Personalized Coupons and the Science of Demand

As marketers gather more information about their customers, direct marketing gets more interesting. The amount of customer purchase data available nowadays is staggering.

I’m sure you’ve all seen the personalized coupons that print out along with your receipt at the grocery store. And many of you have probably received personalized coupons in the mail, as well. I know I do – I’ve started to get coupons in the mail from Meijer, where I buy most of my groceries.

On the one hand, this is really cool – no more clipping coupons from the newspaper inserts! Personalized coupons for stuff I actually buy – how awesome is that?

But there’s a problem. The coupons are clearly based on past purchase behavior.

Why is this a problem, you ask? After all, don’t you WANT coupons for stuff you’ve bought before?

Yes and no. Here’s an example. A few weeks ago, I bought a new laundry basket for my son. I’d guess most of us buy laundry baskets only once every few years. But what shows up in my mailbox last week? A coupon for $2 off a laundry basket – and the coupon expires in 30 days, no less. Nice try, but no dice.

I’ve gotten tons of coupons like this. Coupons for cereal I just bought – and I have to buy 4 boxes to get the savings. Even with teenagers in the house, we don’t eat THAT much cereal. Coupons for zip-top bags that I just bought by the hundreds. You get the picture. I don’t have enough storage space for all the stuff these retailers expect me to stock up on.

So what does this rant have to do with search? One of the things I love best about search is that it fulfills customer demand at the right time. No one searches for laundry baskets AFTER they just bought one – they search BEFORE they get ready to buy. THAT’S when I want the coupon. I want it before, not after!

It seems to me that it wouldn’t be that hard to do. I know Meijer has years of purchase history on me, because I’ve shopped there forever. And honestly, as big brother-ish as it seems, I’d rather they review my purchase history, figure out the patterns, and send me coupons at just the right time. How hard can that possibly be? Until retailers figure this out, we search marketers have it made.

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Local Paid Inclusion, aka SEM Industry Histrionics

For whatever reason, the SEO and SEM community loves a good scandal. 7-8 years ago, when I was relatively new in the industry, it seemed as though there was a scandal every week: black hat SEO, cloaking, forum catfights…. it was crazy.

As the industry has matured, the kids have settled down. The daily shouting matches between SEOs have been reduced to a couple times a year.

This is one of those times.

A couple weeks ago, Bruce Clay, an industry stalwart and well-known white hatter, announced a new service called Local Paid Inclusion. In a very brief nutshell, this was going to be a service that, in partnership with Google, Yahoo, Bing, and major directories, would offer advertisers guaranteed paid placement at the top of local search listings.

Seriously? Who, in this day and age, would fall for this?

Anybody remember the old Real Keywords scam? Where advertisers could supposedly pay this shyster company thousands of dollars per year for “guaranteed #1 listings on up to 30 keywords,” when in reality the Real Keywords scamsters were just buying PPC ads?

No respectable SEM fell for that back in the day, and I’m honestly beyond shocked that Bruce Clay fell for something like that today. I’ve met Bruce several times over the years, and he has always been the pinnacle of reason, intelligence, ethics, and professionalism – almost a paragon that others could only hope to imitate.

Why, then, did he let himself and his company get involved in this huge kerfuffle???

And the bigger question, at least in my mind: Why are SEOs so dramatic? When’s the last time anyone in the PPC industry caused this kind of stir? Can you even think of one time where a PPC industry luminary got involved in something so shady that it caused all their peers to start hanging them out to dry on Twitter?

Don’t get me wrong – I still have a lot of respect for Bruce and the things he’s done for SEO and SEM. I have a lot of respect for the work most SEOs do. And it sounds like there may have been some substance to Bruce’s announcement. But clearly he jumped the gun, which is shocking given his experience and business acumen.

The way the SEO industry reacts to stuff like this never ceases to amaze me. What do you think about all this? Share in the comments!

For another interesting take on this issue, check out this Wordstream Blog post.

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Top 3 PPC Stories from Beyond the Paid

Ah, the end of the year: the time when we all sit back and reflect on our accomplishments over the past 12 months. Or not, because most of us are way too busy. But I digress.

