Category Archives: Search Engine Marketing

Ways to fulfill the 1-to-1 Future’s ideal, where customers “advertise” their interest for products and services precisely when they’re ready to consider a purchase

Testing uncovers 6 keys to landing page success

Landing pages are expansions of ads. Every banner, email offer or sponsored listing worth its salt points to a single, hard working page. What sort of work do these pages perform? Selling, plain and simple. But to succeed, the approach to designing these pages is neither plain nor simple. Tools like Google Website Optimizer allow you to test for yourself. These automated systems help you discover exactly what combination of components works best at converting your page’s visitors into customers or qualified leads.

But what components do you start testing? And what factors should you be paying attention to as you get started?

Luckily, a lot of testing has already been done, and their findings tell you a lot about the complexities of the human mind. Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful report from Marketing Experiments:

Landing Page Performance Elements

Through extensive research, Marketing Experiments has identified six essential elements that affect landing page performance:

Friction — [This is] caused by elements of the page that require a prospect to do extra work and increase the likelihood of abandoning the page due to fatigue or irritation. Incentives such as bonus gifts or special offers can make the offer feel more worthwhile and encourage the visitor to continue.

Visitor Motivation Level and Type— [These] are factors that influence how many will remain on the site or bounce off. The nature and level of visitor motivation is essential to what landing page attributes will prove to be the “stickiest.” If people really want something, they’ll put up with more friction.

Value Proposition — How quickly, clearly, and effectively the landing page conveys the site’s value affects its ability to move visitors to the next step and not abandon the site. [The authors call this level of abandonment the “bounce rate.”]

Anxiety — All visitors arrive at a site with an initial level of anxiety caused by their perceptions of the relative risks associated with the site, the company, and the product.

Credibility Indicators — You can improve click-through and conversion by including page elements that convey trustworthiness through credibility indicators such as awards, privacy policies, certifications, testimonials, and longevity statements such as “serving the needs of ___ for more than 15 years.”

This report also has an excellent exploration of when to use short versus long copy. Happy testing!

Name-googling matters in business, even for execs still in the womb

A term made popular in the 1990s was You, Inc. As we travel through our careers, each of us needs to think of ourselves as brands. These individual brands are like product brands. They have names and reputations, to be nurtured and merchandised. Two recent stories from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) remind us of the new power of our personal brand names in a world where Google has become a verb, as in “to google.”

The first story talks about how often executives do search engine research on business contacts before they meet them. You may be surprised that more than a third of those surveyed by the WSJ (37%) said yes, they google people for “both personal and professional uses.” Another 18% said yes, but largely for business purposes. Taken together, half of all of the 2,118 executives surveyed use search engines to check out business contacts.

 More than half of those surveyed use search engines to check out business contacts

The other WSJ story makes sense in this perspective, because it describes how many expectant parents are choosing the names of their unborn babies based in part on the name’s lack of competition in search engine results. As the title of this article suggests, You’re Nobody Unless Your Name Googles Well.

As a side note, I was humbled at what a flash-in-the-pan my first name has been when you see its popularity charted over the decades. Check out this fun iVillage Baby Name Wizard to see how your name has held up over time.

 Are you expecting a baby? PLEEEASE name him Jeffrey!

Ogilvy on web advertising

My alternate headline for this post is: Winning web headlines can be long, but watch your column widths. Here’s why …

Ogilvy On AdvertisingThe book that first inspired me to get into direct response — a move that led directly to my love of interactive marketing — was written by a famous ad man. Remarkably, David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising is still in print. More remarkable is how much of his advice on successful direct marketing, print and television ads is still relevant. And directly transferable to the web.

I was thinking of him again today when I was in a design meeting where one of our web designers was counseling against an overly wide column of text. He said, “We don’t want this column to span more that 400 characters. More than that fatigues the reader.” Wow, I thought. This advice is almost verbatim from a book that predates the web as we know it by at least 10 years.

Headlines are another source of attention — and often misunderstanding. Although headlines linking to web pages can be short and still be effective, they should be long enough to get the job done. Abe Lincoln, when asked how long a soldier’s legs should be, was said to have answered, “Long enough to reach the ground.”

I’ve learned a lot by following the advice of the excellent Brian Clark, in his CopyBlogger. He periodically singles out strong headlines, based on his experience in the business. (And thanks again, Brian, for citing one of mine). His criteria remind me a great deal of Ogilvy’s, which was based on some of the deepest readership research done at the time for advertising. Here is Ogilvy’s take on the headline:

[Our research] reports that [print] headlines with more than 10 words get less readership than short headlines. On the other hand, a study of retail ads found that headlines of 10 words sell more than short headlines. Conclusion: If you need a long headline, go ahead and write one.

