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Launching an SEM Initiative

Launching an SEM Initiative Kevin Ryan

Ideally, an SEM program would begin at the time a Website is being built, since the architecture of a Website carries a lot of weight in how automated search engines view the site. However, a search marketing initiative often follows the construction of a site. Due to the specialized disciplines required for SEM, the firm that administers a search program is often a separate entity from the site designer.

According to eMarketer, search marketing aligns three perceptions of a company or brand:

  1. Which keywords or search terms potential and existing customers would use to find the company’s site, or sections of the site.
  2. Which keywords the company believes best describes what it does, what it sells and how it might be viewed by outsiders.
  3. Which keywords receive high rankings from the various search engines.

Effectively optimizing a site and using paid listing programs are the subjects of volumes of text and industry conjecture. Ultimately, getting started in search marketing requires an understanding of those three perceptions and how the dynamics of the different types of search marketing apply to your marketing objectives and budget.

Principles of Search Marketing

Search marketing today is often erroneously defined in just two ways: paid or unpaid. However, the advent of performance-based search marketing now allows search marketers to apply a click-cost metric to all types of SEM. The world of search is bifurcated for the most part, but there are many formats available to search marketers. The Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO), a non-profit organization formed to “help spread the good news about search engine marketing,” offers the following definitions for these types of search marketing:

Search Engine Optimization (SEO): The act of altering a Website so that it does well in the organic, crawler-based listings of search engines.

  • About SEO: This was the first form garnering search positioning for user-initiated queries on the Web. SEO speaks to enhancing the architecture of a Website to be “seen” by automated search engines that use algorithms to determine relevancy based on search queries. Large companies often hire specialized firms to administer SEO programs. The easiest, most efficient means of achieving good SEO results would be to follow the guidelines set forth by search sites rather than attempt to circumvent them.

Paid Inclusion: An advertising program in which pages are guaranteed to be included in a search engine's index in exchange for payment.

  • About Paid Inclusion: Providers offer this form of SEM in either a flat fee based structure for URLs or on a Cost Per Click (CPC) basis. Paid inclusion directories offer no guarantee of positioning, and paid inclusion listings are often category based and therefore less targeted than Pay For Placement SEM, but lower click costs often compensate for that. Paid inclusion listings often reside in between Pay For Placement and organic results. The future of paid inclusion listings is at best uncertain, given the difficulty many advertisers have in understanding it, the lack of advertiser labeling, and the popularity of Pay For Placement.

Pay For Placement (PFP): An advertising program in which listings are guaranteed to appear in response to particular search terms, with higher ranking typically obtained by paying more than other advertisers. Paid placement listings can be purchased from a portal or a search network. Search networks are often set up in an auction environment where keywords and phrases are associated with a CPC fee. Overture and Google are the largest networks, but MSN and other portals sometimes sell paid placement listings directly as well. Portal sponsorships are also a type of paid placement.

  • About PFP: Paid search is the performance-based version of SEO. Paid listings are often syndicated to other search sites along with destination and information pages and even placed in email (called contextual search). Pay For Placement listings also exist on shopping sites and other vertical sites. Most often, site vendors offer a self-service advertising platform. 

Graphic Representation: These are banners and other types of advertising units that can be synchronized to search keywords. They can be pop-ups, browser toolbars and rich media as well.

  • About Graphic Search: Arguably the most artistic or creative form of Internet marketing, graphic representations in search results have been removed by many top portals in favor of paid listings. Other portals have reengineered traditional ad formats to create hybrid paid listing graphic representations. These ad units are most frequently sold on an impression-based Cost Per Thousand (CPM) basis.

Measuring Your Search Investment

The most important aspect of any search marketing effort is developing an understanding of its performance. In the early days of search marketing, simple traffic source information or keyword positioning reports were the only measure available to marketers. Those tools are still important but today there are a plethora of devices to help site owners in managing the search marketing expectation level. All measurement and analytics boil down to knowing the answer to one key question. What is a click worth?

The first question initiates several others. What is the desired action of a site visitor? Do you want the user to make a purchase on the site? How about fill out a registration form? Maybe the goal of generating traffic is simply to build awareness of a new product. In any of these instances, search marketers can apply one or more of the following metrics to search marketing.

In the quick and dirty method of analyzing traffic, if a hundred people click into your site and ten of them execute a desired activity your “conversion rate” is 10%. Calculations such as this help you determine your ROI or Return On Investment, which is the foundation of other calculations like Return On Advertising Spending, or ROAS. ROAS, like ROI, is a simple mathematical calculation of revenue generated for every dollar spent. Other popular metrics include variations of weighing the actual expense of a user making a purchase such as the Cost Per Activity (CPA).

