Search Marketing: The Rules of the Game

By David Singh, Paid Search Supervisor

I’ve been lucky to be in this industry long enough to see Search Marketing evolve. In 2002 no one knew anything about it outside of a few smart, dedicated (but geeky) website developers. In 2003 the first murmurs of a nascent industry were heard when Google launched AdWords – their game changing Paid Search program that would eventually help them become the Microsoft of the online world. In 2005 major ad agencies started to creep into the space and buy up pure search agencies – Paid Search was starting to go mainstream. Now it’s 2009 - the recession has lasted longer than we thought, and advertising expenditures are decreasing across the board. Executives are cutting back marketing budgets to most channels except for Search – we have become a force.

According to Forrester Research search marketing makes up more than half of all 2009 online marketing spend and is projected to hit 31 billion by 2015. While it remains to be seen just how much it will actually spend by then what is beyond doubt is that search attracts serious advertising investment, and because millions of people use it every day, search is at the heart of the online marketing industry, and ought to be a part of any serious marketing strategy. Therefore, there ought to be a serious inquiry into the science of it and its role in the greater context of marketing.

Based on my experience managing search campaigns over my professional career, I've developed a list of 10 overall rules that should always be taken into consideration as search campaigns are planned, launched, optimized and tested:

1. For search-only campaigns, volume is finite; traffic cannot be created nor destroyed.

Demand for a service cannot be created in search if the demand is not already there. Other marketing channels including display and offline marketing are necessary to drive awareness, with search assisting to capture the new demand. Similarly, demand cannot be destroyed through search vis-à-vis protests or attempts to discredit another brand.

The takeaway: Search, being an active medium, requires the users to already be aware of, have an interest in, or desire for, a product or service. Thus, search is not the best venue for completely new verticals or very niche verticals that drive very little demand. For instance if you wanted to market a methane powered bicycle that can fly, there is probably not enough demand in your industry where you can have just a pure paid search campaign – you might want to start with TV and press releases.

However for verticals that already drive much demand – for instance car insurance – search can drive higher awareness by having high visibility on the keywords that drive research or upper funnel traffic.

As traffic cannot be spontaneously created (at least not in large enough volume to justify cost), nor can it be destroyed by attempts to discredit brands, it always fails in the long term, for the same reasons why awareness that was not already there cannot be created.

2. In order to capture conversions -- that is sales or leads -- another competitor must lose conversions.

The takeaway: No one likes to lose sales. You take away sales you better believe that they know you did it. Be aware of competitors' movements and changes in their messaging, and predict their tactics -- such as day parting -- and move against them. Also, be wary of the barriers to entry; the lower the costs, the more precarious your position.

3. All verticals mature; barriers for new entrants will be high and the cost to compete can be prohibitive, especially for smaller accounts or those with poor brand awareness.

The takeaway: Verticals like online dating, consumer electronics and travel have matured, leaving a few major players with dominate positions in the space. The same thing will happen to all major verticals. Although it is difficult to penetrate mature verticals, it's nowhere near impossible; it just takes a different strategic approach to slowly capture share or to create a niche.

4. Costs will always rise; testing will separate the players from the pretenders.

The takeaway: Test, test, test! Test keywords, creative, landing pages and a combination of all three. The higher the conversion rate, the higher the cost we can afford to pay.

5. The brand name will always be under attack from other brands for mind share.

The takeaway: Protect your brand by bidding on it, and keep messaging consistent with your other marketing channels.

6. Human intelligence will always be central to the success of any campaign.

The takeaway: As advanced as some tools are these days, they are no match for one highly trained search marketer. Humans can anticipate, react and understand a dynamic marketplace much better than any program. We can see nuance in data to find opportunities that even the most advanced bid optimization A.I. can't even begin to see. I would take a small team of search marketers over any tool on any day of the week and win.

7. Search enhances other marketing channels and vice versa.

The takeaway: We all know the famous Atlas and Yahoo! studies that show search lifts display by a whopping 400 percent and display lifts search by almost 20 percent, but it works with other forms, too. In many cases, I’ve seen how run-of-TV advertising has increased traffic to brand keywords, and what email marketing can do for conversions.
Search does not exist in a vacuum; outside forces affect it and search has its own force to the outside world. Search can be very strong by itself, but can be even better as a robust part of a greater marketing mix.

8. Not all traffic is created equal; it is about quality not quantity. Get the quality right and the quantity will come.

The takeaway: The volume is there, it's about getting the most qualified traffic. This means taking the time to carefully select the keywords discovered in the research phase that properly convey the intent of the user, then further qualifying them by using filters such as negatives, and finally, having targeted creative and sending users to relevant landing pages. By getting the best quality traffic possible, it enables us to afford higher positions so that we can gain even more quality traffic, and gaining much more volume in the process than if we try to get volume first.

9. Search is an active medium.

The takeaway: I know I've mentioned this many times but it bears repeating: It is the users who drive this industry, not the other way around. We tailor our marketing programs to them.

10. The user comes first. Always.


dgould said...

Great set of rules, although not sure I completely agree with #2. Assuming it's not a search-only campaign as mentioned in your point #1, you can drive more search volume through other marketing efforts and thus increase your the number of conversion opportunities not necessarily at your competitons expense.

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