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HOW-TO STORIES FROM THE SEARCH-ENGINE TRENCHES

Conference Attendees Show Keen Interest in Search Ad Agencies

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- One of the most common queries heard throughout this week's Jupitermedia Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo was, "How does an online marketer know when it is time to retain the services of an outside search-engine advertising agency?"
This year's Search Engine Strategies conference brought 1,500 attendees to the New York Hilton -- the largest turnout in the annual event's six-year history.
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And one the most common answers offered by the search engine marketing (SEM) veterans gathered at the four-day event at the New York Hilton was this: "As soon as you start asking that question."

Largest turnout ever
The annual event drew about 1,725 marketing and advertising professionals -- the largest turnout since the conference opened in 1999. And attendees represented a broad range of skill sets, knowledge and interest levels. One man admitted to a packed seminar floor that he and his assistant could not make sense of how to use search engines to boost sales -- but knew they needed to know. Another man engaged panelists in hard, detailed discussions about the minute mechanics and philosophies of vertical search-engine marketing campaigns.

One of the most popular -- and some said most useful -- sessions was that entitled "Hiring an SEM Firm," which was designed to explore the nuts and bolts for marketers preparing to make their first serious foray into the world of search-engine advertising.

One speaker was Ethan Giffin, product manager of Thingamajob.com, a temporary-help recruitment firm in Hanover, Md. Mr. Griffin realized he needed specialized outside help as his company responded to the frenzied need for temporary workers in the wake of the hurricanes that devastated Florida last summer.

Nixed traditional ad agencies
In telling his story, Mr. Giffin said that when he set out to find and hire a search advertising agency he barely considered traditional advertising agencies because, he said, "I just didn't think they had the expertise."

Believing that ad agencies are more interested in "flashy" online advertising, he quickly zeroed in on search engine marketing agencies dedicated to the complicated and somewhat dry field of search-based advertising. He settled on iProspect in the typical way he would hire any vendor: by examining results from the Watertown, Mass., firm; getting to know the staffers and their work; and digging up references from the company's clients.

"We needed an agency used to dealing with large, dynamic Web pages," he explained. Thingamajob's Web pages were so complicated that Google only indexed 49 out of the site's 10,000 pages. He was frank about his need for an experienced "bad guy" to come in and explain to Thingamajob's employees that the Web site needed to be redesigned so that it would be easy to navigate for customers and easy for search engine "spiders" to crawl and enhance Thinamajob's placement higher in non-paid search results. His goal: to attract more resumes through search marketing.

Upped conversion rate
After hiring the SEM agency and following its advice, improvement was dramatic, Mr. Giffin claimed, as Thingamajob's conversion rate went from 3% to 26%.

Couldn't he have handled the SEM in-house and improved conversion himself? Although knowledgeable about search, he said that Thingamajob "didn't have the ability or the depth to keep up with the industry developments."

Another speaker, Dana Katz, product marketing manager at Wayne, N.J.-based Audible.com, said she needed help tracking the different levels of her online customer groups. She was only able to focus on the top 100 keywords among the 7,000 she bid on and knew her company's SEM needed closer attention. With two grades of members who spend a certain amount -- a la carte buyers and regular visitors -- she needed help with the tracking and return-on-investment reporting required for each paid or natural search result for each customer.

Audible.com sells downloadable audio material, including 25,000 audio books, and a number of magazines, radio programs, music, government hearings and music. The site entices newcomers by offering free content, such as interviews with Oscar winners Jamie Foxx, Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank conducted backstage after the Academy Awards.

Retained two search agencies
Ms. Katz hired one search agency to handle natural search and another to oversee paid search. She coordinates their tactics and results. Outsourcing helped Audible.com decrease its cost-per-click by 30% and cost-per-action (CPA) by 10%. CPA is the amount paid when each user takes a specific action in response to an ad they click to -- like downloading a brochure or entering their personal information.

In the paid-search area, the site increased subscriptions 20% in the first month.

It is an effort to juggle to vendors, Ms. Katz said, but worth it because of the different kinds of expertise each agency brings to her company's needs. She also pointed out that now relieved of the daily struggle with SEM management details, she has been able to devote much more time to business development and customer-retention activities.

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