In the PPC world, there’s never a dull moment, so I can’t say that 2011 was the most eventful year ever. But there were definitely a few stories worth reviewing as we head into 2012. With that, here are my top 3 stories from 2011 – a la David Letterman.

#3. 10 PPC Experts to Follow on Twitter

Like Letterman, people seem to love “Top 10” lists. I agree that they’re fun – but usually they’re pointless, too. I wanted to create a list of PPC experts that would actually help the community get connected.

#2. Google’s SSL Change: A Bad Deal for PPC

So much has been written about this huge misstep by Google, you’re probably sick of seeing it. But it continues to annoy people, so it bears repeating. This is a bad, bad deal, and I hope 2012 brings the return of our organic search query data in Google Analytics.

And now, for the top story of 2011…..

#1. Microsoft adCenter Ignores Advertiser Feedback

I’m sure some of you think I love to beat up on adCenter, like they’re my favorite punching bag. Not so. There are many things to love about adCenter: quality traffic, helpful reps, features that Adwords lacks, and more. They even have an online suggestion box for advertiser feedback, unlike Google.

This seemed pretty cool to me, so shortly after it launched, I posted the suggestion to give us separate bids for Yahoo and Bing. After all, we PPC’ers are all about transparency and control.

At the time, this suggestion was the top vote-getter by a landslide. But did adCenter take it to heart?

Nope. They shot it down and put it on the “completed” list. So much for advertiser feedback.

What are your top PPC stories from 2011?

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I’m Dreaming Of Separate Bids for Search Partners

Seems like everybody has a PPC wishlist at this time of year. Earlier this week, my good friend Matt Van Wagner published a great post on Search Engine Land called 7 Things On My Google AdWords Wishlist For Santa. I agree with everything on his list, and hope that all of us PPCers find those fine gifts under our tree next weekend.

Yesterday, there was another fun SEL post from Conrad Saam called A Letter from Santa To The Search Community, which was also fun. Give both of these posts a read, if you haven’t already.

All these wishes are fine and good, but the one thing I’m wishing for this holiday is the ability to set separate bids for Google Search Partners. Why this hasn’t rolled out already is a mystery to me. If I had to guess, I’d say that Google doesn’t want to lose the revenue from search partners when people bid less for them. But partners don’t always perform worse than Google – in fact, I’ve seen many instances with our clients where partners actually perform better than Google.

We already have the ability to opt out of partners entirely – why not give us a chance to opt back in with separate bids? C’mon, Google – you quit sending out great holiday gifts years ago; can’t you at least grant us this one wish?

What’s on your PPC wish list this year?

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Google is the Scrooge of SEM

Back in October, Google changed the way search queries were passed to web analytics, and not in a good way. I wrote about this at length at the time, so if you’ve been away from the web for a while and aren’t aware of this, go give it a read.

When the announcement was made, Google claimed that the percentage of searches performed by logged-in users was small, in the low single digits. But the data is showing otherwise. SEMs across the web are claiming that the percentage is much higher: as much as 20% in some cases. Think about that for a minute: You’re now losing organic search query data for 1 out of every 5 visitors to your website. Ouch.

However, as I said in my earlier article, the percent will naturally vary across websites, depending on the vertical, customer base, etc. So how does that make Google a Scrooge?

Well, shortly after they launched this hugely unpopular change, they rolled out Google Plus pages for businesses. Previously, the lack of business pages in Google Plus was a big hole in the service – businesses were clamoring for the ability to have a page for their business in Google Plus. And now they have that ability.

And how do users connect with businesses on Google Plus? Well, they have to have their own Google Plus account – and they have to be signed in to Google to connect. And most users, once logged in to Google, don’t bother to log back out before they start performing searches.

Uh oh. Do you see where this is headed?

And that, my friends, is a great big BAH HUMBUG to everyone who cares about search query data.

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Google’s SSL Change: A Bad Deal for PPC

Earlier this week, Google announced a sweeping change to the way they pass referrer data to analytics. In a very brief nutshell, users who are logged in to Google will be routed to an https version of the Google search engine, and search queries from these users will not be passed in the referrer string to analytics packages for organic traffic.

