If you were anywhere near the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco during last month's Search Engine Strategies conference, you more than likely heard someone utter the phrase "monetized search."
For those that haven't had the pleasure, it's basically the new code words being used by Search Engine reps anytime they are talking about charging fees for services that as little as nine months ago were free. The number of new fee based programs being promoted at this year's conference that promise to get you crawled, reviewed or ranked by the Web's most prominent search sites was at an all-time high.
Like it or not, it appears that pay-to-play is here to stay.
Fortunately, conference attendees feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the new potential ways to spend their marketing dollars, were able to find refuge in the in-depth advice panel, "Buying Your Way In."
The session panelists included Dana Todd, Co-Founder and VP of Marketing for SiteLab(http://www.sitelab.com); Kevin Lee, CEO of Did-It.com (http://www.did-it.com); Tim Cadogan, Director of Search Products for GoTo.com (http://www.goto.com); and Scott Kluth, Project Manager of User Experience for Sears.com (http://www.sears.com)
Dana got things rolling by bringing everyone up to speed on the various types of fee-based opportunities that exist. Although there have been several programs introduced over the last year, they all basically fall into one of three categories: paid review, paid inclusion, and paid placement.
Paid review programs involve paying a fee for an expedited review of your Web site by an editor of a directory. The fees paid do not guarantee inclusion, and no refunds are provided if your site is rejected. The two most popular paid review programs are offered by Yahoo ($299.00) and Looksmart.($299.00) However, several smaller specialty directories like Business.com are also introducing paid review programs.
Yahoo Business Express
Looksmart Express Submit
Paid inclusion programs are the newest offering from the major crawler-based search engines. Inktomi, AltaVista, and Fast all now offer programs that guarantee the inclusion as well as regularly scheduled refreshes of URLs submitted to their respective databases.
While the prices of the various inclusion programs vary greatly, they all share one thing in common; signing up for the programs will not effect how your pages will rank. Achieving a positive ROI using inclusion programs will still require some good old fashion SEO skills.
Inktomi Search Submit (Up to 500 URLs)
Inktomi Index Connect (Over 500 URLs)
AltaVista Express Inclusion (Up to 500 URLs)
AltaVista Trusted Feed (Over 500 URLs)
If spending time wallowing in meta tag minutiae isn't your cup of tea, then you'll be pleased to know there are dozens of opportunities available that enable you to simply swap some cash for a listing located at the top of virtually every major search property on the web.
How much does it cost?
It all depends on where you want to get listed. Paid placement programs come in all different shapes and sizes.
To help attendees sort through all the possibilities, Dana provided some samples of prices and features of the most popular programs. (Note: Prices listed are averages based on targeted keyword buys)
GoTo.com (http://goto.com/d/about/advertisers/GoTo) is the largest pay-per-click search engine. Keywords are purchased through a competitive bidding system based on a cost-per-click (CPC) model. Minimum bids start at $.05 per click and advertisers must spend a minimum of $25.00 per month. If you decide to bid your way into the Top 3 sites, then your listing will also be distributed across Goto's partner network, which includes AltaVista, AOL, HotBot, Lycos, and Netscape. GoTo plans to change its name to "Overture" on October 8th.
About.com "Sprinks" (http://sprinkscentral.about.com/index.htm) is another pay-per-click program modeled after GoTo. The minimum bid is $.05, and the listings are distributed throughout the About.com network of sites.
Google "Adwords" & "Premium Sponsorship" (http://www.google.com/ads/Adwords) allows you to write and submit your own listings through a web interface. The pricing is based on a cost-per-impression (CPM) model that rages between $8.00 and $15.00 per thousand impressions depending upon the position selected. Approved listings appear to the right of Google's non-paid search results when the search query matches your selected keyword phrases. Premium Sponsorship listings appear at the top of the page, above non-paid search results. Pricing starts at $35.00 CPM with a $10,000/3 month minimum.
Ask Jeeves "DirectLink" & "Answer Links" (http://www.ask.com/docs/advertise/Advertising.asp). The DirectLink program is similar to Google's Adwords. Your text listings appear to the right of search results for $10.00-$15.00 CPM. If you'd rather have your site returned as an answer to related questions asked by Ask Jeeves visitors, you can sign up for the Answer Links program, which will cost you $1.75 CPC.
Yahoo Sponsored Site (http://docs.yahoo.com/info/advertising/). For a flat monthly fee that can range anywhere from $25.00 to $300.00 per month, you can purchase a listing at the top of a Yahoo category. The only catch is you can only sponsor a category that you are already listed in. If you're not in the category, be prepared to tack on an additional $199.00 for an expedited review.