Other tidbits of his that apply to online headlines and links include the following:

  • Headlines containing news are “surefire” — they are recalled by 22% more people than ads without news (and lots of pay-per-click research shows that they generate more clicks)
  • Never use all capital letters — they’re less readable in both print and online. And with the web, people may think you’re shouting, to cite the classic email netiquette tip
  • Whenever possible, promise a benefit

So what is the longest character count we counsel for headlines? Keep them to 75. It’s the standard set by Digg for their listing’s headlines. And this number is just a few characters greater than the number that is indexed by Google (according to lore and legend) when Google’s spiders read a page’s Title tag.

Which brings up an argument in favor of the longer headline that Ogilvy couldn’t have anticipated. Length improves the chances of including a keyword that will move your page higher in search engine results pages. That’s the sort of down-and-dirty selling tactic that the late Mr. Ogilvy would have loved.

Will DoubleClick’s new owner trigger more market-driven ad pricing?

There are two drivers behind the meteoric success of sponsored search ads. Yes, the main one is the pre-qualifying nature of an internet search. People signal their interest by the phrases on which they search, which makes this medium great at measurably driving sales. Linking search ads directly back to sales has transformed Google and other paid search providers into the automated equivalent of commission salespeople. (This virtual salesforce is made even better at “closing” through tools like the just-launched Google Website Optimizer.)

The other driver of this medium’s success is the market-driven nature of buying search phrase clicks. Every keyword phrase is priced based on supply and demand, with demand expressed through what competing marketers are willing to pay for the same keyword. 

Which leads me to yesterday’s announcement from Google, about their purchase of DoubleClick. They have once again expanded their empire, and like any self-respecting colonial power, they will be teaching their new conquest how things are done in the United Googledom.

Banner ads and other online display ads are not nearly as successful at driving sales, although some direct marketers do quite well through sheer numbers and creative chutzpah. No, most online creative units (OCUs) support a sale in far subtler ways, by reinforcing the brand even if a click isn’t generated, and if a click does take place, by attracting consumers to sites and e-newsletters that allow for further product involvement.

The pricing of OCUs on ad networks such as DoubleClick has been fair, in that prices are competitive across the various networks offering the same types of audiences. In this way and others, supply and demand manage media costs.

Somewhat.

The pricing used for ad network media buys is far from perfect. This explains the growth of ad exchanges, where inventory of available impressions across several similar sites and networks is taken into account when calculating what a marketer pays. This comes closer to the bidding model that sponsored search does so well (but not perfectly, because of click fraud).

Not coincidentally, DoubleClick had recently announced it was seriously getting into the ad exchange business. Many theorized this was to help them become an even more desirable target for purchase. Speculation a few weeks ago was that Microsoft would be the prevailing suitor. Instead, Google is paying cash for the company. Lots of it: Twice what they payed for YouTube, at a reported $3.1 billion.

I’ll take the experts’ word for it that this is a brilliant defensive move. It does make sense that depriving Microsoft of this massive portfolio of ad-serving sites is a big win for Google. What I haven’t read much of is speculation on the ways DoubleClick’s business model will change in the wake of this deal. 

I’ll get the ball rolling with a few to consider:

“AdSensible” ad pricing — This is a no-brainer. Google is essentially the biggest ad exchange in the world. It’s just that until now, most of their inventory was on search results pages, and instead of OCUs they’ve primarily served up text ads. OCUs may never be priced as dynamically as sponsored search ads, but this acquisition takes a step in the right direction.

Better behavioral matching for improved OCU performance — Google and others have been testing products and systems to statistically model browsing behavior. It’s all in the service of predicting — on the fly — receptivity to various ads. This has been going on since the mid-90s, in portals like Go.com, and in ad networks such as Advertising.com — long before they, themselves, were bought by Disney and AOL, respectively. What has impeded everyone’s progress is a relative lack of reach (you need millions of impressions per day) and integration (across various media types). Google has both reach and integration. Especially after yesterday.

Cheaper local advertising — Google is aware that, like politics, all advertising is local. Watch for signs that they will be leveraging DoubleClick in local advertising efforts. They are already making inroads with local businesses who can monetize geo-targeted clicks. For the majority of other local businesses, a truly inventory-driven (read: competitively priced) branding ad system would have a ton of appeal.

