SEO VS SEM - catching the express train
SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is paid advertising online. It breaks down into two main areas - "search" and "display" advertising. We will cover both but will start with "Search". The main purpose of SEM is to accelerate the visibility of your online presence and to compete directly with your peer group on client and customer searches.
Top of the Page
For many search in Google you will see results similar to this following graphic. Please note the small "AD" block in green to the left of the top listings.
Organic results represent the following - for a given search - in this case "Non-Profit Consulting". The first result represents the most clicked-on result of that exact search since google started indexing sites. It should be noted that google will apply some other filters in the organic search algorithm - in this case they are geo-locating my specific computer's IP address to Miami so I'm preferentially seeing a South Florida bias but generally speaking for ALL searches globally on this search phrase these are the order of the top results.
In order for a company to "crack" the ceiling of organic results they have to do a number of things. First, have a website that google can index correctly. Second, populate the site with content that will match the search terms and phrases. Third, organize that content in ways that allow Google to index it logically, and fourth - give it time. A new website WILL get indexed - it can take some weeks to start becoming visible for appropriate searches. For an organization to move to the first page of Goole can be difficult and potentially impossible for very popular search terms with lots of competition. SEO firms will advertise that they can move your company "to the first page of Google" - typically their offer is focused on a single keyword or phrase and not the whole spectrum of terms that an organization typically needs to benefit from (try different searches for "constultant" vs "consulting" vs "consults" and you'll see the issues of having to appeal across many terms.) Generally speaking, there is no magic in organic SEO - just good practice, time and brand building outside of search.
Cracking the Ceiling with SEM
SEM can change the game for organizations looking to move the results more quickly to the top of the page. Here's how it works.
Adwords is Google's SEM platform. With an adwords account you can establish campaigns for your organization, create lists of keywords and phrases, target your audience through demographics and location, set budgets, create ads and monitor results.
Pay Per Click - The main thing to understand about an adwords campaign is how the budget works. When you setup a campaign and choose keywords you are essentially joining in a real-time auction with other advertisers for those keywords. The auction element is handled automatically by Google - there are various ways in setting up the campaign to indicate the maximum you are willing to pay for a click on a search delivered by a certain key word or phrase. And this is the key - you only pay for clicks. Each time you do a search and you get ads served up in your results those views are called "impressions" - which cost nothing. As soon as a person clicks on the ad - you are charged.
For discussion purposes, let's assume that the average CPC (cost-per-click) is $1.00. Actual costs can vary from as little as $.05 to $15.00 and up for popular keywords. As an adwords advertiser you set a daily budget - let's say $20/day. Lets assume that 1,000 people a day do searches on your keywords in your campaign. If 2 people out of every 100 searches decide to click on your ad in a 24-hour period your budget will be exhausted (20 clicks) and your ads will stop showing. For budget planning purposes the above model is basically accurate - $1 CPC is a good planning figure and you can assume you will exhaust your budget daily - so a $20/day budget will be a $600 month campaign. That campaign will do two things - it will deliver 600 visitors to your website in a month who have pre-qualified themselves by performing a search with your keyword AND they found something in your ad appealing enough to incite them to action.
Web traffic - qualified traffic - is the purpose of any SEM campaign. There are numerous factors in our control to help focus and qualify that traffic. Let's run through a sample campaign.
Sample Campaign Setup
For this purpose our client organization is a national-class non-profit consulting company with a focus on higher education clients that needs fundraising and strategic consulting services.
Setup and Keywords: First we would setup the client account in adwords and establish basic settings like time-zone, currency, billing preferences, etc. Next, we would use the keyword-planning tools in adwords to develop a list of keywords and phrases that correspond to the client's areas of expertise and potential searches. There is art and science to this stage. For existing websites with current analytics and search traffic we can dig into what past searches have been. For all clients we can run automated tools in adwords that will show comparable searches, provide weighting and estimates for those phrases, and begin to build a list. We can build multiple, overlapping lists to segment the campaigns - for instance we would run one campaign around "fundraising" and another around "strategic planning". Here's a snapshot of the keyword planner showing search volume, suggested bid levels and other factors.
