Pop quiz: who can tell me what the difference is between SEO and PPC? Anyone? Well if you remember my post on how to become a natural at SEO, Search Engine Optimization is the process of improving the visibility of a website or web page in search engines via unpaid search results, otherwise known as “natural” or “organic” results. Search Engine Marketing and Pay Per Click usually refer to a form of online advertising that seeks to promote websites by increasing their visibility in search engine result pages through the use of paid placement, contextual advertising and paid inclusion. As its name indicates, unlike other types of advertising, with PPC you only pay when someone clicks on your ad. In some instances, SEM is used as the umbrella term for both PPC and SEO. Paid results can be found at either the top or right hand-side of search result pages.

As I mentioned before, search isn’t an exact science, but just like SEO there are techniques to optimize your SEM/PPC efforts. Here are just a few of them to get you started.

1. Setting Your Goals

It may seem like a no-brainer, but as with any marketing campaign it’s very important to set objectives before embarking on your PPC adventure. Whether you’re trying to generate traffic, sales or leads, you need to determine that right off the bat. Without a clear purpose and understanding of the data you’ll be getting, it’s very easy to get caught up in PPC since it’s so darn cheap to begin with. But those small amounts of money add up in a hurry, and before you know it, you may dig yourself into a hole.

The big advantage with PPC is that it’s super flexible. You can make changes to your campaign on the fly or shut it down entirely if need be, so it’s pretty easy to adjust if the results don’t exactly live up to your expectations.

2. Determining Your Keyword Universe

– List creation: This is the step that’ll make or break your campaign, so take the time to sit down and think it through. Again, thanks to PPC’s flexibility you’ll be able to change your keyword settings instantly, so any faux pas can be easily rectified.

Keywords are typically divided into 2 categories:

  • Brand: these are directly “connected” to your company, (i.e., your company name, product/service names, trademarks, etc.) In our case, “VerticalResponse” or “Roost” would top the list of brand terms.
  • Category/non-brand: these are more generic terms that can be used to describe what you do. They are also the ones you and your competitors will be battling for (even though it IS common practice and fair game to try to “leverage” others’ brand keywords as well). In VerticalResponse’s case, they include “email marketing” or “social media“.

For PPC though, you’ll also want to list entire phrases that match as closely as possible to whatever users will be typing in their search queries, such as: “best email marketing tool for small businesses” or “top free social media management software.” I know, the possibilities are endless (searchers can be very creative), so fret not; neither you nor your competitors will be able to cover all of them. Also, keep in mind the different typos that users are susceptible to commit when searching, so make sure to add those in as well (ex: “vertical response” or “email makreting”).

– Matching options: once you have your nice big bucket of keywords and keyphrases, you can choose to add them to your account in four different ways:

  • Exact match: as the name suggests, it will only display ads if the exact keyword is entered in the search field. To manually enter a keyword as an exact match, just add brackets around it, like this: [keyword]
  • Phrase match: ads will appear as long as the query contains the keywords in the order in which you’ve listed them, for example an ad will be shown if the user types in “what is the best email marketing software” and one of your phrase match keywords was “email marketing.” To mark a keyword as phrase match type, just add quotation marks around it, like this: “keyword”
  • Broad match: ads will be triggered if the search engine deems the search query relevant to these keywords. Using them will generate a lot of traffic but at the expense of control, and the leads generated won’t necessarily be qualified even though search engines are getting better at identifying rubbish. Keywords will be added as broad match by default if you don’t add any symbols around them.
  • Negative match: these will allow you to cut down on the search results and bring back some degree of control, especially if you’re rolling with a lot of broad keywords. For example, if you’re in the cloud computing industry, you’ll want to exclude “weather channel” or “rain” from your search results so ads won’t show for people just looking for today’s weather forecast. Negative keywords just need to be preceded by a minus sign, like this: -keyword

Reading this last paragraph, I’m sure you’re tempted to disregard broad match entirely, but not so fast. One strategy I’ve seen work well is to use it on phrases with more than 2 keywords, and save phrase match for ones with just 1 or 2. That gives the search engine less leeway to return irrelevant suggestions while capturing the closely related traffic.

3. Setting up Your SEM/PPC Account(s)

– Picking a provider (or all of them): you’ll probably want to start off with one of the 3 main search engines, which all offer their own solution (Google AdWordsMicrosoft adCenter and Yahoo! Network Plus). Keep in mind, the 3 networks use different algorithms (even if Yahoo!’s is now based off of Bing’s), so whatever strategy works for one might not for the others.

– Campaigns and ad groups: once you’ve created your account you’ll be asked to separate your keywords into various buckets that will eventually become your campaigns and ad groups, which will form its basic structure.

  • Campaigns: I’d recommend you stick to one campaign per goal you set, for example if you’re a winery, you should have one campaign for “Sell red wines”, another for “Sell white wines”, etc.
  • Ad groups: these should be organized by common theme or product/service, with ideally 3 ad groups per campaign. So if your goal was to sell red wines, you could have the following:
Ad Groups Syrah Merlot Pinot noir
•mondeuse blanche
•dry red wine
•petite syrah
•merlot grapes
•fruity red wine
•Pinot noir
•Black grape
•Light red wine

– Networks, devices and extensions: these settings will allow you to keep a close eye on your budget and where your ads will be served. Regarding the networks, my suggestion would be to have one campaign run on one unique network (content OR search), not both.

