May 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

10 secrets to paid search success

Search marketing is more competitive than ever. Retailers must stay on top of the latest techniques if they are going to spend their search money wisely.

By Bill Siwicki

Paid search keeps e-retailers on their toes because the rules are constantly changing. Just when a marketer thinks he’s nailed it, the search engines throw a monkey wrench into the works by changing the way they operate, costs per click jump, or keyword performance mysteriously drops. The concept of paid search may be easy to grasp, but operating a program on a daily basis is anything but easy.

“Search engines are constantly changing their algorithms-you can be on top one day, they change something, and then you’re not even listed,” says Steven Broussard, marketing director at Golfballs.com Inc.

Broussard knows this well. Golfballs.com experienced a huge spike in performance of search keywords through MSN’s search engine in April. Click-throughs on numerous terms shot up dramatically, the e-retailer says.

“Then they died off and traffic through MSN now is back to the same as it was before the spike,” he says. “We didn’t really change anything, so we’ve been looking at how MSN has been working to try and figure this out.”

Broussard is smack in the middle of learning a lesson he hopes will reap rewards with MSN, Google and Yahoo in future. It is imperative that e-retailers treat paid search marketing as a constant learning experience, search experts say.

Here are 10 lessons and tips from retailers and search engine marketing firms with years of experience and stories to tell.

1. Cleaning up

Proofing keywords and ad copy may be one of the basics, but it’s more important than ever, in large part because costs per click continue to increase.

Online marketing consulting firm PayingAttention.net reports cost per click for Google, Yahoo and MSN on average rose between 10 cents and 15 cents between June 2007 and January 2008. And search marketing firm NetElixir reports cost per click for Google increased on average from 92 cents to $1.18 from Q1 2006 to Q1 2008 for five representative retailer clients. The bottom line: It makes no sense to pay for search ads that are inaccurate or off the mark.

For example, when Luggage Online Inc. in January began receiving keywords its new search marketing firm proposed it should buy, the phrase “Samsonite bags” stood out.

“Samsonite is luggage, not bags,” says vice president of e-commerce Tim Jacobsen of the category-specific term. He says the vast majority of buyers looking for Samsonite are quite savvy when it comes to luggage and would enter “luggage,” not “bags.” Problems found when proofing keywords, he adds, typically are along these lines-when a word that qualifies another, in this case “bags” qualifying “Samsonite,” is not appropriate. Keep in mind, he suggests, that search marketing firms face a learning curve, just as e-retailers do.

When Luggage Online began working with the search marketing firm, NetElixir Inc., it created a proofing process in house to help ensure errors do not slip through. NetElixir sends a spreadsheet that contains all keywords and ad copy to Jacobsen and he or a marketing staff member reviews the contents to ensure keywords and copy are accurate and on the money.

And then there’s the sheer size of many paid search programs. The sum total of keywords and creative content can be so vast that e-retailers must have a strong quality assurance process in place, advises Gerry Bavaro, vice president of client services at search marketing firm Didit.com LLC.

“You have to have people trained in the best practices of writing,” Bavaro says. “Quality assurance in paid search starts with individuals who are writing copy and keywords, and they must be given time to review their work. They then move material to a manager, who proofs it all. And if an e-retailer employs a search marketing firm, the firm’s staff must then do a review. And when ad copy goes up, we have individuals who perform standard daily monitoring of creative and search results.”

2. Seeking input

What’s the difference between pedal pushers and crop pants? Give up? It’s a trick question-none.

However, the two apparel terms recently proved a little tricky for Amy Wong, marketing manager, e-commerce, at women’s apparel and accessories retailer New York & Company. She stresses the importance of seeking input on keywords and ad copy from others within and outside a retail organization.

“I’m new to the fashion industry-I didn’t know the term pedal pusher, though I knew crops. If I had been short-sighted I would have just had crops as a keyword, and I would have lost pedal pushers,” Wong says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for critiques. I ask peers and friends, some who are serious shoppers and some who are not. It’s important to get various views, including from people of different ages to ensure you’re not missing something due to the generation gap.”

Similarly, Wong says input from others can ensure a retailer has all the bases covered when it comes to variations on a theme.

“Dresses is a very broad keyword. So you have to break a broad keyword out into many relevant permutations,” she says. “Black mini-dresses, prom dresses, sun dresses-consumers are getting more savvy with search, and one order can make the difference on breaking even for a campaign.”

3. Stretching phrases

NetElixir just completed a study on paid search based on data from five retailer clients and found the average length of a keyword phrase has gone up from 2.05 to 2.28 words. One-word keywords in Q1 2006 accounted for 17% of all sales through paid search; this decreased to 13% in Q1 2008. For the same periods, two-word keywords dropped from 56% to 50%, three-word keywords jumped from 22% to 31%, and four-word keywords increased from 2% to 4%.

“Consumers are getting more evolved in trying to refine their searches,” says Udayan Bose, founder and CEO of NetElixir, “and there are common tools e-retailers can use to capitalize on how consumers are searching.”

Bose says e-retailers can use web analytics to study phrases shoppers enter in site search to help determine the best phrases for paid search.

“Site search results can help e-retailers refine their multiple keyword paid search strategies to increase sales,” he says. The more words a searcher uses the more likely he is to convert, because more words means the searcher knows what he is looking for and is more likely to buy, he contends.

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