This decision has rocked the search community more than anything I can remember in recent years, and the reaction is almost universally negative. Anyone who’s successfully done search for any length of time will tell you that one of the great things about search marketing (and I’m talking PPC and SEO here) is the amount of data you get. And Google just removed a big chunk of that data. (Google claims it’s not a big chunk, but that’s debatable.

The kicker is, this change only affects organic traffic. PPC referrals will still contain the referring query data. And this is what has SEOs really upset and crying “conspiracy:” the implication is that Google is trying to encourage websites to use Adwords, so they can get all their referrer info instead of only part of it.

Why should PPC’ers care about this? After all, we’ll still get our data. So who cares if the SEOs of the world are out of luck?

I care. And here’s why.

PPC and SEO work hand in hand.

I’m a firm believer that no marketing channel should operate in a vacuum – especially search channels. For best results, PPC and SEO should work hand in hand. I often talk about PPC informing SEO, and Google’s change won’t affect that aspect of your integrated marketing strategy.

However, the information flows both ways. SEO can and should inform your PPC efforts, too. Search pros often recommend mining your organic data for new PPC keyphrases. With this change, your organic data is going to be less complete.

Transparency is key.

From day one, search pros have been asking for more transparency from the search engines. We want as much data as possible to inform our decision making process. We want to know what sites are driving traffic to our site, and whether those sites are converting. We want to know what search queries people are using to find us, and whether those queries are converting. We want to know where those searchers are located, what browser they’re using, and anything else we can learn about them.

This is not to say that we want this data down to the individual level, which is the basis for Google’s change. Google is claiming privacy concerns as the driving force behind their decision.

That’s a bunch of BS. Google has never shared individual user data in referrer strings. And even if they did, who cares? Looking at user data on an individual basis is a waste of time – it’s not statistically significant, and isn’t useful. Data is only useful in aggregate. I don’t care if one guy searched on “what is the best ever ppc blog written by some chick in Michigan” to find my site – but I do care if 100 people who were logged in to Google searched on that term to find me.

With this move, Google has decreased transparency, not increased it – thus going backwards in terms of providing useful and informative data.

PPC’ers should be very concerned about this move. I for one am wondering what they’ll take away from us next. How does this change affect you? Share in the comments!

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Can An Intern Do Your PPC?

Interns offer a lot to a business: in general, interns are eager to learn, hardworking, smart, and willing to work for little to no pay. Back in the day, I was a college intern in a local TV station sales department, getting my first taste of real-world marketing – for free.

A lot of SEM companies use interns to help with a variety of tasks. But can an intern run your PPC campaigns?

Of course, this is sort of a loaded question. It absolutely depends on the person. You might get lucky and find an intern who’s actually done some PPC. And of course an intern can help with a lot of PPC tasks. But run an entire campaign? Not so fast.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many companies hire an agency to set up and optimize their PPC campaigns – and then bring the whole thing in-house and give it to an intern. The logic goes something like this: “Well, the agency has this running really well, so we don’t need to pay them for this. We’ll just have an intern watch it for a few hours a week.”

This is a mistake. PPC is not a “set it and forget it” medium. It requires constant attention, monitoring, measuring, and testing. Far too many advertisers have assumed that PPC is really simple, and have ended up wasting thousands of dollars while they tried to figure out how to stop bleeding money. Handing off even a small PPC campaign to an inexperienced intern (or an inexperienced employee, for that matter) and leaving them to their own devices is a recipe for disaster.

What Interns Can Help With:

On the positive side, interns can be a great asset to a PPC team. At Fluency Media, we have used interns for a number of tasks that are invaluably helpful for our client’s PPC campaigns. Here are just a few great intern tasks:

Keyword research.

I personally love doing keyword research: it’s fun and informative, like finding buried treasure. However, it can also be hugely time consuming and tedious. I like to have interns do the initial keyword research and narrow down the list, and then I’ll review and refine further. It’s a great way for interns to learn the process, while still maintaining professional oversight of the final product.

Ad copy writing.

Let’s face it – at some point, even the most creative PPC manager will hit a type of writers block. I find this true especially for campaigns I’ve been managing for a long time – I flat-out run out of new copy ideas to test.

