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This chapter is from the book

How to Get Started in Search Marketing

Wait, you aren’t learning about search engines as an academic exercise? Okay, then, let’s talk about the business of search—how you can get started in making your search program a success. We’ll look at organic search, paid search, and the steps for search success with both. Let’s dig into organic search first.

Getting Started with Organic Search

Organic search refers to the way search engines find the most relevant match to a searcher’s keyword. You can think of it as the librarian’s answer to the question. Organic search results are driven purely by the relevance of the matches to the keyword that the searcher entered, and are not influenced by any payments made to the search engine by search marketers.

In contrast with paid search, where you must pay the search engines whenever someone clicks on your ad, organic search is free—kind of. It’s free the way that public relations is free: You don’t have to pay the New York Times to print your story, but you might have to pay your PR person to get the newspaper to print your story. Similarly, although sometimes it is inexpensive to get your content shown in organic search, there are other situations where it is a lot of costly work.

Search marketers use many techniques to improve their site’s organic search results. As mentioned earlier, these techniques are often referred to as search engine optimization. Later in this book, we explore these approaches in depth so that you can decide which ones are right for you. For now, let’s just look at how different options have different price tags.

Why It Works

Despite the wide range of cost, no search marketer can skip organic search. Organic search is critical to any search marketing program, even if you also use other search marketing techniques.

In recent years, organic search marketing is commonly part of a larger content marketing program. In content marketing, you use your web pages, blog posts, videos, and other content to solve your customer’s problem. Your content might include do-it-yourself ideas, how-to instructions, or common customer problems and solutions. Often, content marketing begins as a social media campaign of some kind, such as the do-it-yourself videos that Home Depot uses to explain how to use the materials and tools sold there.

Organic search marketing is a critical part of any content marketing campaign. Here’s why. When you invest the kind of time and money into creating great content, the way Home Depot has in our example, of course you’ll use social media to promote it. Each time Home Depot creates a video, they post it to YouTube, they tweet it, they link to it from their Facebook fan page, they create a blog post around it, and any other way they can think of. With that social media attention, the content marketer hopes that others will also share the content so that even more people will be exposed to it. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s hard to hope that social media will get exposure for your content for more than a few days. For the rest of the life of that content, its exposure hinges on organic search marketing.

For your content to rank highly in organic search, it must be perceived as being of high quality. Perhaps this is obvious, but the simplest way for your content to be perceived as high quality is to actually be of high quality. Search engines have different ways of ascertaining your content’s quality, which we explain in detail in Chapter 9, “Prove Your Content’s Quality.”

Organic search marketing has several specific benefits for your overall marketing:

  • Highly qualified searchers discover your content: Organic searchers who click your content from the search results are highly qualified as prospective customers. They are much more likely to make a purchase than people exposed to your content in social media or who might otherwise visit your website. To understand why, think about the motivation of visitors reaching your site from a successful banner ad. Those visitors set out to find some information (possibly on a subject wholly unrelated to your site), and while reading that article, spot your ad. Intrigued, they click through to your site. These visitors are far less qualified than searchers because they did not start out with interest in your products. You can build the interest and still make the sale, but that is a lot harder to do than to sell to someone already interested. In contrast, searchers initiate their search on a subject related to your business. That’s why the search engine shows your content in the results. Those searchers want to learn. You are far more likely to sell to searchers than to someone who clicks a banner ad, simply because searchers might intend to buy, whereas banner visitors were doing something else when you caught their eye. People using product search engines, as you might expect, are especially likely to buy.
  • You can do it on a budget: Although some websites suffer from expensive-to-fix problems (which we talk about in the next section), most websites find organic search to be a fairly inexpensive kind of marketing. Your site probably has many pages that already show up in the search results, and you can tune your content to rank higher and draw more traffic—all without breaking the bank.
  • Your efforts work across all search engines: Unlike paid search, where an ad listed with Microsoft does not appear in Google, most organic search techniques work across all search engines. Whatever you do to improve your results in Google will probably also help your content in Bing. Just by its nature, organic search success tends to require the same techniques for all search engines.
  • Your efforts can last for a long time: In contrast to paid search, where the benefits end the moment you put away your credit card, organic search marketing efforts usually last much longer. For example, if you discover the techniques that cause a page to be found by and be persuasive to searchers, you can reap the benefits until a competitor discovers a better formula. Nothing lasts forever, but organic search success can continue even after you stop working on it.

This is an impressive list of benefits, but we wouldn’t blame you if you want to know what you need to spend to get them. That’s up next.

