Improve Your SEM in Time for the Holidays

The holidays have always been a mix of joy and stress: Excitement for the trappings of the season, but concern about what relentless Bing Crosby music will do to your punch-a-stranger reflex. Joyous for the opportunity to be with extended family, but stressed about the answer to the equation: full house + family tensions + alcohol = ?.

And of course, eager for Q4's results, but terrified at Q4's results. Especially this year, when businesses of all sizes are already on the ropes.

Your holiday advertising plans are already in motion (they are, aren't they?). It's now a question of clean execution and adjusting to results, while keeping an eye out for anything that can be done to support it. Search should be a hypercritical part of this equation, no matter the size of your company.

For small businesses, it's a great way to get your brand directly in front of a lot of gift-hungry shoppers that are targeted as closely as you need them.

For larger businesses, it's a way to not only remind shoppers of your brand or retail outlets like smaller businesses, but it's also a prime opportunity to catch interest that you develop with upstream advertising in print and broadcast.

While this is probably the beginning of ramp-up time for your paid search campaigns, it's the beginning of the end of your opportunities for SEO improvements, with holiday code freezes about a month away.

But there's still time for changes to increase those bountiful, free visitors in November and December. If your goal is to make a little more money in the crucial 2009 holiday season, take a close look at the following features to see how they can make a dramatic impact to your paid and natural campaigns.

Gift Pages

If you haven't already done so, establish a home for gifts on your site right now. Not just Christmas or holiday gift pages (which you certainly need), but an entire section. Break it down into categories: for him/her, price ranges, cross-category terms like "gadgets," as well as space to grow into holidays and occasions.

Spend some time in the Google AdWords Keyword Tool looking at how people search for gifts within your product category, and then build accordingly. Even if you can grab only slight improvements in these terms between now and then, a five percent lift can still be significant.

Linking Issues

Do you have multiple copies of your home page, categories, or products indexed in search engines (i.e., example.com vs. example.com/index.htm)? Having external links pointed at each version might be hurting you a lot more than you think. These can be relatively quick to fix with redirects and changes to your internal linking structure, resulting in more ranking power prior to shopping season.

Quick Meta Data Upgrades

Wholesale rebuilding of your titles may be difficult to achieve in time without dedicated support. However, if your title tags are based on category structure, take a look at how you're ordering them.

Are the most important terms to the page listed at the beginning of the title? Are they clear enough to know exactly what is on the page if nothing else were there? Tweaks to your targeting can have spectacular effects.

Start Spending Now

Get the finance department working on the budget to start ramping your PPC spend now. While it's only September, building your spend now will save you in the coming weeks and months.

Your campaigns will take time to gain authority with the search engines before a good CTR makes them rank higher with a lower CPC -- especially if you're adding swaths of new keywords for the holidays. Would you rather be paying full price for them now, or in two months when their traffic doubles and everyone's bidding competitively?

Unify Messaging

Finally, line up your promotional schedules with your entire team, internal and external. Set up your PPC messaging now to automatically promote the next deal and the new products. Use the same terminology and phrasing as your e-mail, display media, and even natural search (meta descriptions) and offline (print, broadcast, etc).

I can't try to tell you not to freak out about the holidays -- it will happen to all of us in some way, personally or professionally. With a few extra steps to build traffic or save money right now, however, you should find the days a little more merry and bright, and spare you the strength to deal with Bing Crosby.

About the author

Herndon Hasty, senior SEO leader and evangelist at Range Online Media, is a key member of Range's search engine optimization practice. He brings to the team more than nine years of experience in online and offline marketing strategy — including five years in search marketing — for a wide range of travel, retail and luxury brands, including Macy's, Travelocity, Cole Haan, Wyndham Hotels and Godiva.

He is a regular columnist and blogger at Search Engine Watch, has contributed articles and quotes to publications such as DM News and Marketing Sherpa, and features musings on online marketing in general at Search Engine Snark.