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SearchTHIS: Top 10 Questions

SearchTHIS: Top 10 Questions Kevin Ryan

If there’s one thing I love about traveling, it’s… on second thought, I can’t think of one thing to be happy about when trudging about the world. Smelly cabs, ambiguous union flight attendants, cancelled reservations, lost luggage, and of course, extinct customer service guidelines industry-wide. I guess the only thing worthy of expressing glee about is one’s arrival. For example, my favorite destination of late is lovely and beautiful downtown Long Beach, Calif., aka home.

Speaking of favorite things upon arrival, whenever I attend an online advertising presentation, my weekly anger management lecture or even a fly fishing seminar, the most exciting part of a live audience anything is the interaction between speaker and attendee.

The only real way to find what’s on people’s minds is, of course, to ask them. Well, we have -- all over America. As Grand Exalted Emperor of all things Q&A in the iMediaLearning Search Tour, I bring you the top 10 most frequently asked questions to date. Unedited (who am I kidding?) and in the director’s cut format, because you deserve nothing less.

How can I get higher on natural search rankings?

It’s quite simple actually. Stop smoking that low-ranking shwag. Short answer, take the iMediaLearning search marketing course (please note: I receive no proceeds from said endeavor) and study your site’s needs architecture. Long answer, a volume of information exists on the best practices for search engine rankings. Here are a couple of top thoughts.

  • Focus on relevant content and text
  • Follow the rules; cheating gets ousted or parked on page 50,786,234
  • Pay attention to search dynamics before, after and during site construction
  • Get spidered and tag each page appropriately
  • Don’t ignore secondary rank possibilities, i.e. link popularity

Why is performance different with Overture and Google?

This one always has the sponsors cringing. Rumors of one search provider universally dominating another are rubbish. There are, however, certain listings that seem to do better with a longer, more detailed listing. That is to say, Overture has a larger character capacity than Google. For example, if one has an emerging technology product in a competitive category, users find a long description helpful. Conversely, the Google abbreviated listing may bode more favorably when all you need is a short line and a link.

Most often, the problem of one doing better than the other has a cause and effect relationship with a lack of understanding of the unique dynamics of Overture and Google. The two providers have very different systems for listing efficiency. Google is the listing Darwinism provider, because users determine positioning with clicks much more so than Overture. The trick is finding which description works best with your product or service’s landing page -- and remember to treat Overture and Google with unique consideration.

Is it essential to have the No. 1 position in PFP?

Sure -- if you are compensating for inadequacies elsewhere or your helplessly outmatched ego has you bidding through the roof for the sake of being numero uno. The ultimate answer to this question is measure, measure and measure. Measure the effect of being in position one as opposed to positions two through four with multiple listing groups. Measure the effectiveness of position shifts while accommodating target dayparts. Focus on measuring return over the inherent joy of seeing your listing come up No. 1. Often, you can achieve significant savings through optimizing and underbidding ego-driven advertisers for lower positions.

What are sources for keyword development?

Overture, Google and many other providers have keyword-building tools in their respective user areas. Enter a keyword and up pop a few relevant terms -- or not, as the case may be. If one sells Diesel Denim, the keyword suggestion for bidding on Vin Diesel might not be the best way to go.

Golden rule: When in doubt, test the keyword out.

Log files might be the least tapped but best source for keyword development. One non-search advertiser told me recently he passed on paid search for several months until he collected enough keyword usage and behavior information from his log files to give searchers an exact match from term to landing page. If everyone studied log files and path analysis to help optimize search initiatives, the world would be a better place.

How often should I manage my bids?

Don’t you just love it when people answer your question with a question? How competitive is your category? Do you find that each time a valued position is achieved, is it quickly lost to another advertiser? Are you selling high tech wireless phone accessories with fifty other advertisers? Is your product or service set so obscure that very few advertisers contend with you? Do you find that modifying or updating bids on hourly, daily or weekly intervals is either impractical or unnecessary? Is the answer perhaps unique to every advertiser? Can it be that specific keyword groupings directing traffic into the same site might require unique keyword bid management strategies? Are you catching my drift?

Is it enough to just buy Google and Overture?

Another sponsor favorite. Well, not exactly. Google and Overture can rarely be overlooked for the sheer reach and frequency they represent. Of course, another way to take this question might be: is it enough to partake only in paid search? Probably not, but I am more concerned with firms that offer "full-service search engine marketing," which consists of one or two paid search offerings.

