MSN Doesn’t Get It

Lots of chatter over MSN’s ill-fated test, where they prefilled the search box with sponsored keywords. Search Engine Land summarizes the story, and the feedback MSN got, which apparently was extremely negative.

The best part about the SEL post is the comment by Philipp Lenssen: “If you need user feedback and click statistics to figure out this is a bad idea, you’re seriously in trouble as a search engine, because your team misses certain people with a good common sense understanding of the web.”

That about sums it up. I’ve commented in several places, including on this blog, about MSN’s foibles with adCenter and PPC in general. They just don’t seem to get it when it comes to search and PPC. I’m not even sure they listen to their users, even though they say they do. It takes them so long to make fixes and improvements to adCenter, I wonder if they really believe what we say. Or are they just so big and bureaucratic that it takes forever to make simple changes? Or both?

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Google Adwords Pay-Per-Action: Early Thoughts

Google Adwords seems to have all the bases covered in online marketing. They have the core product, Adwords, going strong on a CPC model. They have site targeting for Adsense advertisers on a CPM basis (and CPC too, currently in beta). And now, they’ve announced that they’re beta-testing a pay-per-action (PPA) program via Adsense, as well.

Coverage of this new move abounds: Barry, Ben, and Chris discussed it in Search Pulse, and Barry also has screen shots and some good reader comments at Search Engine Roundtable. Brad Geddes, aka eWhisper, has posted a step-by-step guide to creating PPA campaigns. Discussions are happening on all the major search engine forums. Some people are ecstatic about this program, and some are fearful that it’ll unseat the current leaders in affiliate marketing and lead to further world domination by Google.

All speculation aside, here are my thoughts on the program initially. We’ve been part of the beta for a while now, but I’ve just started setting up campaigns and ads. One thing I learned from my Adwords rep is that I have to get out of the PPC mindset when choosing keywords. I’ve worked with PPC for so long that I instinctively stay away from high-volume, generic-type keywords that I know will drive tons of traffic and few conversions. In PPC, obviously, this doesn’t work. But PPA is a different animal: since we don’t pay for clicks, why not fill the bucket with as many visitors as possible? Even if only one out of 1,000 converts, we only pay for that one!

So, with that in mind, it’s been fun creating these ad groups. For example, for our Playboy Magazine PPA campaign, I’ve been able to pick keywords like “playmates, bunnies, girls next door, centerfolds” and a myriad of other fun keywords that I’ve actually negatived-out in our CPC campaigns! Same thing with high-volume keywords for other, tamer magazines like Family Fun, Birds & Blooms, and Guns & Ammo. (OK, maybe Guns & Ammo isn’t tame, but you get the point.)

I will say that traffic from these campaigns, so far, has been underwhelming to say the least. We’ve had a few impressions, but no clicks yet. Unlike a traditional affilate program, I have no way of knowing which sites, if any, have picked up our ads. I don’t so much care about specifics, but I’d at least be curious how many sites are showing our ads.

This lack of transparency, at least initially, is one reason why I don’t think traditional affiliate programs are doomed. Google’s program is a great way for advertisers who might want to try out this type of advertising, since it’s self-serve and runs on the familiar Adwords platform. For advertisers like us that already have affiliate programs, it will (hopefully) provide a good source of incremental business. For the affiliates, it’s another way to monetize their web sites. But I don’t see it replacing the giants like Commission Junction, LinkShare, or even Adsense’s CPC program. It’s just one more option for advertisers to choose.

I’m curious to see what other beta testers’ experiences are. Is anybody getting decent traffic? Is any of the traffic converting? Post your comments!

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SMX Advanced Agenda Announced

As reported at Search Engine Land, the agenda for SMX Advanced (Seattle, June 4-5) has been announced.

There are still a couple sessions listed as TBA, but wow, what a lot of meat in there already. It looks like Danny has outdone himself, putting together a conference that is truly geared toward the advanced searcn marketer. The agenda is packed with deep-digging sessions on advanced SEO and PPC strategies and tactics, as well as provocative roundtables and panels that should prove interesting at a minimum, and “lively” at best!

Networking hasn’t been forgotten, either. The conference kicks off on Sunday night, June 3, with the “SMX Bash,” a networking reception at the Bell Harbor. Then, on Monday night, there’s a networking reception at the show (most likely on the exhibit hall floor), followed by “SMX After Dark,” where the networking continues. These after-hours events are always highly anticipated by search conference attendees – in addition to being a great place to have a drink and relax, they’re the source of some of the most productive networking at the show. I’ve made many of my best contacts at these type of events in the past, and I’m sure the same will be true at SMX.

