9 Problems With Paid Search, 9 Real Tactics To Solve Them

A few years ago, I never would have been thinking about what Paid search wasn’t good for. Clicks were cheap, ROI was through the roof, and I was one of the biggest Paid Search evangelists out there. I attended an American Association of Advertising Agencies conference in 2007 where there was a session touting “And, Not ‘If’ For Search” to drive the point home that search engine marketing was a no-brainer for every campaign. This was a traditional media agency dominated event,and I was glad to see that the message to include paid search in every plan was being spread outside the online community.

Although still a great medium, I’ve matured as an online marketer and I don’t instinctively add Paid Search for every plan, but rather brainstorm the entire digital media mix before (eventually) adding search advertising to the plan. And, although I still recommend that companies should almost always have a budget set aside for high converting branded terms, after running dozens of paid search campaigns, I’ve seen instances where paid search wasn’t the silver bullet that I once thought it was.

These are lean times for advertising budgets and marketing professionals have been tasked to be smarter with every dollar spent. A recent report on search engine marketing from [x+1] found that while organizations are investing in SEM despite the down economy, they have been unhappy to date with the performance. So, knowing this, would your business goals be better served by moving the budget on the poorer performing keywords/ad groups to different channels such as display, social, or email?

Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely love Paid Search. My colleagues know my tag line is “…next to in-house email lists, Paid Search has historically been the best ROI vehicle online.” But now is the time to raise the bar and get smarter by understanding the medium’s limitations and obstacles to positive performance.

In researching this topic, I posted a question to the LinkedIn search marketing audience and there were mini-debates, especially around reach and scale. I’m sure some in-house search teams or search-focused agencies will balk at this list, as it’s very easy to drink the Paid Search Kool-Aid. In fact, I’m positive of that. But, even if you don’t completely agree with all of the points below, maybe it will stir up some discussions within your teams on how you can be smarter with how you use the medium.

  1. Predictive spending – The two things in this world that I have the least faith in are the existence of unicorns and Google’s Traffic Estimator. What’s the question that sends chills up every search marketer’s spine? “How much should we budget for search?” Especially for new campaigns, this can be a nightmare because the data always fluctuates. With most other media, you can budget months ahead of time. With search, it’s a hit or miss proposition. Budget too high and you end up bidding on keywords that aren’t ideal for your goals; budget too low and you could lose potential sales when your accounts cap out at noon everyday. Even accounts that I’ve run for years with a mountain of seasonal data can still surprise me with search volume, and when you consider the fact that most accounts aren’t stagnant and are constantly adding keywords, ad groups, new creative, etc, it can be a hard task to nail down search spend for a marketing manager that has to budget ahead for a fiscal year. Solution: Use as many data sources you can to try to figure out what the projected volume and click costs could be, but then set the expectation with your client or manager that it could be higher or lower. Search is a different animal- marketing managers need to know that we can’t plan to the dime – there always needs to be some wiggle room.
  2. Reach/Lack of inventory – All Search, including Paid Search is a pull medium. Obviously, there are great benefits to this kind of unobtrusive advertising, but the downside is that you can’t get in front of people who don’t know to search for your keywords. Solution: Use other channels to promote your core terms – especially your proprietary terms which can have low competition (and low cost). I know that when we run large display campaigns, our clients see search volume spike on their terms.
  3. Standing out in a crowd – I think we can agree that it’s hard for three line text ads to stick out on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP) full of text. Compared to such dynamic creative such as full page ads, video ads, rich media expendables, etc, you have to rely on users to dig on the page to read your message. Solution: Study your competitors’ ads. If they all push price points, then talk about benefits. If they all mention “free”, you can talk value. Keep monitoring the landscape and make sure you stay ahead of the competition.
  4. Complex products/services – 95 characters isn’t a lot when you’re trying to highlight the benefits of a hard-to-explain product or service. Think about something as complicated as a specific surgical procedure or some kind of advanced business training. A Rich Media ad can simulate a micro-site with videos, downloads, etc. and can really educate the user. Solution: Do your best to entice users to click the ad based on a single amazing benefit. For the advanced training example, something like “Earn More With This Special Degree” could be enough.
  5. Brand Building – For online marketers, the term brand has become synonymous with any non-direct response creative such as awareness campaigns. When I talk about Brand Building, however, I mean the art of crafting the way consumers feel affinity to your company. Companies such as Nike, BMW, and Disney really excel at this marketing. It takes years of constant audience communication and careful sculpting of marketing creative to truly build a brand. Of course, Paid Search can bring users to your site where branding can occur, but the Paid Search ad itself does little to really achieve this goal. Solution: Integrated messaging. Even though you only have three lines, make sure your messaging is completely in-line with your other marketing efforts so that, at the very least, you can reinforce the main tagline or catch phrase.
  6. Small budgets on high cost terms – A great example would be a local car dealership that can only spend $900 a month and wants to see their ads for “used car” all over Google’s sponsored listing. Frankly, with a $30/day budget, they would only get 3-4 clicks a day. Of course, the strategy would be to use longer tail and branded terms, but they’d be completely out of the “used car” bid race no matter how much they wanted to be in it. Solution: This is a hard one to overcome. Frankly, high competition in the marketplace has driven click costs up for top terms.
  7. If the rest of the pieces aren’t in place – Paid Search programs are a great source of engaged traffic, but if you don’t have a good website, brand, product/service, lead generation program, etc, then it’s pretty much a waste of money. Solution: Get your act together! Before you go out and start a Paid Search program, make sure your website is setup well and tested for optimal usability. As well, do your research and make sure your message and price points are in line with your target demographic.
  8. Building credibility – Users are skeptical enough of online advertising that a three line text ad is not going to really be able to completely bridge this gap. Luckily, recent data still shows that less savvy users still don’t completely realize that sponsored listings are different from the organic results. However, that is changing every day and users know that the SERP contains ads that are paid. Solution: Try to use “Official Site” creative when you can do so. This lets users know that they’re clicking to the real website, not some shady affiliate. This tactic has also shown to increase Click-thru Rates.
  9. When SEO works - Of course, there’s tons of data out there that shows it’s the combination of both Paid Search and Organic Search together on the same page has the highest conversion rates and brand lift. However, if you pull the analytics reports and find out that your SEO is kicking butt, it would be counterintelligence to pay for the same keywords. Solution: Keep the Paid Search, but use it to direct users to a different page of your site than where the Organic Results are taking users. This could be a promo page, a lead generation page, etc.

