Learning Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Wikipedia defines Search Engine Marketing as a form of Internet marketing that seeks to promote websites by increasing their visibility in the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).

I could go into the technicalities of SEM, algorithms, robots, etc. However, if you’re reading this article, you probably aren’t interested in me stuffing a bunch of technical terms down your throat. You would rather learn about search engine marketing and how it can bring you more business.

I chose this topic today based on a couple of conversations I recently had with new clients.

One of our clients had embarked on a small ad campaign with Yahoo before coming to us. He mentioned that when he was spending the money on Yahoo, the traffic to his site was much higher. When I asked how many sales he garnered from the advertising, he replied that he didn’t know. Website traffic and conversions to sales are two completely different things, with the latter obviously being more important. It’s crucial to keep track of your ROI (Return on Investment), if you are going to invest in online advertising. Make sure that you have the tools within your company-whether it’s your own database for tracking sales, or another form of tracking system-before you spend your first marketing dollar.

Another conversation I had with a client involved a Google AdWords campaign. He was bidding using every keyword under the sun. He had a huge CTR (Click Through Rate), but again, nobody was buying. At the end of the day, his budget was gone and he didn’t have anything to show for it besides lots of traffic and an empty bank account. Until I explained to him that he was paying for people to come to his site and quickly leave, he didn’t “get it”. Having the right keywords in your campaign and your ad copy, that are relevant to your product or service, will get you qualified click through to your site. You don’t want people to click on your ad, only to find that your site doesn’t offer the information they were looking for, and leave immediately. That will cost you wasted dollars each and every time they do that.

My advice to our clients is to, first and foremost, invest time on SEO. As long as you are engaging in honest practices, and not trying to fool the “Big 3”, the benefits will far outweigh the time you spend. If you can afford to hire a reputable firm, all the better! Please be aware that there are self-professed “SEO Experts”, who claim they can get you to the top of the SERPs, guaranteed. Any company representative who spews this line at you is most likely just out to take your money. Check them out thoroughly. Conduct an online search on their company, and don’t just stop at the first few pages of the results-dig deep to discover if they are reputable or not. Check with the Better Business Bureau or other consumer watchdog organization. Reputable firms won’t guarantee top placement, but they will give you realistic projections of how they can help you improve your placement results.

Until you really have all the pieces in place, it’s best not to engage in a pay per click campaign. Remember that it takes testing, monitoring and tweaking, as well as a significant amount of your time, before you will see any benefits.

I’ll start with my own experience:

A few years ago, the company I worked for ventured into a rather large PPC (Pay Per Click) campaign. We hired an expert, had all the tracking tools in place and launched a campaign to knock out our competition and drive traffic to our site; paying close attention to our sales funnel and expecting to convert our “browsers” into “buyers”. In addition to our PPC campaigns, we also hired a SEO (Search Engine Optimization) firm to help us with the natural results. Natural results are the result of traffic coming to your site outside of paid links directing it in. It should be noted that we had all the puzzle pieces in place and spent time on the following:

1. Analyzing the results from the analytics

2. A/B testing of different landing pages

3. Closely monitoring the PPC campaigns

4. Adjusting our ad copy and landing pages based on our conversion rate

We hired top firms for both the “paid” and “natural” campaigns, as well as an expert to oversee both of the campaigns. Without getting into the numbers here, (and believe me they were big), the end result was as follows:

1. We spent a large amount of money getting traffic to our website via the pay campaigns. The increased traffic did result in increased sales, however – the results made each sale a VERY expensive one, and not really worth the money that was spent on the marketing campaign. In short, our ROI (Return On Investment) was in bad shape.

2. We spent 80% less on the SEO campaign, which took longer, but garnered results that are still driving traffic to the website to this day.

In the end, we spent a ton of money getting traffic to our website which did not result in sales, and we learned several valuable lessons. In addition, we did suspect throughout our campaigns several instances of fraudulent PPC activity. Unethical companies will engage in this practice by hiring offshore companies at ridiculously low rates to click on their competitors’ ads. These companies use various IP addresses to avoid detection. The idea is to exhaust a competitor’s budget before legitimate click through and potential sales can occur. When we reported suspected PPC fraud, some clicks were refunded via ad credits (Yahoo!) and some could not be proven and were not refunded (Google). The best advice I have for companies on a small budget is to work on your natural search results via search engine optimization, and use various other forms of advertising, such as placing a print ad, and perhaps a nice banner ad (where you pay per month, not per click) on a relevant site. Later, when your marketing budget has grown, you can branch out into other forms of media, such as local radio or television.

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