Pay-per-click advertising (PPC) remains a leading online marketing tactic, despite increasing competition for keywords, rising click costs and fewer clicks due to the soft economy. Why?
- Ads display almost immediately.
- Ads appear when and where you want, are easy to implement and can get instant results.
- Ads reach your target audience (keyword selection, targeting, dayparting, etc.).
- Campaign effectiveness is measurable.
- ROI makes PPC advertising affordable.
Issues of ad quality, landing page quality, website functionality, product demand and inventory availability notwithstanding, PPC ads can start meeting your cash flow needs while paying for themselves at the same time.
To realize maximum benefits from PPC advertising, you should consider sources of traffic beyond first-tier search engines like Google and Yahoo. This article will explore the use of second-tier search engines, contextual search and vertical search, as these resources can increase marketing ROI through lower keyword prices, less competition and additional sources of traffic and conversions.
Google now gets more than 60 percent of U.S. search queries, and Yahoo gets about 20 percent; thus, the majority of searches originate on major engines. The top three (Google, Yahoo and Microsoft) are called first-tier engines because they deliver high traffic levels, good conversion rates and the best reporting tools.
Second-tier engines include the smaller niche, vertical and local search engines and directories that are not so well known or popular. These engines typically have less traffic than the majors but offer less competition for keywords and cheaper keyword prices. While second-tiers may get less traffic, even 1 percent of search market share can equal $100 million in revenue.
There are a number of pros and cons to advertising on second-tier search engines. Selecting the right second-tier for your search campaign is key to success, so it's important to investigate every angle, including the engine's user base and income level, reporting tools, campaign management tools and click fraud protection policy. Possible candidates should be tested for ROI before committing large sums of money.
Advantages of second-tier engines
The top benefits of second-tier search engines are as follows:
- Lower per-click costs
- Less competition for competitive keywords
- Highly targeted audiences
- Quick and easy ad copy testing
- High touch customer support
- Additional source of traffic and conversions
While the main advantage is cost, you can also get some great contextual and behavioral offerings for a fraction of what you might pay on first-tier engines. For example, if your target audience is NASCAR fans, you might try advertising on Kanoodle, where your ads appear on a network of search engines and other popular sites like CNET's Search.com and the InfoSpace properties, including Mamma, WebCrawler and Dogpile.
It is important to define your campaign objectives clearly on second-tiers, setting budget restrictions and a timeframe for determining campaign success.
Most second-tiers give you the option of pausing a campaign to take advantage of working hours or click volumes, which can be advantageous for smaller businesses. You can log into your PPC account in the morning, check the previous day's activities, turn on the accounts when you expect the bulk of inquiries and then pause the account when volumes taper off.
Disadvantages of second-tier engines
The top disadvantages of second-tier search engines are:
- Less traffic volume
- Lower conversion rates
- Lower traffic quality
- Higher click fraud potential
- Less powerful reporting tools
- Aggressive sales reps
The most frequent complaints are low traffic volume, low conversions and low-quality traffic. However, you can compensate for reduced traffic volume with a lower cost-per-conversion if traffic converts well, which happens when you test and select your best performers.
While a major concern on second-tiers has been click fraud, many now provide click fraud protection. For example, ABCSearch, 7Search, eZanga and many others offer anti-fraud technology with AdWatcher and Traffic Advisors.
Note that the disadvantages above do not apply to all second-tiers. Some provide robust reporting applications (e.g., Miva), while others provide great traffic and conversions (e.g., Business.com).
It is important to know what a second-tier's unique selling points are, and the best way to find out is to ask a sales rep. Stay away if they don't provide this information.
With so many second-tiers to choose from, it's important to select those that provide the best performance. Your task is to research, test and find the winners that deliver qualified leads and conversions. Ask questions like:
- What target audience do you serve?
- How do you define a click?
- Do you monitor and reimburse for click fraud?
- Do you give a signup bonus?
- Do you require a minimum deposit; if so, how much?
- Do you require a minimum spend; if so, how much?
- How many unique visitors do you get monthly?
