The Seven Habits of Highly Effective SEM: Part I – Choosing the Right Search Engines

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Several months ago I wrote an overview of the seven most important aspects of SEM to master. At the time, I promised I would quickly follow up with details on each of these habits. Well, the definition of “quickly” is in the eyes of the writer, so here I am 60 days later ready to expand upon each topic area!

The habit I’ll discuss today is “Choosing the Right Search Engines.” A lot of people erroneously believe that the answer to the ‘right’ search engines is either “just Google” or “just Google, Yahoo, and MSN.” Both of these are generalizations that shouldn’t be followed blindly.

As I see it, there are four considerations that factor into your choice of search engines – quantity, quality, ROI, and audience. Let’s look at each of these individually:

Quantity: For most search marketers, there’s no such thing as “too much traffic” (well, assuming this is quality traffic, see next point). Because SEM is such an ROI-driven field, once you discover keywords that work for your campaign, you want to grab as many clicks from these keywords as you can. Thus, identifying the search engines that can drive the most quantity for your campaigns is important.

Quantity is also important because as you increase the number of search engines with which you are working, you also increase the complexity of your SEM campaign and the amount of time required to manage your business. Thus, at some point you reach a point of diminishing returns as you add more and more search engines with lower and lower traffic volume; if you need to spend an hour a week to get an extra 10 clicks, it’s doubtful that this investment is worth your time, even if these are killer clicks.

It goes without saying that the biggest quantity opportunity is on Google, followed in a distance second place by Yahoo Search Marketing, then MSN AdCenter, and finally Ask. There are of course plenty of other options to consider (7Search, Miva, Mamma, Findology, Enhance, etc), but if you have limited time and want to maximize the quantity of clicks you can drive, start with Google and work your way down the list slowly.

Quality: Clicks for the sake of clicks is only an effective strategy if your goal is to file bankruptcy as quickly as possible. You need clicks that convert into customers, or whatever your business metrics are. As with quantity, when it comes to quality, all search engines are not created equal. There are really two factors that go into click quality – where the search engine gets it’s traffic and what tools the search engine provides search marketers to filter the traffic they receive.

A search engine like Google or Yahoo gets all of its traffic from searchers who are loyal users of the search engine (we are talking about search traffic here, not content network traffic). These are pretty much the highest quality users you can find, because they have not been incentivized to visit the search engine, nor are they tricked into thinking that a paid link is an organic link. By contrast, some of the second tier search engines will pull out all the stops to get clicks for their advertisers. This can include placing your ads on parked domains (which Google does as well), in pop-ups, or embedded in articles to make the ad appear like content.

If you are getting pitched by a search engine you’ve never heard of before, you can be fairly confident that they are doing something strange to get clicks to your site. Be especially wary if the account rep claims billions of clicks a month from ‘distribution relationships’ or ‘people downloading our toolbar’ or something else rather vague. The odds are that this traffic is going to have low quality.

The second factor to consider is whether you can stem the tide of bad traffic on a search engine. Google has led the way at giving search marketers tools to cut out bad traffic. This includes features like negative keywords, match types, geo-targeting, day-parting, IP exclusion, site exclusion, demographic targeting, and category exclusion. If you know what you are doing on Google, you can quickly eliminate any click that doesn’t meet your conversion metrics.

Most second tier search engines don’t offer any of these tools. You are left at the whim of their claims of “industry leading click fraud prevention.” Of course, you can still get around low click quality on search engines by simply adjusting your bids downward until you hit your metrics. Just keep in mind the point I made above about diminishing returns – to play effectively in multiple search engines, you need to be able to pay attention to all of your search engines all the time. An unwatched search engine is an unprofitable search engine. If you are playing on search engines with questionable quality, even a few days away from your reports could cost you thousands of dollars.

ROI: At the end of the day, quality and quantity matter little if your campaign isn’t making you money! Though I recommend that you start with Google and do everything you can do make it profitable, sometimes this isn’t possible. Google is the most ‘efficient market’ out there when it comes to search marketing simply because all your competition will be advertising on Google. As a result, you may discover that despite your best efforts, you simply can’t make a profit on Google. If you have a revenue per click (RPC) of $2 and ten other competitors have RPCs between $3 and $25, you aren’t going to be able to profitably show up on the first page of the Google results.

As a result, you need to work harder to ferret out profitable opportunities on other search engines. This may be a case where there is value to mining the second tier search engines for nuggets of gold. If you can cobble together five search engines and drive profit without heavy traffic from Google, that’s a worthwhile exercise.

On the other hand, if you are successful already on Google, you should consider whether your overall ROI would increase more from further Google optimization as opposed to trying out lots and lots of search engines. I believe that until you have done everything you can on Google, spending a lot of time on alternative engines will not be ROI positive.

Audience: Different search engines have different audiences. While you probably won’t notice a huge difference in user behavior amongst the big boys of search, there are definitely search engines out there that cater to different audiences. A great example of this is vertical search engines, such as IndustryBrains, Business.com, Quigo AdSonar, FindLaw or WebMD. If you are trying to reach B2B buyers, you may find that you can grab a lot of these people through vertical search engines. In some cases, the conversion rate on these targeted engines can be significantly higher than what you’d find on a Google or Yahoo.

And as it becomes more and more clear that the search engine world is now “Google and everyone else”, you may start to even see some of the big engines starting to position themselves around specific demographic groups. Ask, for example, has been rumored to be considering rebranding itself as a search engine for women. Anecdotally, I have been told by other search marketers that they do notice significant differences in user behavior on MSN or Yahoo as compared to Google. While I can’t say that I’ve noticed this myself, certain audiences probably do have different search engine preferences.

Conclusion: Beyond recommending you perfect Google first and then move on to other search engines, I’ve tried to avoid giving specific recommendations for which search engines to use and to not use. I’ve done this because there is no one solution that will work for every search marketing campaign. Before I was an SEM consultant, I worked at a company where we routinely drove $100,000 a month of profit from a second tier search engine. When I recommended this site to a friend in a different industry, he was sorely disappointed – he couldn’t get any conversions out of the site.

Ultimately, you need to know how to ask the right questions about a search engine, allocate your time appropriately, and be willing to run a lot of quick and dirty tests on different search engines to find the right search engines for your business. And remember, this is just one of the seven sacred steps – just because you’ve found the right search engine, you’re work is not done. Stay tuned for part II of this series – choosing the right keywords – coming soon to a blog near you!

About the Author

David Rodnitzky is CEO of PPC Associates, a leading SEM agency based in Silicon Valley. PPC Associates provides search, social, and display advertising management to growing, savvy companies. To learn more, visit ppcassociates.com, or contact David at [email protected]

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One Comment

  1. What???

    Who is David Rodnitzky? Do people actually pay you for this? This is badly written article, and much of the information is incorrect. If this is Part I, please spare us and end it here.