If your search marketing initiative is intended to help lift awareness (branding), traditional means of measuring the impact of this effort may not be relevant to search marketers who need to understand the value or impact of search positions. However, by combining purchase statistics with specifically designed site interfaces such as a request for information or location page visits, an advertiser can apply a brand-related search marketing goal.

Paid search has enabled marketers to apply the same metrics to search marketing as other online marketing campaigns through allowing the use of special URLs. In SEO, marketers are often confined to server-based sourcing reports that measure traffic from specific portals. However, by using either a simple source code attached to a URL in paid search, an advertiser can track click activity for a specific listing. A third party served URL can add the dimension of tracking a user’s post click activity, even to the point of purchase. Third parties can also help manage paid search programs and apply metrics as well. 

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.

Other suggested articles:

Buy Me Some Traffic
Paid search results marketing is an effective tactic that has caught on. Here’s a brief history, and an overview of who’s who.

Brand: BigFix

Agency: Rassak Experience

Sample coverage: The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Scobleizer

Campaign: Exploiting America's obsession with last year's presidential race -- and perhaps offering a humorous tonic for those bored with the election -- BigFix offered up Ray Hopewood, a fictional candidate who mocked the absurdity of non-stop political ads while subtly touting the virtues of the company's enterprise software offerings. Hopewood had his own Facebook page, videos, and merchandise. And as the real presidential race heated up, BigFix kept pace with new "developments" from its candidate.

What set it apart: During last year's election season, there was no shortage of campaigns that sought to use the political event to their own advantage. But what made the difference for BigFix was the genuine nature of the campaign, says Barak Kassar, president of Rassak Experience.

"A key mistake is to lose sight of the actual digital human experience you are creating for people," Kassar says. "We climbed into the skin of our viewer, and we sweated every detail of how this campaign would first appear to a person, and how it would unfold. Was the first eighth of an eighth of a second going to feel just right? And would it get better and better along the way?"

That strategy paid off, according to Kassar, who says some European users who weren't closely following the American election actually believed Hopewood to be the genuine article after seeing some banner ads. But more than that, Kassar insists that the key was that the campaign offered real touchpoints (including a Facebook page, Flickr photos, and a blog) that enabled people and reporters to engage on their own terms.

Advice: "Never bank on media coverage and never, ever bank on viral," Kassar says. "Both are gifts, and if you believe you deserve them, you will get hurt. All you can do is make something as good and human as you can. Treat the audience as human beings and treat reporters as human beings."

Brand: BBQ Addicts

Agency: None

Sample coverage: The New York Times, Akron Beacon Journal, Toronto Star

Campaign: After receiving a Twitter challenge to do something with bacon, BBQ fanatics Jason Day and Aaron Chronister set about creating the now infamous Bacon Explosion. But what began as a recipe disseminated through their website, BBQAddicts.com, and a few tweets, grew into a full-blown media frenzy, aided in part by America's obsession with outrageous Super Bowl snacks. The campaign helped drive traffic to the duo's blog, which has helped Chronister and Day turn their passion for BBQ into a full-time job.

What set it apart: There are a lot of crazy, pork-filled recipes floating around the internet, but according to Chronister, the Bacon Explosion took off because of three critical factors.

The first factor, Chronister says, was timing. With a launch date so close to the Super Bowl, BBQ Addicts gave legions of foodie football fans an exciting new dish to bring to their halftime party.

The second factor, according to Chronister, was the name, which even he admits is a little over the top. But, he says, one can't deny the power of an over-the-top name when it comes to grabbing the attention of an internet audience.

But the third factor -- which one could easily define as guilty-pleasure syndrome -- is what made Bacon Explosion, well, explode. "In reality, the recipe is very good (in moderation, of course)," Chronister says. "People were thinking, 'Who on Earth would eat that?' But in reality, they actually wanted one."

In other words, Bacon Explosion offered the shock value of something absurd, but behind the unusual recipe was a dish many people secretly wanted to try. That combination offered a kind of one-two punch, enabling BBQ Addicts to lead with a zany concept while delivering something of substance.

Advice: To push the campaign, BBQ Addicts relied heavily on social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. But, according to Chronister, many brands often misuse those platforms.

"Many companies haven't embraced the real nature of social networking and are hesitant due to fear of backlash," Chronister explains. "What they need to understand is any feedback at all is good, even negative responses. It's an instant survey and one of the fastest ways to improve whatever it is they're offering. All markets consist of human beings who like to be involved, and many times companies are pushing too much of a corporate message instead of a human message. They need to stop being afraid of their customers and start building relationships."

In BBQ Addicts' case, that relationship led to a conversation, which turned into a challenge, which in turn became a recipe that put the blog on the map.