- What are your visitor demographics?
- Do you have a content network; if so, can I opt out?
- Do you have pay-per-call, video or other ad options?
- How robust are your bid management and reporting tools?
- Do you have testimonials from people I can contact?
- How easy is it to reach an account manager?
After satisfying the above questions, use the tips below when planning and managing your campaigns.
- Campaign goals. State your campaign goals clearly. For example, you may want to focus your ads on selling products or services, promoting an event, gaining registrations or boosting exposure for your blog.
- Superior ad copy. Create relevant, emotional headlines to get top performance.
- Precise landing pages. Next to the ad itself, your landing page is crucial for success. Know where you want visitors to land and drive them to a very specific landing page that delivers on the promise of the ad.
- Demographics. Research the second-tier engine's audience and income levels.
- Budgeting. Limit your spend and determine ROI.
- Testing. Allocate a testing budget. Check conversions and ROI before making substantive commitments on second-tiers. The amount of your test budget will depend on company size, PPC budget, number of keywords and keyword competitiveness, etc. If your product or service is not too competitive, you might be able to test for $100 or less.
- Campaign management. Use campaign management and reporting tools to track your conversions and optimize your keywords, ad groups and campaigns. Check availability and flexibility of tracking tools on second-tiers.
- Click fraud. Research click fraud protection and reimbursement policies.
Note: The above questions and tips also apply to contextual and vertical search but are not repeated on the following pages.
Most search engines provide advertising on content networks, whereby your ad is displayed alongside content on partner sites for click-through to your landing page. Some second-tiers offer excellent content networks. For example, Business.com has a content network that includes Forbes, BusinessWeek, Hoovers, Financial Times and Entrepreneur -- excellent exposure for a business and finance target audience.
Another good example is MIVA, with a content network that includes both text ads and inline ads on a network of sites including CNET, InfoSpace and Search.com. This might work well if you are selling electronics, software or technical products and services.
There are many details to be aware of when it comes to content networks on second-tiers, so you must study the interface and know the rules. For instance, PPC campaigns are usually automatically opted into the content network on second-tier engines. So if you don't want contextual search, you must opt out.
Advantages of contextual search
Top advantages are lower click costs, less competition and targeted audiences. The cost advantage is greater because keywords on content networks cost less than those on search engines. While you might get fewer conversions, the campaign will likely yield a good ROI.
People spend more time on content sites than search engines. The exposure of your product and website in online content has high value, especially on popular sites. Visitors reading the content online already have a high degree of interest in the topic; thus, if your ad is relevant and catchy, users will likely click through to your site or bookmark it for later consideration.
You can get better visibility at lower cost with contextual search. Content ads are not as competitive as search engine ads because there is more click inventory on publisher sites than on search engine results pages (SERPs). You get less clutter, as content ads are usually displayed in groups of three or four, so your ads will stand out more than in the SERPs.
Disadvantages of contextual search
Content ads provide less traffic and lower conversions than search engine ads. Additionally, the click fraud potential is higher. If your contextual campaign is on second-tiers, the reporting and campaign management tools are not as robust as those provided by first-tier engines.
Conversion rates are lower for contextual search because sometimes ads appear on irrelevant pages and get bad clicks. Additionally, the ads may not distract attention from the site content. Issues of timing and readiness to buy are also a factor. Because contextual ads are displayed on publisher sites through the search network distribution system, they don't display as quickly as ads displayed directly in search results. That lowers conversion rates.
Prospects reaching your site from a search engine ad are likely ready to buy because they are actively searching keywords, looking for the products and services queried. However, prospects viewing your contextual ad are likely reading about a related topic. They might click through or bookmark, but are not likely to make a purchase.
Branding is a top marketing objective. It makes sense to use content ads for branding rather than direct response because of the audience's mindset. Users are not actively searching for your product or service but encounter your ad while reading related content. Therefore, contextual ads require different creative, keyword lists, landing pages, bidding strategies and ROI goals than ads on search engines because you are reaching more passive users at an earlier stage in the buying cycle.
