Honing your SEM strategy

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Muzak, a provider of music programs, custom music and on-hold messaging, has been around for more than 70 years. Before last September, however, business owners searching for the company online likely had a hard time finding it.

Muzak had a skeleton Web site, and no search strategy to speak of, said Bob Finigan, Muzak VP-product and marketing. The company, after hiring search engine marketing provider Oneupweb, started a 100-word paid search program. Within months, the company tripled the number of sales coming from natural and paid searches.

"We were able to put a program in place that is helping us dominate the Web space," Finigan said. In fact, the program was so successful, the company recently added 200 more words to its paid mix, including misspellings of its brand name.

Muzak is following a trend that shows no sign of slowing. Paid search grew nearly 40% year-over-year in the first quarter, while sales related to search climbed more than 70%, according a recent report from Performics, a division of DoubleClick. Meanwhile, the cost of the average search term was down 50%, and almost 30% of all keyword clicks were priced less than 50 cents.

What does this mean for the average marketer? If you buy smart and optimize your site organically, search can pay off in a big way. Here are some tips from search engine experts to help you make the most of your efforts.

1) Know your definitions. You can buy into engines using one of four options: broad, exact, phrase and standard. But if you don't know what they mean-or consider all the ramifications-you can spend more than you originally wanted to, said Dana Todd, exec VP at SiteLab International, an interactive marketing agency. "If you don't know better, your campaign is going to default onto the broadest match," she said.

This means that if you've included a phrase such as "chemical markers," your ads will appear when people search for these words in any order and often with other words. They may also appear when people search for plurals and synonyms. An exact match keeps your costs down because your ad will only display if the user types in the exact phrase. Standard results fall somewhere between exact matches and broad matches. "You might get misspellings," Todd said.

2) Track search patterns and traffic volume on each individual search engine. What works for one engine does not work for all, said Elena Krivoruchko, director of Advertiser Solutions for Searchfeed, a provider of pay-per-click advertising services. This means you should constantly be looking at individual results-not just results in the aggregate.

3) Get listed in the news. Search for a current event and it may come up as news results, which often reside above paid and organic listings. It's not just world events that end up in this unique and covetable position. You can get your product or service listed here, too, which is crucial if you're launching something new, said Lisa Wehr, CEO of Oneupweb. "It takes some time to get results in natural listings, so you want to optimize press releases to help generate buzz and get a slot at the top of a search page," she said.

4) Use podcasting to drive relevant traffic. If you repurpose your news or information as a podcast, you can help drive more relevant traffic to your site, Wehr said. Put information about the podcast in your ad text and create natural search results that identify and link to it. People who click through will be further along in the decision-making process, she said.

5) Provide accountability offline. You can see which keywords produce which leads online, but in the b-to-b world, your leads may not click through today. In fact, they may call you on the phone next week instead. You can still keep track of conversions by assigning custom 800-numbers or extensions to specific keyword landing pages, said Jamie Roche, president of Offermatica, a provider of online testing and optimization services.

6) Distribute a list of top keyword priorities across your organization. You should have a list of top-performing paid search terms, and the top terms that people are using to find your site organically. So should every person in your company who creates any type of content, Todd said. "Everyone should be thinking, `How can we get more visibility?' When you distribute a list, you get everyone thinking about multiple ways of achieving this."

7) Offer users a useful carrot. It's relatively easy to get someone to click through from an organic or paid search listing. It's quite another to sell to them, Roche said. Provide a payoff that will act as an incentive and boost your number of leads. "You want to draw them in by thinking about what you're going to offer, whether that's free access to a tool or a free white paper or reprint," he said.

8) Consider your target daypart. In the past, it was hard to manage a campaign based on time unless you were willing to manually turn it on and off throughout the day. Now, however, said David Berkowitz, director of strategic planning at SEM provider 360i, search engines such as Google are offering dayparting options. "You can increase your conversions by turning off your ads over the weekend or the slow time during lunch or dinner hours," he said. "You can also turn up ads when you've historically seen an increase in conversions."

9) Use editorial calendars to predict hot search terms. Refer to industry trade publications' editorial calendars; you can plan ahead and get a jump on keywords by looking at what your customers will be reading over the next month, six months and year, Todd said. "Each issue is going to have major themes, which can generate industry buzz," she said. "So if you know that in October everyone is going to be talking about something, you can adjust your buy accordingly. It's like getting a crystal ball."

10) Keep track of product inventory. If your customer clicks on a paid search result hoping to buy your product or service but finds that it's out of stock, you've not only wasted part of your PPC budget, you've probably lost a customer. "Continually go through paid ads that are pointing to inventory products and make those ads go dark when your inventory dwindles," Wehr said. "You've got to be doing this weekly or daily."

11) Watch the blogs. You can anticipate hot keywords by searching blog-specific engines such as Google's Blog Search, and for information related to your industry or company, Berkowitz said. "You can overlay these results so you get insight into how a certain brand or product is getting traction and what's being said about it so you can create [organic] content and pick keywords around them," he said.

12) Involve your channel. Everyone selling your product should have the same message and be linked to your corporate site, Todd said. Control the way your brand and products are portrayed online by creating an online forum or setting up regular meetings to bring everyone together onto the same page.

13) Think narrowly to prequalify your traffic. Broad keyword results might be fine when it comes to organic search. But the broader a search term, the more it usually costs, so you'll want to be as specific as possible when thinking about keyword buys, Todd said. "If you take the phrase `business intelligence,' it can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, so you might get tons of traffic. But if you provide only one aspect of business intelligence, you'll want to define a little more deeply so you don't get that broad swath of people," she said.

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