What It Costs

Organic search is an interesting search marketing technique, because utilizing the technique can cost next to nothing, or it can be expensive, depending on the situation you are in and what you decide to do about it.

It’s possible that your site might already be well represented in search and might already rank well in organic search for many keywords. If so, it might be inexpensive to improve your results even more, by choosing more keywords to sprinkle into your content, for example. If your site is missing in action in the search results, however, optimizing your content for organic search can be a daunting prospect; it can be complicated and expensive to make the changes required.

The costs for organic search come from making changes to your content and to your website technology. At this point in your search marketing knowledge, it’s natural for you to believe that you don’t know enough to make these content and technology changes yourself. You might even think you’ll never learn enough to tackle this work on your own.

Because a lot of marketers are in that same situation, they hire SEO consultants. If you need expert advice on choosing keywords, optimizing your content, or measuring your business results, it does not come cheap. If you want to start small, you might find some search marketing firms that will help you optimize a few pages for important keywords for between $5,000 and $20,000. Conversely, you should expect to pay hundreds of thousands per year for a consultant to thoroughly address problems in a large site.

If your budget allows it, you can benefit greatly from hiring an expert to jump-start your organic search marketing program. Your site’s problems in search are lowering your revenue, and each day they are not fixed is more money down the drain. It can be cost-effective to accelerate your efforts by using an expert who gets more visitors coming to your site quickly. It is a big decision to hire (or decide not to hire) a search marketing consultant. Chapter 5, “Create Your Search Marketing Program,” walks you through the process.

Happily, under normal circumstances it is not absolutely necessary to use consultants. You and your team can learn enough to do it yourself. Just keep in mind that it will take you considerably longer than a consultant to identify solutions for your problems, which might not be cost-effective based on your available budget and the business opportunities that you are losing each day.

Regardless of how you determine the solutions, you’ll find that the technology and content changes that you make to implement those solutions are your biggest organic search expense. Those costs vary widely from website to website, but Part III of this book is devoted to diagnosing search problems and helping you correct them.

Although you are unsure of exactly what it will cost, it doesn’t have to be scary. You probably do not know how much it costs to update your site to introduce a new line of products, or to acquire another company, or to support a new advertising campaign, but these are business decisions that are made every day in every company. The web team knows that it is part of its job to support these initiatives; whatever it takes is just a cost of doing business. Your biggest job will be to make search marketing just another part of the web team’s job—just another everyday cost of running your website. Chapter 5 tackles how you convince the web team to take that on. After you are successful, and the web team makes search-related changes every day, you still will not know how much it costs, but at least it will be happening.

Organic search success sometimes requires changes to your technology so that the search engines can discover your content. If your site has a small number of pages, updating the technology is probably not very pricey. If you have a huge technically complex site, however, it can be expensive to fix. Chapter 3, “How Search Works,” explains how search engines discover your content.

Many websites inadvertently make it difficult for spiders to index their pages. In Chapter 7, “Get Your Content Listed,” we work through the most common site design problems and the technology changes required to correct them. Usually, they require some kind of technology change, as the following examples demonstrate:

  • We must change the commerce URLs so that they do not have so many dynamic parameters.
  • We have to update the content management system so that writers can modify the titles and descriptions for every page.
  • We have to modify the metadata template for all HTML pages so that we do not block the spider from crawling each page.
  • We need to change the menus in the left navigation bar so that they do not require JavaScript.
  • We must remove session identifiers from the URLs.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand the list. That’s the point, actually. Every item in that list is something that your technology folks might need to do to fix your site so that search engines can discover the content on your website. (And we cover many more, too.)

If your site suffers from some of these problems, it can be expensive to get them fixed. Technology projects can be costly, hard to manage, and slow to complete. It is not unheard of for a large company to spend millions of dollars over several years to eradicate all of these organic search problems.

Content changes are typically less costly and easier to manage than technology changes. It is expected that content will be constantly created and updated, so if you can convince your web team to write with search engines in mind, they will do that as a matter of course. It is not any more expensive to write a new page that includes mentions of the important search keywords for that page. Technology changes, however, are not so easy.

You don’t need to optimize every page on your site (although that is great to do); you need optimize only the pages that you want returned for the keywords you are targeting. One reason you might shy away from optimizing every page is that it can be expensive to do. Estimates vary, but some studies show that optimizing each web page costs between $100 and $200, on average. Most modern websites use templates so that optimizing one template can improve many pages at once, which greatly lowers the costs.

