May 31, 2011, 5:28 PM

Feed the Panda

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A 'statistical ninja'

E-retailers that manage search marketing in-house say they like having hands-on experts dedicated only to their business. Motorcycle gear e-retailer evaluated several search marketing vendors before deciding to hire one full-time "statistical ninja" search engine marketing manager, says co-founder Anthony Bucci. He says the manager's focus is on statistics, paid search and the motorcycle retail category.

"It takes more effort to find the right people, but we like to micro-manage certain elements of the business that we fundamentally understand," Bucci says. He notes he and his business partners had years of e-commerce and search marketing experience prior to launching RevZilla in 2007, and they keep up with the latest news about search marketing.

Still, he admits bottlenecks arise during busy times and the firm has considered engaging search vendors. "It's much harder for us to quickly throw more bandwidth at an internal team compared with an agency, which can simply add additional skilled resources to the effort temporarily." He says he'd consider hiring outside help during busy periods if they were willing to work on-site. "We like to have the operational management of key processes and their functional teams working within closer proximity than a phone call," he says. "Things just move too fast daily to add an extra barrier to communication."

Keeping pace

But it was fast growth that led flash-sale e-retailer to outsource its search marketing two years ago, says Dan Kirchgessner, director of online advertising. The retailer, which offers limited-time online deals, found its internal marketing team stretched thin managing e-mail marketing, display ads and affiliates. At a time when consumers were flocking to online flash sales, ideeli decided hiring an outside firm was the best way to acquire the skills and resources it needed to achieve its primary goal—attracting new members quickly.

"Hiring an agency had to do with scale and efficiency," he says. Plus, it was hard to estimate the cost of managing search in-house. "You have to pick technology tools from different vendors and make them work together. Then you have to manage all of those tools," he says.

Ideeli selected search firm Elite SEM and made clear from the beginning its goals and how it would measure performance, Kirchgessner says. The primary goal remains to attract new subscribers, and he says the vendor has done its job. Ideeli now has approximately 4 million members, up from fewer than 500,000 when it hired Elite SEM.

Kirchgessner discusses results each week during a scheduled hour-long call with Elite, and looks for surprises. If there's a spike in revenue from searches for "red pumps," for example, he and the vendor evaluate if it is a fluke or an opportunity to promote red pumps in other ways, such as by e-mail.

At, Lieberman supervises his search marketing vendors and tracks spend, clicks and revenue. Lieberman, who managed paid search himself from the time he launched One Way Furniture Inc. in 2001 until 2006, keeps Google's webmaster guidelines handy and reviews them often.

Knowledgeable clients, and good relationships with them, make it easier for a search vendor to do its job, says Leake of Apogee Results. "The more time you spend reviewing, the less time you spend doing," he says. "If a client is comfortable with what you are doing, you can focus on playing the game rather than sitting in the locker room talking about it."

Search marketing is too important for e-retailers to sit on the sidelines. And, whether a retailer handles search itself or relies on a vendor, someone on the retailer's staff had better know the rules.

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