So, even though SMX officially only lasts two days, you’ll want to get there early enough on Sunday to catch the Bash. And you won’t want to miss any of the Tuesday sessions, which end at 5:45 p.m. – so unless you’re nearby, you’ll want to wait till Wednesday to fly home. Either way, it promises to be a great few days of search talk!

Disclosure: I was lucky enough to win a pass to attend this conference. That said, I really, truly, honestly believe the show will be a great one – I’m not just trying to butter up Danny and crew. Really!

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Trademark Trials and Tribulations

A trademark is defined as “A name, symbol, or other device identifying a product, officially registered and legally restricted to the use of the owner or manufacturer.” Trademarks are a good thing. They allow businesses, manufacturers, and others to protect the names of their goods and services, without worrying about other people using the name illegitimately. Many companies trademark their business names, as well as the names of the products they manufacture.

All the PPC engines have policies concerning the use of trademarks in advertisements. There’s a good summary of them here. These policies, as far as I can tell, are written to prevent deceptive use of trademarks: for example, to keep out ads like “Looking for Pontiac? Honda’s Better! Find Out Why at” or, worse yet, “Pontiac – Great Automobiles Here –”. Clearly, ads of this nature are a deliberate attempt to mislead the consumer and draw clicks away from competitors. I think most people would agree this should be prohibited.

But what about authorized resellers? Distributors? Legitimate businesses selling trademarked products?

Well, if you want to advertise on Google Adwords, and the trademark owner has filed a trademark restriction, you’re out of luck. In the US, you can have ads on trademarked keywords, but you can’t use the keywords in your ad.

So, for illustration purposes only, let’s say you’re a Honda dealer, and you want to advertise the Honda Odyssey on Google. Let’s say Honda has filed a trademark restriction on “Honda Odyssey.” Guess what, Joe’s Honda? You’re screwed. You’re relegated to ad copy like, “Reliable minivan from a top manufacturer, see it here.” How lame is that? How many people are going to click on that ad?

Not many. I can tell you from experience. We’ve got almost 50 magazines whose names we can’t use in our Google ads, due to trademark restrictions filed by the publishers. Click-through rates on the ads we’ve tried, without the name of the magazine in them, are pathetic. And of course, what’s one of the biggest factors in the Adwords Quality Score? CTR. So it’s a double whammy – your ads look and sound stupid, and your Quality Score gets hammered. Not a good combination.

What I don’t understand is why this is such a big deal in the search space. I mean, can you imagine JCPenney running a newspaper ad for Levi’s or Carter’s or Samsonite or any of the hundreds of other brands they carry in their stores – without using those names in the ad?? How silly would that look? And how many people would be compelled to shop for “great brand name jeans” or “cute brand baby clothes” or “super durable luggage” after seeing such an ad? Where would all the grocery store circulars be without using brand names and logos? What about TV ads for just about anything? What about magazine ads??

There are already laws on the books which prevent bait-and-switch and deceptive advertising. As I said earlier, everyone agrees this is a bad thing. Why not just enforce these laws? Why hamstring legitimate advertisers with this silly trademark policy?

Lawsuits and deep pockets, that’s why. Google has been sued over this, and therein lies the difference between search engines and traditional media. Traditional media have huge sales staffs who oversee the ads placed there. I sold radio and newspaper advertising for over 7 years. It was at least partly my responsibility to make sure the ads I sold were accurate and the businesses actually sold the products they were advertising. Google’s self-serve Adwords platform makes it impossible for them to oversee every ad that runs there. So, it’s probably easier (and definitely cheaper) for them to just enact this policy rather than subject themselves to lawsuits every day.

So really, the bottom line lies in our legal system and litigious society. Instead of invoking FTC guidelines and going after the advertisers themselves, people go after the Google Googlianaires. Sad.

I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know that legit advertisers like us are getting squeezed by this short-sighted policy – and the short-sightedness of the trademark holders who fear what they do not understand.

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SMX, Here I Come!

I guess I can’t say I never win anything. I won an iPod nano at SES Chicago in 2005, and it’s earned a permanent spot in my purse (or, in my pocket/ears while I’m working out). And now, I’ve been lucky enough to win a ticket to the inaugural Search Marketing Expo, commonly known as SMX, in Seattle in June.

First off, I have to thank the crew at SMX and Search Engine Land for allowing me the opportunity to attend the show. I was hoping to go, but it wasn’t in our budget, so I figured I’d have to settle for reading about it on the forums. But now, between being the lucky winner and moving a few dollars around, I’ll be able to be there after all.

Being the first SMX, I’m not sure what to expect. However, I know Danny Sullivan and his crew are more than capable of putting on a great event – after all, Danny’s been chairing SES for a number of years, and we all know he has the best connections in the search marketing industry. On top of that, this is SMX Advanced – with sessions aimed at those already well-versed in search marketing. As the SMX site describes it, “If you’re fluent in search marketing, SMX Advanced is where you can converse with others who speak your native language.”