I’m writing this on a Saturday, and something tells me that at this very moment Microsoft executives are scribbling on white boards in hastily-called meetings, attempting to overcome what must be a huge strategic loss. In the meantime, bloggers like me have no option but to chalk up another one for the “do-no-evil” empire.

Print and other traditional media spur retail web searches

If you thought pay-per-click (PPC) search engine marketing would make your marketing planning easier, think again.

PPC is simple and brilliant: Show online ads to someone who is searching based on the keywords they choose as a proxy for their buying intentions. It’s a proven way to catch qualified prospects when they’re considering a purchase. Within limits, it’s also quite measurable.

So life got easier, right? Certainly you can now eliminate much of your traditional advertising and pile on the keyword buys. There’s your plan. Now you can go home. 

If that’s what you’re thinking, you may want to think again. 

Specifically, consider what sends prospects to their computers in the first place. A survey by the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA) reports that consumers start their web searches based on many off-line stimuli, including much of traditional advertising.

Consumers said that they were most motivated to begin an online search after viewing advertisements in magazines (47.2%), newspapers (42.3%), on TV (42.8%) and from reading articles (43.7%).

Although it wasn’t specifically addressed here, you can gather that in these cases off-line advertising probably triggered a search for a brand (the advertised brand, that is), as opposed to a generic search (one on the category of product). In this way, the off-line stimulus greatly improved the odds of your PPC ads finding prospects who are ready to buy.

Media that were most likely to motivate an online searchPut another way, the stimulus improved the PPC ads’ conversion rates. If you were to read the PPC stats in a vacuum, you’d confer more power to the medium than it deserves.

Imagine two men in a fishing boat, one doing all of the casting of the line and reeling in of the fish, and the other man standing ready with the fishing net. It would be unfair to claim that the guy with the net was actually doing any fishing, just because he brought all of the catches into the boat.

So which of the off-line media reels them close to the boat most effectively?

I show the chart above not to demonstrate the superiority of one medium over another. On the contrary, I’m struck by how close they are in terms of “most motivating” a search. It instead shows what an incredibly mixed bag these media present the beleaguered marketing planner, and how technology, at least in this case, isn’t cutting that person any breaks.

You’re it: Tagging, social bookmarking and marketing

If the internet is getting smarter, it is only because we are being carefully watched. The video Web 2.0: The Machine is Us/ing Us brilliantly demonstrates what I mean. It shows an internet that has become more valuable by connecting us through observed preferences.

A link to the Web 2.0 videoThose preferences are observed through our past behavior — always the best predictor of future action. The video explains: “100 billion times per day, humans are clicking on a web page … teaching the Machine what we think is important.”

I recommend you follow this video, by Michael Wesch of Kansas State University, through to its completion. The payoff is fascinating and sobering.

Some of this behavior is passive.

Merely clicking on a web page, for example, is something that even my mother does. She needs no special training or instruction. Yet systems such as the recently unveiled Google Personalized Search are improving her browsing experience by customizing content based on her past searches — and even her web browsing history.

Don’t think this has gone unnoticed by those in the search engine optimization business. Google Personalized Search is a major shift in the optimization game, a phenomenon that’s sending us all back to our playbooks.

Other behavior is more active.

Specifically I’m talking about the type of tagging that takes place in online social networks. According to a recent Pew research study, “28% of internet users have tagged or categorized content online such as photos, news stories or blog posts.” On any given day, this report says that 7% of internet users have tagged or categorized online content. To put that in perspective, that’s seven times the number of people who on that day have listened to a podcast.

So who is doing all of this tagging? Not surprisingly, they’re more likely to be under 40, with higher than average incomes and education levels.

Pew has no way to report on whether this tagging behavior is growing in popularity. This was the organization’s first ever research on tagging. But Hitwise reports that sites that enable tagging, such as Del.icio.us and Flickr, are gaining in popularity.

In just three months, according to Hitwise, Flickr grew in popularity by 140%. By that I mean that visits to this photo sharing site accounted for .029% of visits a week in January, up from less than .012% three months earlier.

In the same time span, Del.ic.ious traffic grew by over 600%. Visits to that online recommendation site increased to .0036%, up from .0005% in October, 2006. (Thanks for your help on these stats, Wendy Davis of MediaPost.)

Here’s a Wired rundown of some of the best tagging and social bookmarking sites. Tag, you’re it!

Should your brand spawn an online community?