All of these points are debatable. I’m sure some of you may even feel Paid Search is impervious to scrutiny. However, with click costs rising and with most marketing budgets being scrutinized more than ever, it’s good to know these hurdles are out there and how you might overcome them before they sink your account.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing Toolbox


About The Author: has been a search marketer since 2003 with a focus on SEM technology. As a media technologist fluent in the use of leading industry systems, Josh stays abreast of cutting edge digital marketing and measurement tools to maximize the effect of digital media on business goals. He has a deep passion to monitor the constantly evolving intersection between marketing and technology. You can follow him on Twitter at @mediatechguy.

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  • ChiefAlchemist

    Thanks Josh. Nice, tight and practical list. Maybe these are stating the obvious, I’d like to add a couple :

    1) Make sure your UI / UX says “Stay’”and “Please come back’” – Maybe it’s just us but too many clients seems to underestimate the important of how their site looks and acts once SEM pulls them in. While not SEO / SEM per se it does have a major effect.

    Unfortunately, no parent wants to hear their child is ugly.

    2) Make sure your SEM ads bring the traffic into the most relevant page. I’ve also read that evidently the relevance of the words in the URL matter too. For example: mysite.com/used-cars is going to perform better than just mysite.com or mysite.com/fg3sdj.

    Thanks again.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com nickstamoulis

    Great article and excellent points! One thing I have learned over the years (and continue to speak with clients about) is that there is NO silver bullet or magic pill that will solve any revenue, sales, leads or conversion goals…especially not paid search. I have always found that a combo of many different areas: SEO, PPC, Social, Opt-In Email, etc…tend to work well. PPC does not work well for every type of advertiser, depending on the PPC landscape, competitiveness, etc…

    Overall I still do believe that PPC works well for many and does continue to have a good ROI, but it is not the end all be all of web marketing.

  • http://www.alanmitchell.com.au alanmitchell

    Nice post Josh, and some interesting points you raise. Essentially I think you’re right; paid search is not the or silver bullet it used to be a few years ago. But I think its just evolved rather than deteriorated. More small businesses are using paid search, so competition for keywords has grown massively. This increased competition has generally resulted in higher CPCs for many keywords, so the quality of paid search management required to stand out from the competition and achieve profitable results has risen.

    However, with the improved management and analytics tools at a search marketer’s disposal, I’m confident that if adequate time and effort is invested in engaging with users and providing them with highly relevant ads (and let’s face it, were not there yet http://www.alanmitchell.com.au/techniques/relevancy-the-holy-grail-of-ppc/ ), paid search will continue to be very profitable for a large number of businesses for years to come.


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