I can’t wait to go “speak SEM” in Seattle. It should be a great show. Thanks again to everyone at SMX for allowing me this opportunity. See you all there!

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SEM Word of the Day

Crapulent: adj., low quality; lacking substance; emulating crap; e.g. “This is a crapulent content network site – we didn’t get a single conversion.” Usage: commonly occurs with “fraudulent,” e.g. “we didn’t like the content network because of fraudulent or crapulent publisher partners.”

Hat tip to Andrew Goodman at Traffick for the best laugh I’ve had all day!

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Adwords Fiasco #2: Geotargeting Problems

In the midst of the $10 minimum bid fiasco, SEW Forum moderator Discovery discovered another problem: Geotargeting seems to be broken in Adwords. I had noticed this too, but hadn’t had time to dig into it.

Well, now I have. And the news isn’t good. All our campaigns are set to US only, since we can’t sell outside the US. Prior to this month, we’d gotten virtually no foreign traffic from Adwords. However, as of early this morning, we’ve gotten over 1,000 clicks from non-US countries, and the percentage is rising. Yesterday, only 90% of our Adwords traffic was from the US – the rest was foreign, or “unknown.” Hmm.

I’ve emailed my rep about this, and haven’t heard back from her yet, so I don’t know if we were actually charged for these clicks. However, this traffic throws off our analytics metrics – conversion rates look worse than they actually are. And we shouldn’t be getting this traffic if we’ve asked not to – right? Cmon Google, you’re wearing me out with all this stuff! How ’bout a little break?

I’ll post an update once I hear what’s up. In the meantime, Barry at SE Roundtable has a writeup on the issue.

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The Biggest Adwords Fiasco Yet

If you’re an Adwords advertiser, you must know about Friday’s technical glitch that caused minimum bids to go to $10 for many keywords. This “glitch” was devastating to some accounts – although the full effect is still unknown.

For us, it looks as though impact on orders was minimal – although we had over 300 keywords with $10 minimums on Friday, many of which were our top traffic and conversion-driving keywords. I did hear that Google was showing ads for some of the keywords despite the $10 minimums, so maybe that’s what happened to us. I am very glad we didn’t lose significant business as a result of this “glitch.” Today, we only have 11 keywords at $10 – and they were $10 before this whole fiasco happened.

All that said, communication from Google throughout this crisis was very poor. I discovered the issue at about 9 a.m. Eastern on Friday. Knowing that Adwords customer service doesn’t come in till 10 a.m. Eastern, I immediately emailed my Adwords rep with the news. Then I started running reports to assess the damage. Then, at the stroke of 10, I got on the phone. My rep wasn’t sure what was going on – understandable, since it was still early in Mountain View. She emailed me a couple hours later, asking for time to investigate. Fair enough.

At this point, I checked Search Engine Watch and Webmaster World. Everyone was abuzz – people were freaking out, saying they’d be out of business by the end of the weekend if something wasn’t fixed. (Note to those folks: if all your eggs are in the Google basket, I suggest you diversify immediately.) AdwordsRep finally chimed in around 4 p.m. Eastern to confirm that it was a technical glitch. I finally got an email from my rep at 6:30 p.m. – long after I’d left for the day.

Let me make it clear that I’m glad this got fixed, and I’m glad we didn’t get hit in the pocketbook as a result. However, I’m disappointed in Google’s relative lack of communication on the issue. The Inside Adwords article didn’t post until late this morning – 4 days after the issue popped up. Couldn’t something have been said sooner? I know it’s not good practice to talk out of turn without having all the facts, but people on the forums were going nuts. Throwing them a bone as soon as the problem was fixed would have been nice, instead of waiting till we all figured out on our own that the storm had blown over.

Let this be a lesson to all of us:
* Check your accounts daily for oddities. If you find them, start asking questions.
* If you’re Google, please keep advertisers posted when something like this happens. We pay you a lot of money and it’s not acceptable to keep us in the dark for days, or even hours in a case like this.
* Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If you were waiting to try Yahoo, MSN, or any of the other PPCs, now is the time.

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Will MSN Ever Catch The Big Guys of Search?

Much has been said in many different forums and blogs about search engine market share, and it’s all pretty much the same story: Google’s the biggest, by far, with anywhere from 50% to 70% of all searches. Yahoo is next, with 20% to 25%. Then, there’s MSN. Despite the fact that Internet Explorer comes with MSN as its default home page, few people seem to be searching there. (As an aside, our stats for non-PPC search traffic are as follows: Google 65%, Yahoo 20%, MSN 12%. At least we’re average!)