Agency: None

Sample coverage: Fort Worth Business Press, Star-Telegram, ABA Journal (print)

Campaign: Hollywood it's not. But North Texas is home to one of the more unusual and risky bank campaigns anyone has ever seen. Rather than spending money on a traditional print and radio buy to advertise the bank's latest programs, Worthington (a regional bank) made four short films for YouTube, including a finale that mimicked a Western-style bank robbery. The mock robbery -- something most banks would shy away from -- was foiled by the bank's employees, who used their customer service skills to charm the thieves into submission.

The campaign relied almost entirely on local press coverage to drive customers to the bank's website and YouTube page.

What set it apart: While the numbers on the campaign were small (North Texas isn't the same as going national), Worthington Bank CEO Greg Morse says the YouTube videos were a success because they took risks few brands in the space ever dream of taking.

"We were at a bank conference two years ago and noticed that the advertising for smaller banks was pretty lame," Morse says. "The videos were made purposely to incorporate situations one wouldn't necessarily associate with a bank, like a day at the beach. They were made to showcase as much personality as possible (again, something not generally associated with banks). We aimed to make the campaign as unexpected as possible because people always talk about the things that surprise them."

That tactic worked, and many local reporters took note of a bank talking -- albeit in jest -- about bank robberies. According to Morse, that buzz helped energize existing customers and bring in new clients who were looking for a more personal relationship with their local bank.

Advice: While Morse attributes much of the campaign's success to the surprise factor, he also believes that using employees as actors in the ads made a big difference. "Using real-life employees added a bit of human interest and upped the news value of the story," Morse explains.

The use of employees also helped sell the bank's message of personable customer service, something Morse believes is best kept out of the hands of paid actors who are less likely to appear genuine.

Brand: Honda

Agency: RPA

Sample coverage: Salon, The New York Times, Advertising Age (subscription required)

Campaign: If an award-winning director made three short films that just happened to include passing reference to Honda, the result would likely be the "Dream the Impossible" campaign, which asked consumers to join the automaker in an exploration of themes that reflect the brand's core values. One video, which touched upon the company's mission of transportation, speculated on what a car brand might mean in the year 2088. Another video, which highlighted Honda's passion for innovation, took the unusual tact of probing the role of failure in achieving technological breakthroughs.

What set it apart: While a number of car brands have dabbled in short films (most notably BMW), few have taken the bold step of making an earnest documentary that barely features the brand name at all. But that's exactly what J Barbush, RPA's VP and associate creative director, wanted to achieve with "Dream the Impossible."

"We liked the feel of the documentary," Barbush says. "It allowed for a very soft message, which was important because we didn't want this campaign to be about Honda, we wanted it to be about the philosophy of Honda."

According to Barbush, the focus on Honda's philosophy -- and how it relates to stories of regular people -- helped get bloggers and reporters writing not just about Honda the company, but about Honda the brand and, more importantly, what it meant.

"It wasn't just about presenting feel-good stories," Barbush explains. "People responded the most to the film about failure, and that makes sense because that's part of reality."

Advice: While Honda's bold creative (notably its decision to confront failure) may not be palatable for every brand, Barbush does believe that one takeaway all marketers can use has to do with the vast size and scope of the web. According to Barbush, one of the keys to the campaign was that Honda didn't try to keep the conversation confined to its site.

"We used the full web; it's a big place," Barbush says. "For this campaign, we pushed comments to YouTube because they just didn't fit on our site. Marketers shouldn't be afraid to take people away from the destination. That may mean you're soft on metrics, but you need to look at the bigger picture to see where people are going and engage them there."

Brand: Colt 45

Agency: Cole & Weber United

Sample coverage: MSNBCLA Weekly, LiquorSnob.com

Campaign: Looking to focus on a young, hip demographic, Colt 45 (perhaps best known as Billy Dee Williams' preferred malt liquor) used a microsite http://www.workseverytime.com/home/default.aspx, an underground comic book aesthetic, a painfully honest tagline ("Works every time"), and a partnership with Vice Magazine to share stories that revolve around the beverage. 

What set it apart: "If you talk to people who drink Colt 45, one truth immediately comes to the surface -- they always have a story to tell," says Britt Peterson, partner at Cole & Weber United.

While those stories often involve a kind of drunken debauchery not commonly voiced in most alcoholic beverage ads, Peterson says the campaign worked because it didn't get in the way of how people actually use the product or try to force an artificial image. But the story-based approach also gave the campaign a life of its own because it asked people to share their experiences, which in turn prompted numerous reporters and bloggers to joke about their own memories of drinking Colt 45. While that may have made for some tongue-in-cheek coverage, it did garner press nonetheless, which helped make the brand relevant for a hipper demographic.

Advice: Stories aside, one critical factor for any campaign seeking to get press coverage is its ability to exploit something happening in social culture right now. "If you're tapping into something that's really happening, you have a good chance to get some media attention," Peterson says.