Some brands are clearly benefiting from their own online communities. Nike’s community is quite active, with over 57,000 members. The largest Blackberry community has nearly twice that number. Marc Andreessen is betting that more niche brands — as well as sports teams, community groups and hobbyists — will want to reap the same benefits.

I’m thinking he’s onto something, due to the new ways that consumers are interacting with brands, as well as the power of search engines to fuel these connections. It wouldn’t be the first time Andreessen has a winning hunch.

You may recall that in mid-’90, the sweetheart of the internet was Netscape. Marc Andreessen was co-developer of this free web browser. During Netscape’s zenith, he was on the cover of every magazine from Business 2.0 to Time. That’s before Microsoft moved into the browser business, and its Internet Explorer did to Netscape what its Word did to WordPerfect and Excel to SuperCalc. Microsoft has rained on a lot of parades. Andreessen got drenched. But also quite rich.

As reports these past few weeks have declared, he has invested his money in Ning, a way to “launch a social network with a few mouse clicks.”

Ning would take much of the pain out of testing an online community surrounding your brand. But is it a wise decision? Let’s put aside for a moment the legal considerations (liability for bad advice shared on your forum, for instance), as well as the logistics of moderating the thing.

Does this marketing tactic support your brand? I say yes, for the following three reasons:

  1. Your customers experience your brand but could not care less for your company. As David Raab eloquently put it, “Brands are movie stars. Companies own the theater.” An online community becomes a place in that theater to congregate.
  2. People will trash talk your brand regardless of whether you host a community sounding board. Sam Decker of Bazaar Voice contends, and I agree, that it’s better to have them do it on your forum than someone else’s. I’ve quoted him speaking about negative user-generated content (UGC) in an earlier post.
  3. Search engines can’t get enough of the UGC that these forum sites generate. They just love ’em. Isn’t it better for people searching on generic brand features to find content about your brand as opposed to a competitor’s?

Does the prospect of an online forum about your brand scare you? It should. But you need to know more about online communities, and what better way than to launch a simple test? If not for your brand, how about for your church group? Marc Andreessen is preparing a well-stocked marketing laboratory just for you.

Want to check out a sample Ning-driven community? Here’s one on the evolution of broadcast and personal media.

Is One Positive Day tomorrow? Rats!

Blogs and other user-generated content (UGC), coupled with search engines, have made negative news spread like online viruses. This news can be extremely harmful to a brand. Often the damage is unwarranted.

A good example is the fall-out two weeks ago over the punishing flight delays that jetBlue subjected many of its customers to. Kevin Hillstrom of The Mine That Data Blog observed that in the week following these delays, more than 7,500 articles had been written about them in blogs and other UGC. The number is sobering.

It’s especially concerning when you consider that no company is perfect, and jetBlue is better than most. From the top down, they are organized around the customer experience. Their blunder shows that with even the best of companies, stuff happens.

In his open letter to the marketing blogging community, Kevin asks writers Rats in the NYC KFC-Taco Bellto think twice next time before braying about whatever company publicly stumbles. Outrage over poor customer service is fine, but restraint is also in order. Most reasonable people would agree that jetBlue does not deserve 7,500 voices screaming for blood. People were inconvenienced, not poisoned.

On the other hand, poisoning would probably merit outrage from a blogger, right? Or how about the threat of poisoning, from rats in a restaurant, as shown in the photo above?

Here’s why this is an important distinction. I promised Kevin on his blog that I would participate in his One Positive Day pledge. In this pledge, I as a blogger would not “go negative,” so to speak, just because the opportunity presents itself. In this pledge, I will not succumb to the temptation of talking about poor customer service merely as a way to elicit strong reactions from readers — strong reactions that would presumably garner stronger readership.

Kevin proposes that One Positive Day, his moratorium on UGC negativity, would be enforced on the first day of every month. Starting tomorrow, March 1. So I only have a few precious hours to post this photo, which was taken from video footage of a Greenwich Village KFC-Taco Bell — the restaurant that made the news, and YouTube, for being an after-hours haven to dozens of cavorting rats. Yuck.

Repeat after me. Yuck. Okay, enough of that. Tomorrow is a new day. A much more positive day. I promise, Kevin.

Quantifying the offline purchasing impact of search

When an online search becomes an online sale, that conversion can usually be measured. That’s how you calculate the true ROI of sponsored search listings. But is there an additional, hidden value to that investment?

Consider these examples: 

  • A j.jill online visitor — who got there through a Google search — decides she really needs to try on the jacket she found in a store. She goes there based on her online search and makes the purchase there. 
  • A search on a favorite author causes someone to browse the virtual stacks of Barnes & Noble. Later in the week he buys the book at a bricks-and-mortar location.

