, including your site, is like having a good content distribution backup plan.

Don't stop thinking about new media opportunities.
At one point, email was a mysterious new media marketing opportunity. So were 468x60 animated GIF banners. Same for Flash sites. The list goes on.

The point is that what were once "new" media can quickly become routine media. And when things become routine, they tend to be the stuff that your competitors can easily figure out -- without a lot of effort.

When The Gap recently launched its Facebook Places jeans giveaway, there were a lot of people asking about the return on investment and what The Gap got out of it. And that's fine, as it has to be considered. But the value to the Gap goes way beyond the surface transactions that happened that day. Consider that the marketing blogs were abuzz with people trying to analyze and guess all sorts of value metrics for the campaign, and how a campaign like that performs. Of course, there was only one company that knew the inner details of the campaign's performance: The Gap.

In today's media climate, leading-edge new media marketing should be considered a cost of doing business. It's a great way to give you and your company knowledge about future trends that none of your competitors are privy to. It's also a great way attract the best and brightest within your field, and keep them engaged and working harder than ever.

At one point, this was some crazy bit of new media. (Image source: Library of Congress)

Doug Schumacher is president and creative director at Basement Inc.

On Twitter? Follow Schumacher at @MemeRunner. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Whose side are the consumers on?
AdKeeper's Nielsen polls aside, consumers' attitudes toward banner ads aren't always clear. In one Harris Interactive study conducted last year, 43 percent of respondents said they "ignored or disregarded" banners, and 63 percent said they disregarded internet ads above all others. At the same time, eMarketer estimates that U.S. advertisers will spend $6.56 billion on banner ads this year -- an increase of 11.4 percent over last. The situation calls to mind the old paradox about email spam: Consumers would bemoan the number of unsolicited messages in their inboxes, but that wouldn't stop them from clicking. 

The incongruity between consumer opinions and advertiser results lies, again, in relevance and value. Not all banners are created equal -- in fact, there's often a huge discrepancy between the quality and value of ads produced for major brands and countless other less likeable alternatives. Consumers may also fail to realize the effect that banners are actually having on their purchasing habits. MediaMind reports that just 20.4 percent of conversions occur immediately after clicking on a banner, while nearly 80 percent happen post-impression.

If consumers are still thinking about the brand and ad message enough after seeing a banner to convert at a later date, doesn't it stand to reason that they might be interested in revisiting that ad? If they come across an ad for a medical service or a vacation destination that's of interest but don't want to pursue it in the office, might they not really appreciate the ability to tuck it away for when they get home?

In general, consumer attitudes toward advertising are changing. People are beginning to recognize that there's real value in ads that offer something they truly need or want, and buy into the notion not just of tolerating those ads, but inviting them into their lives. For evidence of this, you don't have to look any further than Groupon, with its 54 million members, and Livingsocial, which currently has 20 million members. Daily messages from these group-buying services are essentially geographically targeted ads. These and other such businesses are teaching their subscribers that targeted ads attached to valuable offers can enhance their lives as consumers.

Consumers and brands are on the verge of simultaneously discovering the benefits of extending the life of digital ads online. Maybe the banner will finally get its credit where credit is due.

Courtney Nowicki is associate director of interactive at Enlighten

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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