February 28, 2006, 12:00 AM

Beyond the bid

The creative copy in search engine results can make or break a search campaign.

Frye boots were a hot item among fans of footwear fashion last fall and winter-one good reason for savvy Internet shoe retailers to bid on that brand name during the season in paid search keyword campaigns. In fact, so many bid on Frye boots that competition was stiff to get shoppers’ attention and stand out from a crowd of search listings.

Yet for SimplySoles.com, a small online retailer of designer women’s shoes, a paid search campaign for “Frye boots” was a winner, generating a 50% increase in conversions after the company made a critical change to its campaign.

That change? It wasn’t more money for a higher keyword position on search engines. In fact, the campaign, newly managed for the season by search marketing firm MoreVisibility.com Inc., actually cost SimplySoles less per click than when it had managed its own search campaigns, while producing better results.

Instead, SimplySoles and MoreVisibility looked to a side of search that some online

marketers underestimate: the ad copy. Between what can become a bidding frenzy to secure top position under coveted keywords on Google or Yahoo and complaints over the rising cost of keywords, search marketing companies say it bears remembering that success is not all about the bid. The language in a paid ad listing also critically affects click-through and ROI.

Simple and bold

MoreVisibility altered the copy in SimplySoles’ paid listing to something shorter, punchier and more directly relevant to the targeted audience. “Rather than include a lot of details, they made a simple and bold statement that caught customers’ attention,” says Rebeccah Sensenbrenner, SimplySoles general manager.

Under that rationale, the earlier ad copy became “Boots Shoe of the Season-The ‘Must Have’ Boots of the Season From Pucci, Frye, Miss Sixty & More.”

Another product from SimplySoles, the CozyChic robe, experienced similar improvements in search results when MoreVisibility pumped up its ad copy to “CozyChic Robe-Pamper Yourself With the Luxurious CozyChic Robe By Barefoot Dreams.”

MoreVisbility further optimized the campaigns by rotating different versions of the new ad listings on the engines for several weeks, and then building information on their comparative performance into the campaigns going forward.

“MoreVisibility has educated me to the fact that fewer words often have more impact and that I should not be afraid to use bold adjectives in our campaigns,” Sensenbrenner says.

While many search marketing companies and their clients have focused on automated bidding technology to reduce the labor in managing pay-per-click spending, those automated agents tackle only part of what makes an effective search campaign, says Danielle Leitch, executive vice president of client strategy at MoreVisibility. “It’s a small piece of the pie,” she says. “In reality, the creativity behind the campaign can be much more influential.”

Paid listings operate in a constrained format: Yahoo in January trimmed the 190 characters it formerly allowed for paid search listings to 70 characters, or two lines of 35 characters each including spaces and punctuation (though that doesn’t apply to ads it distributes to partner sites). Google’s paid listings, AdWords, allow 25 characters in the headline and 35 in the second line.

“When you are limited to a very short amount of space, you have to be very concise in describing what you are providing, then also offer them something compelling to make them want to go to your site and learn more about it,” says Charles Chin, senior associate of Google’s vertical operations for retail. For a retailer, for example, that could take the form of an ad that says, “Limited-time 15% off offer.” Says Chin, “That’s a promotional offer that conveys time sensitivity and therefore the idea that you want to act now.”

But getting a call to action into the listing is only half the battle; it had better be specific, too. A listing for a flower retailer that says “Worldwide delivery service guaranteed to get there in time for your event,” simply describes some features of the service. “A more specific message would be, ‘New York flowers, delivered to you within 24 hours.’ It’s a specific geography and a specific time frame,” says John McAteer, head of Google Retail.

Other basic best practices include loading into the listing as early as possible a brand name and information on pricing, promotions or anything that underscores a competitive position, says Diane Rinaldo, director of the retail category for Yahoo Search Marketing.

Finding a copywriter

With the ever-increasing popularity and competitiveness of search marketing, writing for search has evolved into a specialty among copywriters-although there aren’t many practitioners yet. “Do a search for copywriters on the Internet, and you’ll probably find people who have a lot of experience in doing ad copy for print,” says Cliff Koraska, COO of online exercise equipment retailer Smoothfitness.com. “You probably won’t find 50 that do ad copywriting specifically for the Internet.”

Karon Thackston, whose company, Marketing Words, has a sub-specialty in copywriting for search engines, uses best practices from the search engines and has developed insights of her own as well. She starts creating pay-per-click listings by trying out the searched term in the headline of the listing, a proven technique for pulling the searcher’s eye into the ad, though sometimes, she says, “forcing that in will take up more space than you have.”

Thackston says she’s also learned to look at what a client’s competitors are doing in paid search. If there’s a trend, she weighs going in the other direction. “If the entire column of Google AdWords advertisers is using the search phrase in their headline, then you want to do the opposite because you want to stand out,” she says.

A frequent error she sees in writing for paid search is ads that are too broadly written in an effort to snare more clicks. They can end up backfiring because they attract too many clicks that won’t convert, unnecessarily burning through the marketing budget. A better strategy, says Thackston, is to qualify clicks with “deal breaker” copy in the listing. “If you say, ‘Luxury Mexico Cruise, 2/6,’ people not available to leave on that date won’t click your ad. You’re giving detailed information that would entice the right visitors and helps prevent people who were just looking from clicking your ad and running up your tab,” she says.

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