Keyword selection is highly specialized. Rather than target keywords describing your brand, product or service, your list should include words that appear most frequently on the pages where you want your ads to appear.
Copy in your ads must stand out and distract with a clear call to action. Use special offers and promotions. Create a sense of urgency with time-sensitive appeals. Test and retest copy. Use your ads to leverage the interest built up through the content on the page.
Test search engine and contextual campaigns separately to adjust different campaign elements depending on performance. Develop competing contextual ads for different search engines to identify winners. Don't test before or during holiday shopping seasons, as results would be skewed.
Contextual advertising can expose your brand or product/service to thousands of prospects you might not otherwise reach, but careful crafting and testing is required for success.
Vertical search engines (VSEs) are specialized engines and directories providing search results from content databases related to a specific industry, geographic area or topical subject. Vertical search includes local search, topical search (e.g., travel, soccer, hobbies, etc.) and B2B industrial search. The information below refers to topical and B2B industrial search more than local search. For detailed information on local search, see "Strike business gold in local search."
As content on Google and Yahoo increases exponentially, it becomes more challenging to find relevant results in major search engines. In 2006, Outsell reported a 31.9 percent failure rate among business users when researching topics on general search engines. Since then, vertical search engines have increased in number and popularity. This makes VSEs an excellent venue for additional sources of traffic and conversions.
Advantages of vertical search
Vertical search can give you more leads for less money. As top ROI and positioning becomes harder to achieve on general search engines due to keyword competition, marketers get better rates on VSEs -- an excellent way to get brand exposure for attracting new clients.
If your product requires direct response, users searching on vertical engines are closer to making a purchase decision. VSEs frequently advertise on major search engines, bringing additional traffic and potential customers to your site.
Vertical search engines provide more advertising options than you'll find on general search engines. This includes banner ads, email blasts, sponsored placements, blog posts and industry newsletter ads.
Customer service is excellent on VSEs, and many provide help centers that take you through the online advertising process.
Users can reach highly targeted audiences in smaller databases that provide first-hand knowledge and information within the industry or niche.
Disadvantages of vertical search
Despite the advantages listed above, many VSEs fall short in attracting users. Why? Research from E-consultancy-Convera (2008) shows 38 percent of respondents don't always find a good vertical in their field, and 32 percent said vertical results were not comprehensive enough.
While 93 percent of respondents said they were "very" or "quite likely" to use a vertical in their field, the majority (91 percent) said they simply rely on major search engines. Only 7 percent admitted using a vertical engine several times a day. Interestingly, only 7 percent of respondents rated vertical results as "excellent" versus 27.5 percent that gave top marks to general search. It would appear vertical search needs to improve results as most respondents rated VSEs as "good" or "average."
As long as general search is good enough and online habits die hard, it is difficult to move most users beyond Google.
It is important to research the engine to ensure it actually targets your industry or niche. Ask about the size of the index (i.e., the number of product and service classifications). It is also important to test the site for ease of use. If you find it hard to use, chances are potential customers will, too.
Index size is a good indicator of success, as the larger the classification system, the more companies, products and services will be listed. User numbers are also higher with larger index sizes, making it more likely your ads will be seen.
You can find appropriate vertical engines for advertising your business in DMOZ, the Yahoo! Directory or NYPL.org. Once you develop a list of engines for your target audience, you can discuss your advertising options with an ad sales representative.
VSEs provide a variety of ad options, including PPC ads on the engine or the content network, cost-per-impression (fixed rate based on x-number of page views), cost-per-action (pay for conversions) and fixed fee (flat rate for specified actions). You can test the different options yourself or take the advice of a reputable VSE rep who can advise which options are best for your business.
There are many good paid search advertising opportunities on second-tier engines, content networks and vertical search engines. However, one must weigh the advantages and disadvantages in finding the best sources of alternate search traffic. Once you do your homework, the use of these ad vehicles can increase your marketing ROI with more visibility, lower keyword prices, less competition and more traffic and conversions.
Claudia Bruemmer is a freelance writer-editor and internet marketing consultant.