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Re-Examining The Top 10 Paid Search Best Practices, Part 2
Do the established best practices in paid search have merit? In Part 2 of his two-part series, Contributor Josh Dreller examines five more best practices to see if they truly hold up.
In Part 1 of this series, I cited a really great article here on Search Engine Land on why search marketers should reconsider using broad match that challenges a common best practice in paid search. That article got me thinking about other best practices and if we should reconsider some of other tried and true tactics which most of consider as important to our approaches.
Once again, the idea here is not to try to prove these best practices ineffective. This is an exercise to see what we can learn by taking the counter view and see if anything surfaces that can help us get better as search engine marketers.
6. Big Keyword Lists
At the beginning of search engine marketing, the idea that bigger is better was the dominant strategy. After all, if you could identify keywords that your competitors hadn’t thought of, then you could earn top positions for a fraction of the cost of the most common, highly competitive terms. Why spend $1.00 on a competitive term when you can spend $0.25 on all of its variations and get four times the clicks for the same budget?
In fact, the keyword building tools at the time truly focused on iteration after iteration of keyword phrases to turn a small paid search account into a gigantic one in minutes.
Eventually, Google set the standard that quality matters by introducing Quality Score, and suddenly, these giant keyword lists were actually kept from growing too far out of control.
However, having had recent roles at some of the largest SEM tool companies in the market, I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s still very common to see millions and tens of millions of keywords for enterprise-level advertiser accounts.
Insights From Counter View?
This is definitely one of the best practices that I think needs some serious rethinking. First of all, it’s very difficult and inefficient to simply manage these giant accounts — simple tasks such as global bid changes and reporting can take a lot of time to process, both by the technology platforms and SEM teams.
There has to be a resource check in play to recognize that the effort used to manage a ton of keywords that generally have less than a handful (or even zero) clicks or even impressions a month may not be worth it.
Another reason to question this best practice is the lack of insight you will be able to have over such a large account. With so many campaigns, so many ad groups, so much creative and so on, how can anyone keep track of how these keywords work at granular levels?
Without a strong understanding of every aspect of your account, you won’t be able to be very nimble or effective at the speed needed to react to market changes in paid search.
I’m sure there are some paid search teams who can handle giant accounts fairly well, but for most search engine marketers, keeping the keyword level down might be more advantageous in the long run, as it frees up resources to work on other tasks.
7. Conversion Tracking
Early on, the main goals of paid search were high clicks and low CPCs. Over time, search marketers realized that getting tons of clicks at low costs didn’t mean much if the traffic being driven to the websites wasn’t valuable.
Enter conversion tracking — which changed everything. Now, search marketers could see clearly which keywords and ads were driving true value for the advertiser and why it was worth paying twice as much for certain keywords if they drove a lot more sales than the cheaper ones.
How could anyone argue against this approach?
Insights From Counter View?
Having personally educated countless clients in the first decade of paid search to migrate away from the simplistic high click/low CPC search marketing approach to a value-based, ROI-driven one, this one is hard for me to reconsider.
However, I do sometimes think we can get too reliant on KPI (Key Performance Indicator) metrics rather than using our common sense.
For example, if you sell skateboards, to devalue the term skateboard simply because it doesn’t generate the ROI you think it should could be detrimental to your bottom line. After all, conversion tracking isn’t 100 percent accurate based on how consumers search and then buy. In some cases, it may be downright misleading.
If search marketing plays a major role in your conversion funnel to stimulate purchase behavior to other channels versus having every conversion trackable back to the keyword, then you almost have to disregard what you’re seeing with the SEM metrics.
If you’re a skateboard company, getting into the consideration set of any internet searcher looking for skateboard information certainly seems like a no-brainer and should lead to more sales down the funnel.
I do believe conversion tracking is vital, but with today’s highly fragmented advertising “conversation” between brands and consumers, conversion tracking is becoming less accurate. You have to balance the diminishing value of conversion metrics with what common sense and experience is telling you.
8. Specific Landing Pages
It may shock today’s paid search pros that many advertisers pointed much of their early keyword traffic to their home pages or a handful of top-level category pages. However, that only lasted a short time, as one of the earliest best practices to emerge in paid search was to build very specific landing pages for your campaigns and ad groups.
There are even technology solutions now that can dynamically build unique landing pages on the fly using various data points known about the search visitor — such as the term/ad clicked, the geography/language of the user, and even previous click/website history — to provide the most relevant content possible.
Are landing pages important? Of course! Most search pros will tell you they are the difference between average and great SEM.
