August 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

All Together Now

Mark Simon of Didit tells how to sync search campaigns with what`s in the warehouse.

Imagine the following scenario. You run an online shoe store. A major movie star walks down the red carpet wearing what, until now, was your worst-selling pair of shoes. She tells the world how much she loves those shoes, and how much she loves that brand. Suddenly, everyone is looking to buy that shoe.

Since you do sell that shoe (even if until now it’s been a poor-selling item), you already advertise on search engine keywords around that brand. When those shoes hit the red carpet, hordes of searchers click your search ads and arrive at your site-hoping to look like a star.

But because those shoes are normally a poor-selling item, you’re not well stocked with them. As searchers pour in, your stock depletes. Soon, searchers will continue to arrive while you’re out of product. You’re on the verge of paying enormous sums for search clicks that invite your ideal, conversion-ready customers-only to alienate them once they learn that you don’t have what your search ads promised to deliver.

We live in a fast-paced world. All kinds of information presented in search marketing can drive all kinds of people to your web site. Unfortunately, you can’t stand watch over your warehouse 24/7-and so you don’t always have time to respond when your search traffic and your warehouse inventory don’t match up. And if your search campaign can’t respond to your actual inventory levels, your business could suffer.

It’s not just under-stocking that can cause a search headache, either. Sometimes, you suddenly need to get a lot more traffic into your store-for an offline example, think of the ice cream store whose freezer breaks down in July. In an ideal world, you’d be able to run enough advertising to recoup the loss on your melting ice cream, even when you’re not actually aware that your freezers have hit a snag. By the same token, you’d like to be able to raise your search marketing spend and sell off excess inventory whenever there’s an emergency need, even if you aren’t aware of the need just yet. To do that, though, your inventory needs to communicate with your search campaign, with the inventory telling the search software when you’re overstocked.

Fortunately, there are technologies that allow your search marketing campaigns to sync with your inventory levels-to tell your right hand what your left hand is doing, so to speak. Increasingly, search marketers are applying software that knows how to:

1. Stop search bidding for items that have gone out of stock entirely.

2. Reduce bids-and thereby reduce traffic-on items that are nearly out of stock.

3. Boost bids-and thereby boost traffic-on items with excess inventory.

Of course, these systems still aren’t for everyone. Retailers must bear the costs, face the operating challenges and hire the personnel required to manage them. To understand if this kind of solution is right for you-and how to get things started if it does sound appealing-you need to understand how this type of system really works and what’s involved in getting it off the ground.

Beyond the dashboards

To understand what search/inventory syncing really entails, we need to start at the place where we typically communicate with the search engines-the ad dashboards. Those are the web interfaces that allow advertisers to control their search campaigns, and to get reporting on how their campaigns are doing at any given time.

The engine dashboards will provide you with the right tools for a great deal of what you want to achieve through paid search. To varying degrees, the dashboards can help you manage keywords and bid prices, optimize creative, geo-target customer prospects, turn search ads on or off by time of day, and even track conversions.

But while the search engine ad dashboards are wonderful search marketing tools, they only scratch the surface in terms of what the engines can actually offer. That’s because the ad dashboards aren’t really a part of the search engines’ advertising technology. They’re more like translators.

People and search engines, of course, don’t use the same kind of language to communicate. If you want to communicate your needs to the search engines, you need some kind of translator/intermediary. That translator will understand your request, then convey that request to the search engines. The search engine ad dashboards serve in that translation role.

Even the best translators, however, have trouble conveying ideas from time to time. The engines’ search advertising dashboards are no different. Among other things, there’s no way for you to tell the ad dashboard to tell the search engine to change your bids based on your current inventory levels.

Speaking search language

But if you know how to speak in the search engines’ language, you can talk to the search engine directly, sidestepping the dashboards entirely. That’s made possible through the engines’ application programming interfaces, or APIs, which each of the three biggest engines allows advertisers to use. The Google AdWords API, for instance, uses SOAP, or Simple Object Access Protocol, which lets developers write AdWords applications in a wide range of languages, including Java, .Net, Perl, PHP, Python, OCAML, Ruby and XML.

And if you can talk to the engines in their own language, you can tell them exactly what you need them to know-including how you need to change bidding based on back-end inventory counts.

Of course, you can only make use of the application programming interfaces if you can program software in one of the languages I’ve mentioned above, or any similar programming language. But most people can’t program in those languages. Even fewer people can program in those languages particularly well, and few organizations have the resources to build out their own fully fledged search marketing software system-which is exactly what you need to do if you’re going to run your search campaigns via the APIs, without the help of the software the ad dashboards already provide.

That’s why most advertisers who want to work through the APIs turn to search marketing firms that have already built out their own search advertising systems and can provide the programming smarts and internal resources to continue building software as needs arise.

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