Those examples don’t include business-to-business purchases. For instance, someone needs a widget, so they type the phrase into a search engine. This person finds a promising widget merchant, but closes the deal much later, via phone and email.

How do you capture the value of those original search listings — whether they are paid or organic?

ROI Research attempted to find out (in the b-to-c space, at least), and their findings turned up some provocative numbers, including the following:

  • As many as one out of every three offline purchases was precipitated by an online search
  • Search can influence an incremental 3 times the dollar value of e-commerce transactions by reaching consumers who shop in traditional channels
  • Those who search up to 10 times annually spend an average of $1,789 online
  • Those who searched 31+ times spent an average of $2,943 online
  • As you might expect, off-line purchasing volumes went up as well with the number of online searches a consumer made in a year.

Take-away:

As measurable as search engine marketing is, its full value is much larger than what you see in ROI reporting. For the right keywords, the search engine results pages become ad hoc portals attracting people more likely to purchase, both online and offline.

Two Flashy search engines vie for eyeballs

What if you were presented with the challenge of grabbing a piece of the search engine pie? Two development teams approached the challenge with the same programming application and produced results that could not be any more different. First on the scene (by several years) is the people at KartOO Technologies. Their search program can be found at KartOO.com.

Click for a larger graphicThese folks specialize in organizing information visually. In the example to the right, I searched for “SAT testing.” The results are plotted out as though they were clusters of information islands. I then moved my mouse over a word in the middle of several islands (“offers”). The modifier showed up in the search box, and the items related to “offers” are highlighted and joined by curved lines. It’s a clever way to parse through popular ways that pages are related — all in a visually entertaining (well, as least intriguing) experience.

Entertainment is definitely the goal of this most recent competitor in the search engine category. I won’t add to the din of bloggers commenting on Ms. Dewey (msdewey.com). All I will say about this comely peer of the late Jeeves (of Ask.com) is she is the most video-centric — and talkative — search experience you are likely to find. And the developers? None other than Microsoft Live Search.

Click for a larger image

Two Macromedia Flash search engines deliver two extremely different experiences. Which is more successful?

Scrutinizing the long tail of Halloween

Jon Krouse is in a perfect position to help me test a hypothesis about long tail behavior. A co-founder of OnMilwaukee.com (a rare success story among regional online communities), Jon recently joined BuyCostumes.com. This is the world’s largest online retailer of costumes. As you can imagine, the month of October is major crunch-time for him.

Nonetheless, when I instant messaged him the other day to see if I could test an assertion from Chris Anderson, Jon was willing to help. Anderson is a Wired editor and most notably the author of The Long Tail. He contends that for companies with virtual inventories, just about any item they post for sale — no matter how obscure — will sell (i.e., be downloaded for a price) at least once every three months or so. Using sales statistics from Rhapsody.com, he made it sound like this was nothing short of an immutable law.

That’s for virtual inventories. Anderson admits it’s a little trickier for companies with real ones. That’s the case with BuyCostumes. I’ve visited their warehouse, which stores over 13,000 very real SKUs. Yow!.

Companies like this must mark down some items teetering at the tip of the tail before they finally sell. Carrying costs are a constraint that virtual inventory merchants simply don’t have. But the fact is, even real inventory items sell with some price manipulation. Or so Chris Anderson contends. I wanted to know for sure, and asked Jon.

He reported that minor adjustments to price do indeed make the most obscure costumes and accessories sell. Sure, there are the rare dogs, but priced properly, nearly all SKUs generate profits. This is huge, because the number of items offered is a precedent for the industry.

Imagine how many items a bricks-and-mortar costume shop can physically stock. Now consider that at one time quite recently, conventional wisdom was that no one wanted more selection than could be held on a really well-stocked costume shop’s shelves. Or, for that matter, in music store’s bins, or along a bookstore’s stacks.

The web, with its power to categorize, search and suggest, has exploded that myth. Which would mean little to a company like Jon’s if the demand for these products wasn’t so large.

How many sales are anticipated in the next couple of weeks for this humble little online costume shop?

“At our busiest, we’ll be doing 20,000 orders a day*,” Jon reports. Tune in November 1 to see a photo featuring the costumes that my wife and I chose and wore at Jon’s Halloween party, the first in his and Peggy’s new home. 

*It never hurts to advertise. BuyCostumes has major private label deals with major retailers, plus an effective search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising strategy in place.