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Search marketing requires advanced techniques to be successful

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The advent of search marketing has brought with it a skill set that's been in high demand lately, but there are only so many skilled people available. As a result, we're seeing some doubling up of staff responsibilities within marketing teams, which is less indicative of a lousy economic climate than it is of a paucity of skilled, available search experts. But that doesn't mean that search is going to be less important in the future. My experience, together with anecdotal evidence and our own research, tells me that marketers appreciate the ability to track every cent to every click. With search's inherent accountability, you really know where you stand day to day. Compared with TV or even display ads, search heavily supports lead generation and direct conversion. Search marketing offers a safe haven for marketers and advertisers that already are pushed by the recession to meet aggressive ROI goals. Search is comfort food for them and, as a result, they are intent on maximizing their search budgets. Aiding this is the fact that it's easy to set up a paid search campaign, faster than any other marketing program. But as a company grows, it can become more difficult to continue down this path exclusively. At some point, you hit the top of the ROI curve, and thus it becomes much more difficult to maximize value. One factor impacting this ROI slowdown in search is its incredible competitiveness, due to the low cost of entry. It can start off easily, but can get complicated quickly. To combat this, there are advanced tactics that are underused by marketers, including A/B tests to optimize landing pages, and multivariate testing with additional variables at play for that same purpose. Only 10% of paid-search marketers are using A/B testing, and just 4% are using multivariate testing. These advanced methods offer the savviest marketers a competitive edge in an environment where it's easy to lose money very quickly. Especially with Google, your ads can become a fire hydrant of traffic if you turn it on and don't know how to manage the flow. It can bust your monthly budget pretty quickly—in days if not hours. If you're not savvy and graduate to the more advanced tactics, you can find your ROI diminishing rapidly, even after realizing some early successes. In addition to mastering the advanced skill sets of search marketing, it's essential to become savvy about all channels. For example, we know that display ads affect search. That last click often gets 100% of the credit for a sale, but there are certain impressions and brand value in customers' minds that determine final purchase decisions. If you're a pure lead-gen company or you have a finite budget, search is a wonderful first foray for grabbing leads and getting sales. We've seen millions of mom-and-pop businesses born and survive on Google alone. But larger companies with lots to spend across all kinds of channels need to use a multiplicity of programs, including direct marketing, display and offline together with online marketing and search to be successful. Since search here is just one component on an overall marketing effort, it's essential to have advanced analytics about the other ingredients to know how each aspect of the marketing campaign is affecting conversion. This can be particularly important when it comes to b-to-b companies, which do not encourage compulsive buying decisions, and which require advanced analytics to manage the leads that come in. B-to-b marketers have to be very sophisticated in attributing what happens offline to online success (and vice versa), with more advanced data tracking that measures everything that led to a purchase. If b-to-b marketers don't do that and only look at impressions and clicks, they'll be operating in a two-dimensional world. Assuming the economy stays where it is and doesn't get much worse, paid search can continue its healthy ascent; if the recession lasts longer than past examples, search growth may flatten. Nevertheless, there is a continual shift in marketing dollars from offline to online, and to search specifically because of its great ROI. With that, and with dollars flowing away from other programs to search, many companies' marketing foundations today consist of search and search alone. But as I've said, that can be both a good thing or not, depending on the skill that marketers bring to the search table. Evan Andrews is an interactive marketing analyst at Forrester Research. He can be reached at eandrews@forrester.com.
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