In Colt's case, the beverage resonated with budget-conscious hipsters because the low price was an implicit part of a highly stylized message, rather than overt offer of savings. The result was a message that was more of a genuine cultural contribution than an ad, at least as far as the target audience was concerned.

Michael Estrin is an editor at BitterLawyer.com.

Search and stream of consciousness
Real-time search is now a reality. That's right, sports fans: After many years of refining the search algorithm, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get it right, every Tom, Dick, and Harry with an opinion can pop up in your search results.

Naturally, the first people to capitalize on real-time search marketing have been the ones who know how to exploit it. With a hashtag (#) and a dream, anyone can pop into search results. Don't you feel better about spending all that money on search engine optimization?

However, you don't have to feel all that bad about walking the boulevard of broken dreams (#greenday) -- there's still time to make sure you are optimizing for real-time search. While the concept is still very new, you can follow a few simple guidelines to make sure you are getting it right:

  • First, make sure you are using keywords in tweets.

  • Second, since every Twitter action or post creates a page, make sure your text is relevant.

  • Third, take a close look at web address abbreviators. Some have really sharp SEO attributes. Long, complicated URLs have never been the friend of search marketers, so now is the time to try and re-invent the address. Some even allow tracking; take a look at bit.ly to see what I mean.

Search is social
People waste -- I mean spend -- more time on social media sites than they do searching the web. Twitter ads are starting to pop up everywhere, and it's only a matter of time before we see platforms really start to go to work for the advertising world. Stop by 140Proof for a look at the future of Twit-vertising. While you're at it, spend a bit of time looking at how people interact with social applications, and use that knowledge to feed your SEO efforts.

Today, smart marketers are deploying listening technologies. Even smarter marketers are actually taking the time to apply the knowledge they gain while listening to their search efforts. We have long known that search provides delicate insights into human behavior, but now we can connect the dots between real-time behavior and instigated thought from knowledge aggregators and listening tools.

Want to really connect with your audience in the search box? Invest heavily in understanding what people are talking about on blogs and social media sites. With all the changes in search over the last few years, content is still king. Driving your content strategy with an understanding of hot topics related to your brand is the new killer -- um -- app.

Search and content
Content used to be text on a page. Text on a page used to drive search results. Search engines used to be the way people found everything online.

Today, content is video. Content is an image. Content is an application. Blended search results (formerly known as search result clutter) have changed how we interact with results pages, and yet I am surprised how many marketers and their agencies still focus on text. Get over your stand-alone text and move into the new digital position.

Images, videos, feeds, and the kitchen sink are appearing in search results. While YouTube can be the ultimate time waster, it's also a valuable resource for many people. So, unless your product is as easy to use as a seat belt, you might benefit from posting some simple "how to" videos. People love to learn how to do almost anything. Given that people don't seem to be getting any smarter, explaining how to use your product might just be your key to climbing to the top of the heap.

Pushing content has never been easier. If you are listening to what people want, you know how to interact with them. The cost of producing content continues to drop. A good example of building a business around crafting content can be found with the folks at Demand Media

With all that has evolved in the search field, the relationship searchers have with relevant content continues on a steady path.

Tried and true search
Each day I pray for the quick and painful death of those promising instant results in climbing to the top of the search page. For as long as I can remember, there have been bottom feeders claiming to have some magic formula for getting top search listings. Don't listen to them.

There are no quick solutions. While there are certain tactics that we could classify as "low hanging fruit" in the world of search engine optimization, handing your cash over to the quick fix people has never been a good idea. Search engines will remove your site from the index if you try to cheat, so don't.

Likewise, some consultants talk about getting you to the top of Google when, in fact, they really want you to pay them for search advertising in sponsored listings -- and at a heavy markup on your click costs. Don't do it, it's just not worth it.

Every search site publishes best practices for search engine optimization. While it might be worth your while to hire a search marketing professional, there are quite a few folks out there you can hire to teach your own people to do it right.

Search intelligence
Assuming you are one of the select few who have sorted out how to correctly configure an analytics suite, you are probably sitting on massive amounts of data. Why aren't you using those data? Search is often credited as the last place a potential customer goes to make a purchase. The last-stop mentality only tells me that you aren't paying attention to every stop that was made along the way.

Members of the connected consuming public like their search results served up just like they like their coffee and cheeseburgers: customized. The best place to learn about search engine optimization lies in the data you probably already have.

Noticing that your customers are coming from Denver or Minneapolis? Maybe it makes sense to localize content for them. Potential customers coming from one type of content site? Maybe you should engage the site to help with your link equity. For the past 10 years, marketers have been crying out for more data. Stop crying and start learning.

Kevin Ryan is CEO of Motivity Marketing.

On Twitter? Follow Kevin at @KevinMRyan. 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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