Looksmart Looklistings (http://submit.looksmart.com/list.jhtml). If you've already paid Looksmart's paid review fee, but your site is buried at the bottom of the directory results, you can get it moved up to the top by signing up for Looksmart's Looklistings program. Placement at the top of their "Directory Listings" section will cost you an editor fee of $100.00 per URL, a monthly maintenance fee, and a minimum CPC of $.35. Moving up into the "Featured Listings" section requires a $2500.00 monthly minimum and a CPC of $.35-$2.00.
Dogpile (http://www.infospace.com/info/redirs_all.htm?pgtarg=abtad). Top page listings are available at Dogpile for $20.00 CPM with a $2000.00 minimum.
Excite (http://www.excite.com/info/advertising/Multiple) placements are available Excite. Prices range from $25.00 - $100.00 CPM with a $2500.00 minimum.
AltaVista (http://shopping.altavista.com/advertise). The "Featured Site" link displayed above the "Partner Listings" (provided by GoTo) runs $25.00 CPM.
AOL (http://mediaspace.web.aol.com/index.adp?fname=s2k). At AOL, you can purchase their top listing, "Recommended Sites" as well as the "Sponsored Link" located at the top of pages 2, 3, and 4. (GoTo supplies the Sponsored Links on page 1) Prices start at $50.00 CPM
Lycos (http://www.lycos.com/lycosinc/advertising.html). Virtually every section on a Lycos search result page is for sale, including the top section just below the advanced search button, as well as both the "Featured Sites" and "Popular Sites" sections listed below. Pricing is $60.00 CPM, with a $2,500.00 minimum.
MSN (http://advantage.msn.com/MSNSALES/Home/Home.asp). If you have at least $240,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you can become one of MSN's "Featured Sites."
How Effective Are Paid Programs?
According to Scott Kluth, they can be extremely effective. Scott explained how the dynamic, time-sensitive nature of Sears' ecommerce platform has made traditional SEO quite difficult.
Since shifting to an online marketing strategy that is primarily built on the use of paid placement and paid inclusion programs, Sears.com has seen a 367% improvement in customer conversion, a 15% increase in average order size, and an overall ROI increase of 1,109%.
How do You Effectively Manage a Paid Placement Campaign?
While Scott's presentation clearly showed the potential upside of a paid placement campaign, Kevin Lee, CEO of Did-It.com was quick to point out that the overall success or failure of a program is largely determined by how well it's managed. This is especially true when working with the many pay-per-click search engines like Goto.
The most common issue that contributes to poor pay-per-click results is overlooking bid gaps. A bid gap occurs when the company occupying the position below your listing either lowers their bid or drops out completely. When that happens, you end up paying more per click then necessary to maintain your current position.
Kevin provided attendees with several real world examples of companies paying as much as a dollar more per click then necessary. According to Kevin, effectively monitoring and eliminating bid gaps can result in as much as 20% more clicks for the same amount of money.
Bid Management Tools
Paid Search Engine Tools
Good Keywords Professional
The other issue that can make it difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of a campaign is failing to track conversion rates. All the panelists agreed that click thru rates can be deceiving. A keyword buy that generates a high number of clicks doesn't always produce a high number of sales. Using a third-party system to track visitors through the duration of their visit will allow you to quickly spot the keyword phrases that provide the best "bang for the buck."
Having access to accurate conversion data will enable you to make critical adjustments to your bidding/purchasing strategy that can result in significant savings.
ROI Tracking Tools
The session wound up with a Q&A session where the panelists offered several additional tips for those interested in getting their feet wet.
- Conduct Proper Keyword Research
Spend some time using tools like Wordtracker (http://www.wordtracker.com) or the GoTo keyword suggestion tool (http://inventory.goto.com/d/searchinventory/suggestion/) to gain some insight into what phrases to target.
- Determine Your Maximum Cost Per Action Up Front
In order to accurately track your ROI, you need to A) determine the specific action that needs to be completed for the visit to be a success, and B) decide how much you can afford to pay for the specific action. Once you've determined what those numbers are, stick to them!
- Start with CPC Programs
Pay-Per-Click program's like GoTo require a great deal more time to manage then CPM based programs. However, they tend to cost less while you're working on refining your marketing message because you only pay for actual clicks. Once you're fine-tuned your program, you can begin exploring CPM programs.
- Write Descriptions That Pre-Qualify Your Visitors
It's always important to write descriptions that encourage people to click. Just make sure you're only encouraging the right ones. If you run a small company that sells custom made golf clubs with graphite shafts, make sure you include that specific info in your descriptions when bidding on terms like "golf clubs." Paying for clicks from golfers who can't stand the feel of graphite, is wasted money.
- Explore useful, yet less competitive phrases
A term like "graphite golf clubs" might not get searched on as much, but it will probably have a greater chance of producing a sale.
Following theses simple steps should enable those interested in "buying their way in" to search engines to do so without breaking the bank.
Greg Boser is the founder of WebGuerrilla (http://www.webguerrilla.com), a consultancy that develops customized visibility programs for clients, to ensure they are well positioned in search engines, directories, and online forums.