The complex art and science of search engine marketing (SEM) has, almost overnight, become an essential skill set for any company that hopes to succeed at e-commerce.
It’s a fact that Backcountry Edge, a four-year-old online purveyor of high-end hiking and camping gear, learned early on. So the company was quick to sign up last year as a beta participant for a new software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering from Clickable Inc.
The Clickable service aims to remove as much of the complexity from search engine marketing as possible, and as much of the drudgery too. According to Backcountry Edge marketing specialist Pam Emery, it succeeds pretty well.
Here's how SEM typically works. To ensure your company’s ad (complete with a link to your Web site) appears prominently in the ‘sponsored links’ section of a search result page when a prospective buyer keys in a particular search term, you bid for words on an open market at each search engine or ad network.
It’s a little like day trading, and it’s now a multi-billion dollar market, with even small companies like Backcountry Edge spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars a month. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s MSN are the big three players but there are scores of others.
The more you bid, the higher up your ad appears in the list of sponsors on search-result pages – and, theoretically, more customers will click the link to go to your page. And if you’re doing the rest of your marketing right, you'll reap more sales.
Backcountry Edge stumbled on Clickable almost by accident. Realizing that she didn’t have time she needed to devote to search engine marketing, Emery went looking last year for a bid automation product that would reduce some of the labor involved.
In the course of her research, she came across mention of the upcoming Clickable beta and signed up immediately – one of 3,000 applicants for a 500-participant test program, Kalehoff says.
Implementing the product was a breeze. It runs on Clickable’s servers and displays in a browser. Backcountry Edge had to provide information that lets Clickable log in to its accounts with Google and Yahoo, but otherwise, getting up and running was a matter of turning on and starting to work.
Clickable offered her an online orientation session, but she says, “By time I had the walk-through [a day later], I was already all over the software. It’s just so easy to use and approachable.”
Besides Clickable’s mouse-over Help functions which help you navigate the interface, the product also features built-in tutorials on basic search engine marketing concepts and best practices. None of this is rocket science, but it can be complex, especially for the math-challenged, and there is little in the way of good educational material available, Kalehoff notes.
Clickable provides a single interface that customers can use to manage accounts with multiple search engines, and it automates analysis of campaign results.
The product answers basic questions, says Max Kalehoff, the company’s vice president of marketing. How am I doing – what’s my return on the money I’m spending on ad words in terms of site visits by prospects and online sales? And what can I do to get a better return?
Should you bid more or less for a word? Bid on different words? Change the wording of ads? Modify the landing page where customers end up in hopes of increasing the number of site visitors who actually buy?
The answers are critical. Getting them wrong can mean missing opportunities to increase sales. Or wasting money on ad spending that produces poor results.
Getting it right requires understanding how the search engines work and how to analyze data they provide and that you mine from your own e-commerce systems. It also needs somebody to keep on top of accounts and campaigns all the time – because of the dynamic auction market, search engine marketing is a constantly moving target.
The skills needed to do all of this are still rare, so it's difficult to acquire them through hiring personell. Small companies may have no option but to learn for themselves as they go, which is what Emery has been doing – between being an online product expert and customer service consultant for her employer.
“The time I have to spend on this is very limited,” she says.
Monitoring, managing and analyzing results for the accounts the firm has with the big three search engines takes a lot of time too. Each of the search engines works differently, which means before Clickable, she had to learn different interfaces to enter bids, manage campaigns and check results.
Time of the Essence
Before she started using Clickable as part of the beta program five months ago – the product is now in limited commercial release – Emery did what most small business marketers do. She managed each account separately. She loaded data into spreadsheets and ran macros in order to analyze the results and figure out how she was doing and what she should do to improve
For example, to check on results of parallel ad word campaigns at Google, Yahoo and MSN for a particular product, she would have to open the interface for each, log in, drill down to the information she needed, extract it, load it into Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and run her analytical macros.
“Basically you do the exact same thing for each one,” Emery says. “Just to log in, get into the right campaign and get an idea of what my results have been took a chunk of time.”
Clickable helps by providing a single streamlined interface. The company connects directly to a customer’s accounts at multiple search engines, extracts data automatically and presents it in a consistent interface.
So far Clickable has plugins up and running for Google and Yahoo, but recently released a beta plugin for MSN that will allow customers to display MSN information in the Clickable interface too. Others will follow, Kalehoff says.
“It may not sound like much,” Emery says, “but especially if you’re a small company, to be on one application and be able to manage across many keyword platforms is really great.”
Kalehoff contends that Clickable's analytic capabilities are very sophisticated. More importantly perhaps, they’re automated. Emery doesn’t have to do anything. The product generates them on its own without any intervention from her.
Better still, recognizing that many small and medium size firms are still learning about this stuff, Clickable doesn’t just offer an array of opaque numbers, it transforms math-based analytics into recommendations that marketers can understand., such as "Bidding more for this word will improve your return," or "Try changing the text of your ad to increase clicks."
“I’m not a keyword expert, I’m not an analytics expert,” Emery says. “What this product does is let me, on a daily basis and very quickly, look at a number of recommendations and make sure that, one, I’m not missing any opportunities, and two, not spending out there on something I shouldn’t be spending on.”
It’s not that she accepts every recommendation without question. Nor is it Clickable’s intention to take the final decision making away from marketers, Kalehoff says. They know their own businesses best.
Emery doesn’t always examine every recommendation in detail, especially if she’s busy with other duties as is often the case. But she does check the critical alerts on bid price, which are easy to evaluate quickly and act upon. She may not accept recommendations to the penny either, but will make smaller adjustments appropriate for her marketing goals.
“I’ve been using [the product] for about five months now,” she says. “I would say that on the direction – bid increased, bid decreased – the recommendations are always right on money.”
The intended benefits are clear enough: save time on managing search engine marketing, and improved performance. Does Clickable deliver where it counts?
Emery admits she can’t quantify the benefits yet, partly because she’s still learning her “craft” as a search engine marketer. But Clickable is already saving her time, and she’s convinced it will eventually prove to increase sales.
“I will also say that it has given me a level of confidence in what I’m doing that I wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for Clickable,” Emery adds. “I’ve looked at some other things since then and there’s nothing quite like this,” Emery says. “For what we do, this seems to be perfect.”
Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.
This article was first published on SmallBusinessComputing.com.