Organic search marketing is usually the least expensive form of digital marketing, despite these costs, which is why almost all websites depend on it. But paid search can bring great business results, too.

Getting Started with Paid Search

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons,” Woody Allen reminds us. So too, search marketers who are flush with cash have the advantage, but only if their money is spent wisely. We all know that a fool and his money are soon parted, but with paid search you might be shocked as to how quickly they are parted. Paid search is deceptively simple in concept, yet never mastered. The paid search programs are constantly changing, and your competition is always on the move. However, you can succeed in paid search if you learn some basic principles and stick to them.

Paid search has been described as a cross between day trading and direct marketing. Most paid search requires bidding against other search marketers to win the top spot for your site. Bidding can be intense, changing every second as companies jockey for position. Every word in your listing matters—making the difference between an ad that gets clicked and one that does not. Besides paid search ads, we’ve also talked about product search (shopping search), but paid search ads are the most popular form of paid search marketing.

One difference between paid and organic search is that you list your ad separately for each search engine. So, listing your ad in Google AdWords (the paid search program for Google’s search engine) won’t get your ad into Bing Ads (the corresponding program for Bing and Yahoo!). Despite that difficulty, paid search is still easier to get started with than organic search. Google and Bing are the leaders, but you can get a more complete list of the more minor players at our website (SEMincBook.com/ppc-vendors).

By now, you have gotten a taste for the difficulty of revamping your site to garner organic search traffic. Although it pays off handsomely, organic search success takes skill, effort, and time. Paid search seems far easier. Select a keyword, plunk down your credit card, and overnight you have the #1 search position! It can work that way—if you know what you are doing. Let’s explore paid search, the fast (and sometimes easier) method of paying your way to the top.

Why It Works

Paid search offers a proven way to attract visitors to your website, but put that credit card away for a minute. For all of the benefits of paid search, you can quickly burn through your budget, getting few sales, if you are not careful. Managed well, paid search is an indispensable part of a search marketing plan for lots of reasons—if you know what you are doing.

Every search marketer ought to at least consider paid search opportunities. For some, paid search will not be cost-effective, but many search marketers find paid search to be more valuable than organic search. It all depends on your site and your situation. We will help you decide whether paid search is right for you, and, if it is, how to make the most of it. Check out all the reasons paid search might be an important addition to your digital marketing mix:

  • Highly qualified visitors will come to your site: Just as with organic search, paid search attracts visitors who are already interested in what your site does. If they weren’t, they would not have been searching in the first place. So it makes sense that searchers who click paid search listings are more likely to buy than visitors arriving at your site from clicking a banner ad, for example. But paid search listings get lower clickthrough rates than organic search, and searchers say that they trust them less, so organic search might still have the edge in converting searchers into buyers.
  • You see immediate results: As you have seen, organic search success requires painstaking attention to detail to get your site discovered and to optimize its content for both search engines and for visitors—all of which can take months. Paid search, conversely, can require up-front work on landing pages and with trusted feeds for shopping engines, but often it can be initiated in a few days with an instant impact on your site. The biggest difference between paid search advertising and organic search is that paid search offers near instantaneous traffic to your site. You can launch a campaign immediately by paying your money, writing your ads, and bidding your way to the top of the paid results—all without changing a line of code on your website. Organic search, in contrast, takes much longer to kick in.
  • It’s inexpensive to get started: Unlike organic search, where your site might need expensive changes, paid search requires low up-front costs. For as little as $50 and a credit card, you can open a paid search account. In addition, compared to organic search, paid search requires less expertise, so it is more likely that you can get started without engaging an expert consultant.
  • You pay only for visits to your site: Many advertisers prefer paid search’s fee structure—you typically pay only when searchers click your ad, not when they view your ad. With banner ads and other types of paid advertising, you are charged for impressions; you pay every time your ad is shown. If you design your site to efficiently persuade those paid searchers to buy, your return on your investment can be very profitable.
  • You can target your audience: Whereas keyword planning enables you to target searchers by their interests (for both organic and paid search), paid search provides more pinpoint precision. Product search isolates transactional searchers ready to buy, and paid search ads can identify searchers by characteristics such as geographical location—both of which might be important to your business and well worth paying for.
  • Near-total message control: Paid search provides near-total control over what your listing says, allowing you to further qualify searchers so that only the “right” ones click through. In organic search, although you can pick your page’s title, the snippet that appears below the title is chosen by the search engine from the words that appear on your page. Paid search offers far more message control because the message can be directly targeted at searchers, with little concern about what the search engines want. Your ability to control your message is unmatched by any other advertising medium.
  • Unequalled adjustability: You have learned how difficult it can be to make changes to your website to support organic search, especially if you have a medium to large site. If your inventory runs low on your best-selling product, your organic search results will keep pouring visitors into your site. If you reduce your product’s price, it could take days for the organic search results to reflect it. Paid search, however, can adapt to these changes as they occur. You can stop buying the keyword for an out-of-stock item in paid search, and you can remove the item from product search. You can reflect price changes as they happen. You can ratchet up your investment during your busy season and taper it off at other times. What’s more, you can constantly monitor the return on your investments and make changes each day to increase profitability. Paid search is probably the most flexible form of advertising available today.
  • Unlimited keyword targeting: Organic search has a natural limit in the number of keywords that can be targeted. Although it is best to use existing pages on your site as search landing pages for both organic and paid search, inevitably you will find the need to add new landing pages as your keywords become more obscure. Because organic search landing pages must be deeply linked into the navigation of your site, there is a natural limit of how many landing pages (and therefore how many keywords) you can target. Because paid search landing pages need not be part of the site’s navigation, you can target as many paid search keywords as you can justify the investment for.