A March Jupiter Research study concluded that only 25 percent of search marketers measured either online or offline leads. These are the people you are bidding against, folks. They aren’t all that bright, but neither are most people on California freeways, yet we have to live with them both. I suspect a large portion of the non-measuring paid search populace is responsible for driving click costs way up beyond the realm of any return.

When click costs are knocked out of the park by SEM nudniks, look for a buying efficiency off-ramp in tier two search providers like Enhance, Business.Com and Kanoodle. Beyond the cost advantages, paid search providers other than Google and Overture can source the kind of extreme innovation, which sends the industry leaping forward. Just look at Industry Brains.

How can I find cheap keywords?

At the keyword flea market (rimshot). This question is a lot easier to answer than you might think. There’s the tier two search option, of course, but as you're digging through those log files, take a look at three- and four-keyword phrases people use to get to your site. Although longer keyword phrases receive much less traffic, they are inherently more targeted and tend to be cheaper as well.

If I get high natural placement, why do I need paid search?

Clearly, if one stayed away from the commonly found street search and moved into the genetically-enhanced listings, one would not need to evaluate the natural search high euphoria. The fact is, organically optimized listings are at best, unpredictable. Google dances, and listing descriptions take the term "benign" to a whole new level of boredom in natural or organic search.

Even if you are happy with those, uh, natural high rankings take a look at last year’s comScore/IAB study in which paid listings were proven to achieve a much higher conversion or desired action rate. Why do they convert better? One of the best answers is the timeliness of messaging which paid search affords an advertiser.

Brands often ask this question when noticing great brand-based keyword rankings. My answer to them? Look up. See who else is bidding on your brand’s keywords. Legal discussions aside, like it or not, a big chunk of your would-have-been traffic is headed to your competitors.

Which budget should search come from?

Everything except online advertising. This one still kills me. The average online budget is 5 percent of an overall spend, but for some reason a few advertisers are yanking budget from other online initiatives and dropping said funds into search. Why? There are plenty of other resources to pull from.

Look at the thick areas, and start peeling and integrating. How much did you spend on focus groups last year? Do you really need to go back to Punxsutawney to get the local perspective on rodent clairvoyant capabilities? Peel. Is there any fluff in your IT budget? Maybe search should be part of it. Integrate.

I have an idea. How about you give me 5 percent of the $20 million you paid to put your brand’s name on that stock car in order to reach the all-too-critical trailer park demographic. The whine: we don’t have any money. The truth: yes, you do.

Is it better to manage search engine marketing in-house?

Try it and see. Hundreds, maybe thousands of keywords organized into distinct groups across dozens of paid search engines. Countless product or descriptive destination pages that need to be optimized in natural listings. Numerous inclusion feeds that demand tweaking in order to achieve effectiveness.

One of two things happens when a firm attempts to manage search in-house. Said firm begins the endeavor with the best of intentions (the road to where is paved with what?) and later realizes how much work is involved and either commits the resources required or decides to hire out.

Strike that. One of three things can happen. Said firm may also run into an increasingly mind-boggling scenario I’ve noticed of late, in which the interactive agency is taking care of the full-service search (buying Overture and Google) and the tech shop or in-house site builders take a stab at optimization. Have you ever heard anyone say, "Let me take a stab at it," and experienced a good result? I think not. If you are going to do it in-house, outsourced or some unholy combination of the two, do it right. Make sure your experts are on top of their game and leave the stabbing to Marcus Junius Brutus.

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. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.

Meet Kevin Ryan at Ad:Tech May 24-26th, 2004 and the iMediaLearning Search Tour.

1. Deliverability keeps getting worse

I emailed Forrester analyst Julie Katz to ask her about challenges to email marketing -- and her company's servers bounced back my email. At least the bounce let me know she hadn't received it, so I knew I should call her.

"Deliverability, especially to business addresses, is a challenge," Katz says. "Consumers aren't necessarily checking their spam folders. It requires marketers' constant attention."

That's because the volume of spam continues to break previous records. According to Google's Postini data, in the first quarter of 2009, spam volume grew approximately 1.2 percent per day.

The financial motivation for spammers to outwit ISPs may be greater than the incentive for ISPs to keep up with them, according to George Schlossnagle, president and CEO of Message Systems, a vendor of message management services for email service providers. "A fundamental problem is that email, for most service providers, is a cost center. As the economy gets hard, it's difficult for people to justify putting more money into making those systems aggressively better," he says.