This is where your interns come in. Ask one or two of them to look at your client’s keywords and website, and have them come up with a few copy test ideas. The great thing about copy testing is that there are no wrong answers – as long as the ad is factual, meets editorial guidelines, and delivers on its promise on the landing page, almost anything goes. You can even turn this exercise into a friendly competition – test a couple interns’ ads against each other, or have them go up against you to see who “wins.” Unless your ego is huge, this can be a fun and creative way to breathe new life into a mature campaign.

Budget monitoring.

If you’re a PPC advertiser with a budget limit, someone is going to have to watch it daily to make sure you’re spending the right amount. We usually have one of our interns check our client budgets every day, and notify my which clients need attention. It’s a simple task, but it takes time – and it’s a great way for interns to learn how an individual advertiser’s campaign flows over time, putting them in a good position to take over an account once they have more experience.

Reporting.

I don’t recommend handing over client reporting entirely to an intern, but interns can contribute a lot in terms of pulling data, assembling charts, and acting as a second pair of eyes on your data. An astute intern will notice when trends don’t match up or when numbers don’t make sense – and this is really important for any busy PPC manager. Even if you’re really on top of your campaigns, things can sometimes slide through. Our interns have discovered issues with tracking codes and client-side slip-ups, and have saved me an uncomfortable conversation by pointing out these issues before a report ever leaves our office.

How have you used interns to help with your PPC campaigns?

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Why PPC and SEO Engagements Fail

Nobody likes to talk about failure. Most times, we’d probably like to pretend there is no such thing. Truth be told, though, you haven’t learned anything in life unless you’ve failed. I’m willing to bet that every PPC and SEO manager who’s been doing this for any length of time has had one campaign or client that they’d consider a failure. While failure is part of life, there are ways to minimize it when it comes to SEM.

The #1 Reason Why SEM Engagements Fail

In my 10 years of experience doing PPC and SEM, the overwhelming #1 reason why engagements fail is due to a lack of goal-setting at the beginning. Sometimes clients (or bosses, if you’re in-house) are so anxious to “start a PPC campaign” that they don’t take the time to figure out what their goals are.

If your client website doesn’t have conversion tracking enabled, lacks a call to action, and doesn’t make it clear what you want visitors to do when they get there; your campaign has no goals, and is doomed. If your client doesn’t have a unique selling proposition (USP), then you’re almost certainly doomed as well.

While it may take a few days or even weeks to establish campaign goals, this is the one step that cannot be skipped when embarking on an SEM engagement. After all, if you have no goal or destination, how do you know when you’ve gotten there?

Other Common Reasons for SEM Failure

The next most common issue I’ve run into that dooms an SEM engagement, especially SEO, is lack of client uptake. While there are a lot of things an SEM can do on their own without any client involvement, implementation of code changes, SEO recommendations, and other technical aspects are often not on that list. SEO simply will not make any impact whatsoever if it’s not implemented.

This can be a tough challenge to overcome – in fact, if it’s not addressed during the sales process, it can be extremely difficult to get the client on board. Setting expectations up front by letting the client know that there will be some effort involved on their part during the engagement will help ensure that projects move forward without frustration on either the part of the SEO or the client.

Tracking code installation falls into the technical bucket too. Even if SEO isn’t part of your service offering, a PPC campaign needs at least one tracking system (and preferably more than one) in order to optimize the campaigns. We strongly prefer to use the free conversion tracking provided by Adwords and adCenter in addition to the client’s web analytics software. While no 2 systems will match exactly, differences of more than 5% to 10% in data usually indicate a problem with one or both systems. And it goes without saying that being able to log in to your PPC account and see conversion data down to the campaign, ad group, keyword, and placement level makes campaign management go much more quickly.

But if you have a client that cannot get conversion tracking installed, be wary of taking on the engagement. Otherwise, you’ll only be able to optimize for click-through rate – and as most of us know, CTR does not necessarily correlate with conversion rate.