The key with building an effective keyword strategy is focusing on opportunities to be specific. As you can see from the graphic above, a keyword like "consultant" has a very high bid - $10.53 - this is because the word is so generic that you are likely bidding against some global, multi-national consulting organizations in many sectors who are willing to pay very high prices for that single word. On the other hand, "fundraising ideas" has a relatively low bid - if part of the SEM strategy for the client was around the idea of promoting that the organization was a good resource for ideas and there was a corresponding focus on website content to support that claim then this term could be a good entry point for traffic at a lower cost.
Targeting: Additional targeting parameters are available. Geo-targeting allows you to specify down to the level of zip code the specific areas you want you ads to run. This targeting relies on IP addresses for networks - it is relatively accurate. Geo-targeting can be used to qualify traffic by demographics and also reduce "garbage" clicks outside of your area. If you are a restaurant, geo-targeting means that you can keep your budget tight by only delivering ads to searches that were made within easy driving distance. For organizations that don't have that same issue geo targeting can be done to focus on certain sectors - for instance our consulting client above could focus on government clients with a campaign targeting the Washington D.C. area.
Example of radius and state targeting
There are additional elements to a campaign. These include the following:
- Negative Keywords - we can include keywords and phrases we don't want to trigger an ad even if other words are present - for instance "cheap, fast non-profit consultants"
- Demographic targeting - age, gender, income level. These are derived by Google through analysis of user behavior and other obscure algorithms but statistically are relevant.
- Interest Targeting - drill-down topics like sports, arts, etc.
- Remarketing - this is almost a completely separate element that we typically build whole campaigns around - remarketing delivers ads to customers who have visited your websites previously by tracking their IP address and delivering contextual ads. Remarketing is a powerful tool for engagement and one we generally us in display campaigns (more on that in a moment)
Budgeting and Conversion - We develop budgets based on conversations with our clients around their overall media strategy. Unlike traditional advertising, online advertising delivers reams of accurate data. We can see easily how many people saw your ads, clicked on them, what keywords they used to find you, and much more. Budget for online advertising should be a significant percentage of a comprehensive media plan and should be compared to and optimized against other forms of media buys and PR on an ongoing basis. One factor that is available in adwords is "conversion tracking" - this is where you setup a target for the web visitor - it might be a purchase or it might be using a contact or subscription form. Adwords can track visitors through to conversion and provide a dollar-value for conversion. For instance, let's say our hypothetical 20 click-throughs for the day from above visit our website at a cost of $20 - and we track how many of those 20 - say 2 - "convert" by signing up for our email list - then we can start to create an understanding of what it will take to add more people to that list over time - and the relative cost. If we had a goal of 200 sign ups we would be able to extrapolate that it will cost $2000 and take 100 days to reach that goal.
Ads and Optimization - Creating the ads that people will see in their search results is fairly simple in adwords - you can have as many ads as you wish to create assigned to a given campaign. Typically we develop ads in a variety of voices and calls to action - from corporate to enthusiastic for instance - and launch them into the ether. One of the really great aspects of Google is that it will optimize the delivery of the ads over time - in other words, if you create 10 different ads for a client, Google will weight the ad that gets the most clicks and deliver that ad with more frequency. This feature allows one to use Google as a test-marketing platform for different tag-lines and brand statements. For our hypothetical campaign, we would design ads like this and see what gets the most play in clicks and conversions - and connections.
Launching - Adwords campaigns can be started, paused and ended easily and instantly. In practice, adwords is not an ideal platform for short-term campaigns - a week of less for instance - as it takes time for the campaign to join the "queue" of campaigns that may be overlapping on your keywords and targeting. We generally see ads start to run in about 24 hours and most campaigns hit their stride in about a week.
Tracking in adwords - like all analytics - can happen on a lot of levels. In the adwords dashboard itself there are many immediate statistics. Once you set the date range for reporting you can see all the main traffic metrics - impressions, clicks, CTR (click through rate - how "appealing" the ad was to the target audience), CPC (cost per click) and more. It's also important to review and compare traffic with the Google analytics report for the target site - this also tends to be the place where you can see conversion funnels and performance.