– Delivery: here you’ll have the option between letting the search engine do the work for you based on clickthrough rate (the “optimize” option) or running your split testing yourself, based on the metrics that best suit your goals (“rotate”).

– Scheduling: this is your on/off switch, allowing you to run and pause your campaign as you please. There is some additional granularity as you can also adjust the amount of your keyword bids should any opportunities arise, based on seasonality or market mood swings.

– Audience: last but not least, you need to choose who should see your ads. You can target users based on language, country, city or even define specific areas (ex: all within a 30-mile radius of San Francisco but exclude 10-mile radius around Napa).

4. Writing Your Ads

This might actually be the hardest part to master, all while being the backbone of your PPC campaign. Just keep an eye on your KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and make sure you’re doing some split-testing, that way you can pull your underperforming ads on the fly and run with the better ones.

Ads usually consist of 5 lines, even though only 4 are visible to searchers:

  • Ad title (25 characters maximum): include keywords in your headline, since it’s what people are looking for and you’ll want to grab their attention right away.
  • Description (2 lines, with 35 characters each maximum): relate what you say in this paragraph to whatever landing page you’ll be directing the searcher to, to stay consistent. Get straight to the point, deliver the most relevant information about your business/products/services (depending on the search query) and always, always include a strong, enticing call-to-action.
  • Display URL (35 characters maximum): as its name indicates, this is the visible web address that will show below the description. You can either type in your homepage or most relevant product/service page, just make sure it is short enough and clean (all your website URLs are clean anyway, right?).
  • Destination URL (1,024 characters maximum): this is the invisible line I mentioned, and where the ad title will actually link to. It doesn’t have to be identical to the display URL, as you can choose to have it point instead to an entirely different landing page you may have created for the purpose of your PPC campaign, or your display URL but tagged with any referred-by codes you might have assigned to this particular campaign.

5. Bidding

Finally, the good stuff. An old coworker used to say “PPC is like playing chess against a supercomputer,” and it’s not difficult to understand why. Not only do you have to pick which keywords to focus on, you must also try to anticipate which ones your competitors will be bidding on. Throw in the different types of matches, account settings, ad versions, and you’ve got quite a lot of levers to pull and moving parts to keep in mind. Thankfully, here are some tried and true strategies for you to use:

– Choose your weapon: there are 3 different ways to place a bid available:

  • Manual bidding: you get to set the highest price you are willing to pay. This is the method that leaves you with the most control, so if you have a clear understanding of your goals and typical conversion values, you should be able to determine what a good bid is fairly easily.
  • Conversion Optimizer: based on historical results, the search engine will calculate the bids based on conversion data.
  • Budget Optimizer: the search engine does thy bidding, to get the most clicks possible for your budget.

– Winners don’t necessarily finish first: the biggest mistake PPC users can make is to obsessively go after the number one spot. The spots below it will cost you less per click, and by extension, a lot less per conversion.

– It’s all about tweaking: PPC requires constant attention as yesterday’s truth is rarely today’s, given your competitors’ activities and constant traffic fluctuations. Also be prepared to pause your campaign if, despite all your efforts, bidding proves too expensive with too little return on investment, and give yourself some time to assess what is going wrong.

6. Tracking

Once your ads are out in the World Wide Web for all to see, it’s time to see how they actually perform. Here are the main metrics to keep an eye on:

  • Impressions: the number of times your ad has been served.
  • CTR (clickthrough rate): the number of times your ad was actually clicked on divided by the number of impressions.
  • Bounce rate: the number of visitors viewing one page only divided by total page entries.
  • Conversion rate: the number of goal achievements divided by the number of visits.
  • CPC (Cost Per Click): the amount you earn every time a user clicks on your ad.
  • Quality Score: this is the other major factor in deciding where your ad appears in the rankings, besides bidding. It is the search engines’ way of rewarding relevance and they calculate it based on clickthrough rate, ad content and quality of the landing page. In the end, this is how your rankings are determined:

Max bid x quality score = ad rank

  • Head and long tail: these aren’t metrics per se, but they are pretty crucial to keep track of. Head is the few keywords that account for most of your visits, while long tail are the ones that individually account for little traffic by themselves, but collectively often could account for a huge amount of traffic. Typically, brand keywords are included in your head, while category keywords are part of your long tail. My recommendation would be for you to focus your PPC efforts on your long tail, and leave your head to SEO. Why? Well, category terms are typically used in queries by people who are unfamiliar with your company itself, so you’ll be able to capture prospects and introduce yourself to them early in the sales cycle. On the other hand, optimizing your website for brand terms suddenly becomes easier as you just have a few keywords left to concentrate on, and you won’t have to pay too much anymore for people who already know you.

And now you should be set for SEM, in all its shapes and forms. Let us know if any of these tips work out for you, or have any of your own to share!

© 2012 – 2018, Contributing Author. All rights reserved.

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