As a PPC marketer, though, market share isn’t everything. Everyone talks about the long tail – those low volume keywords that provide such a great return on investment. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Or is it?

I look at a few key factors when evaluating a PPC program: ease of use (I’m talking about the user interface here, not the engine itself), volume and quality of traffic, and, most importantly, ROI. As far as ROI goes, MSN is leading the pack – most likely due to the fact that ads only appear on MSN, not garbitrage sites lumped into the “search” partner network. I don’t have to worry about click fraud or bad keyword surprises when it comes to MSN.

Where MSN falls down is on volume and ease of use. Traffic and order volumes are about 10% of what we get from Google; and about 25% of what we get from Yahoo. That alone puts the program way down the priority list. It’s just not a leveraged use of my time. Couple that with the massively clunky, slow, user-unfriendly adCenter interface, and I barely even want to log in to my account, much less spend time fine-tuning keywords and ad copy.

I don’t even know which I’d like MSN to address first: increasing volume, or fixing the UI. I do think they’re trying to increase their traffic, by promoting Live Search and running contests. But why did they rebrand as Live Search anyway? What does that even mean? As far as I can tell, they lost whatever brand identity they might have had when they did that.

Fixing the UI will be a major undertaking. I’ve been using the newer “beta” UI for several months now, because we were one of the first advertisers in the Content program. Well, from where I sit, it’s barely discernable from the old UI. Most of the really annoying problems from the old came riding along into the new: slow page loads, confusing tabs for managing ads and keywords, poor reporting capabilities, no account search function to speak of, etc. And then, recently, there’s been the rash of editorial rejections for very inconsistent reasons. All of which adds up to monumental frustration every time I try to do something in the UI.

On the plus side, MSN’s customer service reps are really nice people who, I believe, genuinely want to help their customers. But they’re hamstrung by the same system issues I’m grappling with, along with constant “reorganizations” and shuffling of personnel, which doesn’t help.

So, does MSN have the stuff to compete, or are they destined to bring up the rear? Unless they can work through some of these problems, I see them lagging behind for the foreseeable future.

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Yahoo Search Marketing’s New Ad Ranking Algo

Yahoo’s new PPC interface, Panama, has garnered much attention in the PPC space recently. The latest big news is the change from ranking ads solely by bid amount to ranking by a formula which takes ad quality, among other things, into account. Details at the YSM Blog.

The new ranking system launched Monday afternoon, Feb. 5. What’s the word on the SEM street? Not much, so far. Barry at SE Roundtable wonders why there isn’t more buzz in the forums about it. In fact, he’s “shocked” by the relative silence on the issue. I’m shocked, too, but I do think there are valid reasons for the quiet:

* It’s still early. Yahoo hasn’t said exactly what time they flipped the switch, but most accounts put it at around 3 p.m. Eastern time on Monday. That’s late in the work day for us Eastern time zone folks; and, it means the first full day of the new system was yesterday. It’s hard to draw any major conclusions from one day’s worth of data.

* Yahoo’s advertisers aren’t tracking their positions and/or results. Yahoo doesn’t make it easy to check ad position – there isn’t a column for “average position” on any of the campaign or ad group summary screens. To see that info, you have to drill down into each ad group, or run a URL Performance report. Neither is a great option. And as far as tracking results, well, we all know that many search marketers don’t track their conversions at all, or don’t do so very accurately. Even those of us who do track probably don’t look at this on a daily basis.

* The new system didn’t have much effect on advertisers’ positions or other key metrics. I did check both our average position and conversion % for yesterday. Average position was exactly the same as it was on 1/30, the previous Tuesday. Conversion was actually slightly higher than our average. I spot-checked several of our highest-traffic keywords, and with only a couple exceptions, we were in position 1 or 2. However, many of these keywords were in those positions BEFORE the switch – so, overall, this hasn’t had a big effect on us. I suspect the same can be said for many other Yahoo advertisers.

* Yahoo is just too small for marketers to care about. I have heard from at least a few advertisers that in comparison to Google Adwords, overall sales and ROI from Yahoo is so small that they barely spend any time on their account. Now, one could argue that there was a big forum buzz when Panama first launched, which is true. However, a new interface is different from a new ranking system – we work within that interface every day, so when it’s not what we were used to, it throws us off! Furthermore, the old Direct Traffic Center was so awful for so long, Panama was bound to create some buzz just because of how different it is.

I suspect all of the above explain the relative silence. Speaking for myself, I would have posted something if I saw anything dramatic either way from the new ranking algo – but since nothing really changed for us, I didn’t have anything to say about it!

Of course all eyes are on Yahoo and this new algo, and we’ll all be watching the various forums for feedback and comments.

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