The result is more false positives -- more marketers' emails stuck in spam folders -- and more consumer reluctance to open branded emails. "For email to feel useful, people need for it to be reliable and relatively noise-free," Schlossnagle says.

He advises email marketers to jump through all the hoops to get on ISPs' white lists. "Make sure your DNS works correctly, and they know the mail is coming from you." Email marketers should understand every ISP's both published and unpublished criteria, in order to set up appropriate throttles and rate limits. In this spam-strangled environment, Schlossnagle says, "View email as a living process. It's not set up once, go away, and forget it."

2. Email is for old people

Those early adopters who were so cool because they used email are now in their 40s -- or 50s, or 60s, or even 80s! As every parent knows, if you want to reach your kid, email is not the answer.

Yes, the population of email users is aging. But the situation isn't quite as bad as it seems, according to Forrester Research. Forrester data from Q3 2008 shows that 92 percent of online adults (those 18 or older) in the U.S. use email daily. In the 12- to 17-year-old set, however, less than 50 percent check their inboxes at least once a day.

"As young people age, their email habits start to look a little more like those of adults," says Forrester analyst Julie Katz. She thinks this is partly because email is so entrenched in workplace culture.

OK, but even if office workers learn to "live in Outlook," are they opting in to marketers' messages on the work email? Probably not -- or, at least, only for B2B offers. As today's teenagers enter the workforce in a few years, Katz warns, "We'll see a shift to social media -- and marketers will need to find a different way to reach this population."

3. Social media want to eat email's lunch

Already, there's plenty of trash-talking from the social media side of the industry. "I think it's kind of a dying business," says Chris Cunningham, CEO of Appssavvy. "People are getting information, content, leads, and offers through widgets, applications, and desktops, while email is being used more as a communications platform."

Cunningham may be biased: Appssavvy's business is to connect social media applications with brands and agencies. But social media platforms do represent a break with the traditional communication channels. For example, Appssavvy brings advertisers to Circle of Moms, a community of 2 million-plus users that is accessible through its website or Facebook. "There's not an email marketing opportunity there because the women there are so satisfied with the community boards and chat rooms," Cunningham says. "They have no need to get these offers anywhere else."

Social media usage has taken off -- even among the tragically unhip. In fact, women over 55 are the fastest-growing segment of Facebook users. But as fast as its growth is, social media is just halfway there in terms of penetration.

The Harris Poll found that 51 percent of Americans are without a social media presence. The survey showed that 48 percent of adults have either a MySpace or Facebook page, but only 16 percent update their pages at least once a day. And a paltry 5 percent use Twitter -- the vast majority of them probably being marketers or the media.

In fact, email may get a boost from social media, says Sarah Benner, senior marketing manager for self-service email marketing provider VerticalResponse. "You can link to specific newsletters or post stuff on your Facebook page that ties back to your email marketing," she says. For example, Tablet Hotels, a boutique hotel-finder, posts last-minute deals to its Twitter feed, along with a link to its opt-in newsletter.

Maureen Streett, search and social media strategist for What's Up Interactive, an agency that provides web, email, and social media marketing, points out that smart email marketers include ways to share messages via social media with one click. "It's a hybrid model that makes email part of a multi-touch campaign," she says.

Sure, advertisers should dabble in social media -- but email is a proven performer, says interactive marketing consultant Jeanne S. Jennings. "We have a history and knowledge about what works," she notes. "If you're looking for ROI and bang for the buck, email should be getting the bulk of the online marketing budget."

4. Moving targets are hard to reach

Reading email on mobile phones is cumbersome enough. Add in the images and links so prevalent in email marketing, and they can become unreadable. Even on smartphones, a single link can take up several lines, causing people to hit the delete key.

However, Forrester's Katz thinks that mobile email usage will actually increase as smartphones become standard. Email marketers need to work with service providers to understand how their messages will look on different devices, she says.

Benner of VerticalResponse advises email marketers to use alternative text whenever possible, in case mobile recipients have images turned off. "Make sure the important links go at the top, and include a link to view the message on the website," she says.

5. Email is too complicated and not snazzy enough

Consumers respond strongly to rich media, and online video came into its own in 2008. Zenith OptiMedia's global ad spend forecast, released in April, predicts 29.8 percent growth in internet video and rich media spending in the U.S. The pressure for email marketers to up the glitz collides with the deliverability and mobility issues we've already examined.

