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The keys to keywords

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Without good research and best practices, paid search can be a little like an exercise in mind-reading: You have to figure out what your customer or prospect seeks and be in the right place at the right time. Still, there's never been a better time to advertise on search engines, if you know what you're doing. Here are some tips that can get you started or strengthen your existing search engine marketing program.

Don't skip the basics. It sounds so simple, but Rachel Lyubovitsky, VP of paid search company Searchfeed.com, said it's often overlooked: Make sure you're buying words that are tied to what you do. That means your company name, branded names of products and services, and terms that portray what you do should be on your to-buy list.

Another basic: Watch log files to see which search engines are referring your site via organic search and which keyword tags they're picking up from your site. Then, buy those words or phrases for your paid search efforts. This is especially significant because research shows that buying placement on a word that you already own organically can boost the chances of someone clicking through, said Bill Hunt, co-author of "Search Engine Marketing Inc.: Driving Search Traffic to Your Company's Website."

And don't forget to tap your search engine's internal resources, too, such as keyword generators or a senior consultant at the company who can review your program and, in some cases, make suggestions.

Pay attention to your competition. Your first stop: their Web site meta tags. While this information is designed to boost organic search results, chances are the company is also bidding on at least some of the terms for paid search campaigns.

Keep in mind, however, that the competition may not necessarily be doing the right thing, Hunt said. "Look at what your competitors are doing but with a disclaimer that, even if it's a big company, they might be idiots," he said.

Ask your customers what they are thinking. Advertisers have been running focus groups and doing A/B tests for decades in the offline world. Interactive agencies mimic this strategy when it comes to banner ads and even e-mail marketing, but not everyone is doing the same when it comes to online search.

They should be, said Bill Barnes, VP-sales & marketing at Enquiro Search Solutions. "It's not just what they're typing in when they are searching for something," Barnes said. "When they type in `digital camera,' what thoughts go along with that phrase? Semantic research is important. Matching the thoughts that go along with the phrase is just as important."

Remember, words don't stand alone. Look at any paid search result. It's not a single word or phrase. Instead, it's one or two sentences that is either a description or an offer. Ad copy should change depending on where in a sales cycle you are, said David Herscott, managing director of interactive agency MEA Digital. Earlier in the sales cycle, you'll want to build awareness of the product using branding words and strong descriptions such as `new,' `latest' or `best.'

"Toward the end [of the sales cycle], you want to include a strong call to action, such as `free shipping' or `200% off,' " he said.

At all times you should be looking at your competitors' ad copy. If they are offering a free white paper, your message should be as compelling.

•  Look for the missed opportunities. Your customers are giving you clues about which words they associate with your brand or products every day. It happens every time they do a search on your site, Hunt said.

You can also get clues from analysts, news reports, market intelligence and white papers. Try running a white paper about your industry through a site content analysis tool such as Oxford WordSmith Tools or ClickTracks Optimizer. This will give you a list of words your industry peers are using to describe your business.

Also, consider buying misspellings, jargon terms and descriptive phrases that include colors or other adjectives, Lyubovitsky said.

Think about seasonality. A word that works during the summer may do pitifully in November, said Bill Tancer, VP-research for online intelligence firm Hitwise. Hitwise offers a service that can track the popularity of a specific word or phrase, but you can do your own analysis by tracking how well certain words do historically. If you're not thinking about seasonality, Tancer said, you may miss an opportunity.

Don't get hung up on dollars and cents. If you want to own your category, there are some words for which you may have to overpay," Hunt said. "These are what I call `gold words,' words that are the epitome of your company and must-win words," he said. "They are always running, and you should be in the market almost regardless of cost."

Rather than looking at cost when thinking about your other word purchases, look at your click-to-lead (CTL) ratio-how many people are converting out of every 100 clicks, Herscott said.

"The reason we like CTL is because the marketplace is so dynamic. The average cost-per-click might change daily and the average cost-per-lead might change, too," he said. "But click-to-lead is a constant that you can use for forecasting."

That said, be aware of how much each lead costs and compare it with your profit margin. "Once you know your threshold, you know how to bid to keep costs at an acceptable level," Herscott said.

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