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Where is search heading and
how can you stay ahead of the curve

As we all know, Search Engine Marketing (search) provides the highest return on investment for the marketing dollar when properly executed whether it be optimizing your site for top “natural” listing in the major search engines like Google or building a detailed paid search campaign to have your company found in the paid listings of MSN, Yahoo and Google. So, for those in the “know”, it’s no longer an argument of seriously investing in both organic and paid search, it’s more a matter of how to outpace your competition in the now hyper competitive space of Search Engine Marketing.

To outpace your competition means to have better information. To have better information means to look at the trends that will set the pace for the next 3 years, not just the next 3 months. So, that’s what we’ll look at--what are the trends to evaluate when it comes to the long-term and not just the quick hit.

Search as part of your strategy, not just another campaign

Search Engine Marketing is defined by search engine professionals as both the art and science of both organic and paid search. So, for many of us marketers, it was easier for us to ‘lump’ paid search into a campaign in our budgets and organic search as something that our IT department  or webmaster handles. It just made our lives easier. The major flaw in such an approach is that organic search and paid search are integrally intertwined. Moreover, there is a sound argument to be had that search has a major affect on all your marketing efforts.

When you run a paid search campaign, typically marketers/agencies are looking for click throughs, lead generation and sales. Campaigns are tweaked based on click through rates (CTR), lead generation per KWP and actual dollars coming from that search. Then on the organic side of search, we have our IT folks, and search agencies tweak the web site to best position for top rankings and success is measured, more or less, on obtaining those rankings. So, two different success criteria or key performance indicators(KPIs), as we like to call it, and two different mindsets evolve, neither of which gives the full picture.

The more forward looking marketers are looking well beyond these basics KPI’ to get a true sense of how their search efforts are affecting the business. They are looking at the buying life cycle; they are looking at engagement rates; they are looking at brand equity; they are looking offline integration; and overall, they are looking at how search affects their entire marketing strategy and not just as a campaign.

What constitutes a successful  search campaign? Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate how we measure success.   Let’s look at some of the top   trends that are driving success. So the first element we need to re-evaluate is how we measure success.

Look at the buying cycle

One commonly over-looked area is how the buying cycle affects search campaigns. When we look at the research at how customers purchase online (and off), there are a few glaring areas that stand out above the rest.

The more specific the Key Word Phrase the more likely the intent to purchase. For example, if I were in the market for a new Plasma TV and typed in “Plasma TV” into Google, I am most likely in the “research” phase of my buying cycle trying to learn more about the benefits of Plasma and so on. Now if I typed in “ 52” Sony Plasma TV” I am usually much further along in the sales process and know what type of Plasma I am looking for. Finally, if I type in “Best price on Sony Plasma TVs” I am assuredly looking to find a good deal. This is no different than our traditional buying cycle where any salesperson will tell you that someone who knows what he wants and asks about price is the most likely to buy. It’s the “looky-Loos” that drive us all crazy and there are plenty of those online.

Looking back to the Key Performance Indicators mentioned in the introduction, if we evaluated say “Plasma TV” in our paid search campaign and saw we had 10,000 click throughs last quarter and then looked back at our “52“ Sony Plasma TV” and saw only 1,400 we might believe that Plasma TV is more effective. If we had a little more patience, we’d look at how well the campaign led to an actual inquiry or sale. At that point it is more likely that the Click to Sale rate is much higher with the more descriptive KWP. So, which campaign is more successful? Many on the sales side would say the 1400 with a higher conversion rate. Brand marketers would say “Plasma TV” is better because of the awareness and brand leadership it drives. And in the end, both are right. So what it comes down to, is how well these campaigns are aligned with your overall marketing objectives. Are you looking for greater marketplace awareness and being known for a certain product or are you more concerned about sales as a result of marketing objectives? For most it’s a combination of both and in that, we need to look at bigger long-term metrics as we might find that “Plasma TVs” may drive more sales if we look beyond the initial intent to purchase.

KPI’s like, “engagement rate” help us to understand how well the site or landing page engaged the potential customer at that point in the buying cycle. Or look at the “life-time value” of that customer and how often he comes back for other similar purchases even if a sale did not happen at that particular point in the search. Finally, look at “brand awareness. Is your brand associated as leader in a particular category? Being atop major search engines organically has proven a much higher association with brand leadership than Google is validating (the old 3rd party validation) as a leader through their relevancy algorithm.

Budget for your customers not your agency

Stray usually starts from the point of origin. Direct and traditional marketing mindsets still plague the online space. There is no real scapegoat or finger to point. It’s just a matter of fact because so many of us have been educated in the traditional sense. For example, when we evaluate where to spend money and time, over 70% of our search budgets are spent on paid search; but less than 28% of our customers use paid search over organic listings. Why? Well because paid search is easier to quantify, easier to understand and easier to measure. It was very much like our paid placements in a magazine where if we spent $10,000, we knew we’d get 100,000 people looking at our ad based on readership. So, we need to start thinking about our budgets as it relates to customer preference and not what our agencies feel more comfortable with.

To summarize

Start by planning your search campaigns in relation to your overarching marketing strategy and not as a one-off “silo” strategy. Have the courage to spend the time to look at your customers buying behavior and their buying cycles. Partition your search efforts into how you want to effect each stage (Research through purchase) and how best to do that. Last, take a hard look at who and   how you are managing your search efforts. A fresh look and new perspective cannot hurt even if it just reassures you that you are on the right track.

About the author

Aaron Kahlow is Managing Partner for BusinessOnLine, a provider of search engine optimization and web site usability, strategy, planning, design and development services. He also is chair of the OnLine Marketing Summit conference.

©2008 BusinessOnline

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