Of course, email service providers are constantly adding new bells and whistles. In April, Goodmail Systems released CertifiedVideo, a service that lets marketers embed streaming video in their emails. In the press release, the company promised, "Consumers can now watch videos within their email inbox without having to click to an external website."

Jennings points out that video in email has been around since 2000. "The problem back then was bandwidth. You had to do as many as eight different versions, depending on how fast the computer was, etc." With the profusion of email devices and clients, the challenge is just as great. Nevertheless, she thinks video emails will come sooner rather than later -- at least, it won't take another nine years.

That said, she advises marketers to remember that it's all about effectiveness, not glamour. "You have to have a good reason to use this technology."

Susan Kuchinskas is a freelance writer who has written for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com.

Strategy first, then assignments

Many brands are seeking ways to leverage multiple agencies to handle their business. We just worked on a project for a major tech company that had Traction and two other agencies partnering to execute its marketing for the year.

The client doled out assignments. In this instance, we were not the lead agency. We were tasked with the social strategy, including a Facebook application. The lead agency for the effort was tasked by the client with building an extensive campaign microsite. The problem was that because the lead agency was tasked with doing the microsite, there had to be a microsite.

But strategically, having a microsite made no sense. And it wasn't successful.

Whether you are a client trying to manage multiple agency partners or an agency trying to deliver successful work for a client in collaboration with your partners, work through your strategy first. Make sure the entire team understands it and where they fit into it.

Asking the right questions at the wrong time just might be too late.

Relationships matter

For a decade, we've partnered with the same two media agencies over and over again. Our collaboration is seamless. They are like an extension of our team. Together, we deliver results.

The reason these partnerships work is that my people know their people. We understand their quirks -- and they know ours. We understand their strengths and weaknesses, their philosophies and styles. We even know their kids' names.

The result is that our teams work together like one team.

When teams are strangers, that workflow is hard to achieve. The weekly collaboration meeting becomes a project manager reading a status report into the phone. Partnership runs the risk of becoming a chore, not an opportunity.

That said, sometimes the need arises for a new partner. You might have to partner with someone new. But take the time to understand the culture of the group you'll be working with. As a leader of your organization, think of yourself as a matchmaker for your people. Compatibility is the precursor to a successful relationship.

At least set the table for success.

Process alignment

A lot of ad shops dangle digital ideas in front their clients and just figure they will outsource production if the client bites.

But those shops work with their clients in a specific way. They have contracts with their clients that are structured a certain way. At the same time, the best production shops have a very specific way of conducting their own business.

They might be agile. Lean. Waterfall. Whatever. Each of those processes has significant impact on the client's experience, billing structure, how delivery happens, and when delivery happens.

If those ways of doing business aren't in alignment, the agency in between could get screwed. It's so critical to understand exactly how your partners work and how that will affect how you work together.

If you manage your client's expectations from the outset, you look strategic. If you try to manage them after the fact, you look like a moron.

Get contracts in order -- before you win the business

This might sound like something that shouldn't be a problem. Sometimes it isn't. But sometimes it is.

About five years ago, my agency -- which solely focused on strategy and creative at the time -- brought in a media agency to pitch a multi-million-dollar account. We won.

Negotiating the client contract actually was a breeze. But we didn't take the time to iron out the details of our contract with the media agency beforehand, and unfortunately, there was an issue that the lawyers were in dispute about. It took them two weeks to figure it out.

Sure, lawyers squabble for a living. But fighting among partners is not the best way to start a client relationship. You can be sure I never made that mistake again.

Creative briefing: Follow the leader

When there are alternate agencies driving a campaign, it's often unclear where the line is in terms of brand standards, messaging, and even strategy. Which agency is in charge? What is mandatory? Does everyone understand the strategy?

A couple of years ago, we were the agency of record for a consumer electronics company that was launching a new product. We managed the brand strategy, the online work, the offline work, the social media, the website, the retail presence -- we even named the product.

Except there was one thing the client wanted to handle directly: events. Instead of having us hire an event marketing company, the client wanted to work with that company directly.

We joined the client in briefing this partner. We walked its team members through the strategy. We showed them the creative. We told them the client wanted event ideas that were integrated into all of the other efforts the brand was doing.

The event marketing company came back with three ideas -- that had nothing to do with anything we showed them. On their own, they could have been great ideas. But they weren't on their own.

The client fired the company.

Adam Kleinberg is CEO of Traction.

On Twitter? Follow Kleinberg at @adamkleinberg. iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Closeup picture of businesspeople shaking hands" image via Shutterstock.

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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