Some Campaigns are Just Doomed

Sometimes, despite an SEM’s best efforts, even a well-thought-out and well-executed campaign will fail. Some businesses are just not suited to SEM – for instance, inexpensive, commodity products in a competitive industry will have a hard time making money on PPC – often, more is spent getting a click than the advertiser earns for each sale. And some websites will never rank well organically, due to crawlability issues, technical problems, or other reasons.

Some engagements, especially complicated, expensive B to B lead gen processes, will also have a hard time showing ROI. While some clients understand and accept the amount of time and expense needed to generate that one sale per month, other clients are just not going to be happy with a cost per conversion of $1,000 or more.

When faced with this type of engagement, think long and hard about whether you want to take it on. Sometimes, even the best-laid plans end up, well, failing.

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More Great Marketers to Follow on Twitter

A couple of weeks ago, I published a list of the Top 10 PPC Experts to Follow On Twitter. Go check it out if you haven’t already!

Hot off the press today is an awesome list from my friends at aimClear of 52 Mind Blowing Marketers We’d Love to Clone and Adopt. The list runs the gamut from SEOs to PPCers to social media pros, and is basically a Who’s Who of online marketing. If you’re looking for new experts to follow on Twitter, go check out the aimClear list.

Disclaimer: I’m on the list, and am humbled by the inclusion. Thanks to Marty and crew for including me!

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SEO Never Stops

As most of you know, I consider myself primarily a PPC professional. That said, I’m also responsible for the SEO efforts at Fluency Media, and I firmly believe that SEO and PPC should go hand in hand.

If you’ve worked with websites at all, you know that the time will come when a site needs a redesign. Whether it’s a minor refresh of a few pages or an all-out scrap-and-redo, redesigns are part of any website’s life cycle. One of the issues I’ve run into from time to time is clients wanting to put SEO on hold during the redesign process.

Don’t fall into this trap!

Don’t get me wrong: I do understand the thought behind holding off on SEO during a site redesign. Why put time, effort, and money into site updates that in all likelihood will go away when the redesign launches?

Well, there are a few reasons why it makes sense to keep up at least a basic SEO effort during a redesign.

Redesigns take time.

How many site owners do you know that were able to complete even a small refresh in less than a month? Yeah, I don’t know many either. The fact of the matter is that these things take time – sometimes as long as a year – to complete. Web design teams are frequently understaffed and over-committed, and Murphy’s Law usually applies to a redesign as well.

In the meantime, the existing site is still live, crawled by search engine spiders every day. Theoretically, the site’s purpose still exists during a redesign: whether it be generating sales, leads, or whatever. The world doesn’t stop during a redesign – and neither should SEO efforts.

Optimized content is design-neutral.

Unless you’re changing your entire business model, it’s a good bet that the actual content of your website will remain relatively unchanged. While things might look different on the page, and locations of some information may change, the content itself likely will stay the same. And it’s likely that the keywords people use to find your business won’t change much either.

That’s another reason why it’s a good idea to continue SEO efforts during a redesign. Really astute clients will even provide new site access, or at least content, to their SEO professional to optimize before the site launches. This way, it’ll take the spiders less time to find your new content and realize that you haven’t gone away. A good SEO can also help you set up the proper redirects for any pages that may be moving on the new site, which also helps the spiders find their way on your new site’s roadmap.

SEO is a long-term investment.

Anybody with a 401K or retirement account has probably been advised to keep investing no matter what is happening in the market. Even if your account is losing money in the short term, you need to keep putting money in! And even if you’ve fallen on hard economic times, it’s really best to put even a small amount of money away for the future.

SEO is no different. Even if your website is as volatile as the market, you need to keep investing in optimization. Like a retirement account, SEO is a long-term investment – and you need to invest in it continually for best results.

And like a retirement account, a small investment is better than no investment at all. It’s not a horrible thing to temporarily reduce your SEO investment while you’re in the middle of a redesign, so you can focus your time and resources on the redesign itself. Keeping a minimum level of SEO going, though, will make things much smoother when the new site launches and prevent ranking & traffic setbacks.

In short, putting SEO on hold not only loses visitors while the redesign is happening, it makes it take longer for you to get found once the new site launches. Smart site owners will keep investing in SEO, because they know it pays off in the long run.

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