Insights From Counter View?
You shouldn’t obsess about your landing pages in terms of getting the most bang from your buck. Yes, you should be concerned with having strong landing pages, but some search marketers spend almost too much time on this optimization tactic.
There may be better, more impactful ways to use that time to apply a handful of other tactics that might have more positive effect on your return on investment.
I’ll say for the record that getting landing pages right is absolutely an important step that paid search pros must not skip. But make sure you don’t stop there. Put in a process that lets your team get good landing pages on the site nimbly, and then move on to other optimization opportunities.
9. Watch Your Competitors
For all marketers, it’s important to know what your competitors are doing.
On one hand, you can watch how they react to the constant moving market and make sure you’re not being leapfrogged in position on your most important terms. Each keyword is basically a unique battlefield with its own landscape of competitors.
And remember, you’re not just competing on keywords with your set of business competitors, but you’re also competing with companies that don’t compete with your products or services but with your keywords.
For example, you might bid for the term life insurance with your natural competitors being other insurance companies. However, other folks bidding on life insurance may be lawyers looking for cases involving life insurance legal cases or books on the topic. So, yes, it can get complicated very quickly.
Another reason you want to watch competitors is that you will learn things. You may catch some interesting directions on creative and landing page design which you can apply to your own accounts.
The bottom line here is that you have to truly understand the keyword landscape in which you’re competing, and I consider that a crucial part of an advanced SEM approach.
Insights From Counter View?
Why would watching your competitors not be a best practice? Well, you might get pulled into distracting directions. For example, if some of your competitors started offering free shipping, maybe you would think that you should too — but is that the right move for your bottom line?
Sometimes SEM pros also obsess about position too much. They might get into a bidding war for first position dominance that doesn’t fiscally make sense but just plays to the competitive side of the advertiser, as in, “We’re not going to be second fiddle to THOSE guys!”
Of course, knowing your keyword landscape is very important, but you don’t want to lose sight of what’s important, and that’s marketing ROI and long-term value from your SEM budget. If you have to “lose” a few battles to win the war, then that is what you might have to do.
10. Query Mining
It’s well known that a ton of searches on engines are unique — meaning that it is almost impossible to capture every instance and iteration of every query that visitors may use to reach your site.
This phenomenon has been increasing since the rise of mobile search, specifically with voice command features on today’s phones. Whereas on a desktop, you may search for local plumber, with voice search, you can ask your phone to search for is there a good plumber in my area that is open right now?
It’s no surprise that search engines are more than happy to help large advertisers fill their campaigns with queries that don’t appear as keyword phrases within their accounts. Each new keyword in your account is accompanied by a CHA-CHING sound in their coffers.
Some SEM pros run almost exclusively on exact match anyway, so the thinking here is to load up your accounts with these terms that consumers have already used to trigger your ads, and then you can just optimize out of those terms if they fail to produce any positive results.
It’s a no harm, no foul approach…
Insights From Counter View?
… or is it?
Are all of those queries even worth anything? After all, they triggered an ad already attached to a keyword in your account to be shown. You could argue that the exact match version is better due to quality score/bid implications, but is that just a best practice you assume to be true, or have you actually done the research to see if there is a major impact?
Also, those unclicked queries may bring down your Quality Score if you don’t prune the low-CTR ones out. Have you ever come across a keyword phase in your account that uses one of your core terms but is obviously not related at all to the business goals at hand? It was probably added as a part of a bigger query mining exercise.
Could your query mining simply be ballooning your accounts to unmanageable sizes (see #6 on this list)? Could your team be spending their time on more impactful tasks, rather than reinventing the wheel month after month by adding, analyzing and reporting on excess keywords that don’t provide incremental growth?
The Best Practice For Best Practices
Ultimately, best practices are merely a starting point for marketers — not just paid search marketers — to consider. Nothing is guaranteed, and there are even some instances where, at best, they can waste your time, and at worst, they could actually be detrimental to your SEM strategy.
So what is the best practice for best practices? Heed the experience of those who have come before you, but also put in controls and measures to make sure you’re doing what’s best for each unique paid search account you manage. What may be a sure-fire best practice for 95 percent of other accounts may actually be a complete waste of time for you.
It doesn’t mean we should pooh-pooh best practices, either. They’re best practices for a reason, and they are often the right course of action. But make sure to build your own best practices versus just listening to the pundits. Keep trying new things and keep track of what works and what doesn’t. Over time, you’ll refine your approach and continue to hit your goals.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.