Despite all these advantages, paid search is not for everyone. If you sell low-priced, low-margin products, you might find that the cost of advertising is more than you can justify in return. If you are unable to place any monetary value on visitors to your website, it will be hard to justify paid search spending. Many noncommercial and nonprofit sites find that paid search does not help them sustain their operations. For businesses, however, especially businesses that are trying to attract prospective customers to their site, paid search increasingly has a place in even the smallest marketing budgets.

What It Costs

One of the best things about paid search is that you can control the costs. You can buy as many or as few keywords as you want, and you decide how much you are willing to pay for each click. And you can adjust anything at a moment’s notice, so you can control your budget.

As you embark on a paid search program, here are the kinds of costs to keep your eye on:

  • Creative costs: Whether you do it in-house or you hire a consultant or ad agency to do it for you, it costs money to create the titles and descriptions that display onscreen. Remember, the number of searchers who click through to your site depends completely on the killer title and description you write, so this is no place to skimp on the budget. Agencies can usually do three or four new ads an hour, charging anywhere from $50 to $200 an hour to do so.
  • Management costs: Tracking and adjusting your bids can be a lot of work, but it is the key to maximizing the return on your paid search investment; these campaigns do not run well on autopilot. You also need to keep track of your creative changes and deadlines, reconcile your bills, and verify your clickthroughs. You can hire an ad agency or search consultant to manage your paid search campaign for you. Conversely, if you manage it in-house, budget at least one full-time person to manage a highly competitive or large campaign (more than a thousand keywords).
  • Per-impression fee: Usually referred to as CPM (cost per thousand—M is the Roman numeral for 1,000), you pay each time your ad displays onscreen, whether a searcher clicks or not. Typically, CPM pricing is used only for fixed-placement advertising, not bid-based advertising, and it varies from $10 to $30 per thousand impressions (or about 1¢ to 3¢ per single impression). Some obscure search engines charge per impression, but mainstream search engines do not.
  • Per-click fee: Often called CPC (cost per click), it refers to the fee charged by the search engine each time a searcher clicks your advertisement. Typically, you open an account for a set amount and start bidding for placement. Whenever a searcher clicks your ad, the current bid (per-click) fee is deducted from your account, with your ad disappearing if your account reaches zero. CPC prices range from about 10¢ (usually the lowest bid allowed) to $30 or sometimes more, with the average around $1. The vast majority of paid search ads are charged per click.
  • Per-action fee: Also known as CPA (cost per action), you pay only when the searcher takes “action”—typically a purchase of your product. Some paid search engines are beginning to experiment with CPA pricing, so you might have a choice between CPC and CPA pricing for your keywords. In addition, a new kind of action, a phone call, is also becoming a popular pricing model; it’s called pay-per-call pricing.

CPM, CPC, and CPA fees are usually mutually exclusive; you pay only one of them on any particular ad. Exhibit 1-7 shows what a paid search campaign might cost when priced according to each method. Some advertisers prefer one method over another, but there is no surefire way to pay less on a consistent basis. It all depends on how many searches, clickthroughs, and purchases there are.

Exhibit 1-7

Exhibit 1-7 Comparing pricing formulas. What you pay depends on the activity multiplied by the rate, but no magical method will always save money.

Every pricing method has advantages and disadvantages. Chapter 8 reviews bidding strategies in more detail, and provides examples to help you choose the best option for your objectives.

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