May 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

10 secrets to paid search success

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One would think could sink a lot of money into the short keyword phrase “golf balls” and reap tremendous return on investment, but that is not the case, says Tom Cox, CEO of the web-only retailer. A shopper searching for golf balls, the e-retailer says, typically narrows the search, qualifying the term with factors such as brand, compression, distance, swing speed, dimple pattern and many others.

“So we go more narrow and more granular in our keyword buy,” he explains. “We buy phrases such as ‘buy Nike One golf balls.’ There are fewer bids on terms that are not so broad, and these are the ones that generate the greatest ROI.”

4. Making things clear

E-retailers want to generate lots of clicks to get more shoppers to their sites, no doubt. “So I get more clicks,” says Brian Elliott, CEO of Alibris Inc., “but search today is less about clicks and more about what happens next.”

Elliott has been concerned about ensuring shoppers who reach through paid search know exactly who the retailer is and how it operates.

“You don’t have just one front door, you have doors all around the web experience. Because of paid search a lot of traffic comes into the site a lot deeper in our user experience,” Elliott says. “If a shopper’s first experience with you is not your home page but a product page, you have to think about web site layout and easily communicate to shoppers what you are about.”

Alibris is a marketplace for sellers, not a stand-alone retailer. There are thousands of sellers, many of whom offer the same products. A shopper who hits an web page from paid search may be presented with the same product from five sellers. This can cause confusion for a shopper unfamiliar with Alibris.

So the seller of books, music and video created a graphic that succinctly explains Alibris. After A/B testing showed pages with the graphic lead to more conversions, it now places the graphic on its paid search landing pages.

“If you think we’re a typical retailer, seeing multiple listings of the same product without explanation won’t make sense,” Elliott says. “Now searchers see our graphic, and it clearly shows just what kind of marketplace we are.”

5. Kicking the tires

Tests make people nervous. From grade school through adulthood, most people get at least a few shivers when confronted by a test. But one search marketing firm says its retail marketer clients are getting more comfortable with tests.

“In the past, clients have been reluctant to test keywords and ad copy because they’ve been afraid their paid search results will suffer as they are going through the testing,” says Bavaro of “Today they’ve become very focused on driving improvement and growth through testing because with paid search prices continuing to increase they know they no longer can afford bad clicks.”

It’s all about bringing in “qualified users,” Bavaro says, because if searchers click on ads that are not relevant to them, they don’t buy, and return on investment suffers.’s clients have been pushing in new directions with testing, going beyond trying variations on written copy to measuring shoppers’ responses to special offers.

“Retailers have stretched testing into shipping values, promotions, special pricing,” Bavaro says. “Retailers have begun to think hard about what differentiates them from the competition. It’s become no different than trying to cut through the ad clutter on TV at 8 p.m. Paid search is not this ‘set it and forget it’ strategy; clients are becoming more sophisticated.”

6. Borrowing a brand

Paid search text ads can look very similar, so retailers need to make sure the copy in their ads is tantalizing and clearly differentiates them from competitors. But there’s also a way to include a graphical component with text ads that some retailers and search marketing firms say can boost clicks and conversion.

If a retailer using Google’s AdWords program implements Google Checkout for payment, Google will place, upon a retailer’s request, a tiny version of the Google Checkout logo with its paid search text ads.

“Google Checkout is phenomenally good for paid search,” says William Leake, founder and CEO of Apogee Search, of early tests. “There are so many paid search ads that look and read the same. So how do you stand out among the clutter? The Google Checkout icon pulls shoppers’ eyes in.”

Leake adds that smaller retailers can “borrow” Google’s brand appeal and trust to give shoppers more faith in an e-retailer with which they are unfamiliar.

“Consumers have a goofily high trust in Google-mainstream America has great adulation for the brand,” Leake says. “A Google icon is like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

Luggage Online is implementing Google Checkout specifically because it hopes the icon with its text ads will improve click-through and conversion rates from paid search.

“It doesn’t cost much, if anything, to add Google Checkout because of the credits they give when used in tandem with their AdWords program,” Jacobsen says. Google gives retailers $1 in AdWords credit for every $10 processed through Google Checkout. “So if it will improve the performance of our ads, it will be well worth it.”

7. Going brandless

Generally speaking, brand keywords perform better in paid search than non-brand, generic terms, many e-retailers and search marketing firms say. So why use generic terms?

New York & Company’s Wong puts faith in non-brand keywords because she feels they are part of the consumer research process that ultimately will lead a consumer to the fashion e-retailer’s site to make a purchase.

“Non-brand terms are at the beginning of the sales cycle in paid search and generate awareness for you,” she says. When New York & Company runs a non-brand paid search ad for white chino pants, for example, shoppers doing research see ads from the retailer and other merchants and learn about brands, prices, sales and other factors, she adds. Many then will search using brand keywords as they get deeper into their research, having determined the brand in which they’re most interested after the initial research phase using broader keywords.

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