Using PLAs to Enhance, Not Encroach, on SEM

google-shopping-plasEver since last year’s rollout of the new product listing ad (PLA) system from Google, there’s been an ongoing debate about whether PLAs steal from paid search. And with similar changes pending from Yahoo/Bing, it only becomes even more critical to accurately measure.

In looking through data and understanding the different ways marketers employ PLAs, it’s become apparent both sides of the debate are correct, at least to a point.

It’s not that PLAs inherently steal from paid search. It’s a matter of how you’re using them.

Treat PLAs as “just another program” and try to manage through simple automation, and you’ll accomplish little more than checking a box, but you will pay a price. By taking a more sophisticated approach, you can make PLAs benefit your SEM efforts.

The first thing to realize is that PLAs have moved from being a feeds-based system that you can optimize to an optimization-based system that leverages a feed. This is an important distinction.

Managing feeds is a technical requirement. And while certainly not something just anybody can do, it’s much more straightforward than optimizing media, which requires semantic and quantitative expertise.

Expecting a feeds provider to be able to optimize media and bids efficiently is like asking Ashton Kutcher to perform Shakespeare. Technically, he could probably do it. But would you sit through the entire performance?

The second realization is that there’s much more to effectively managing PLAs than just cleaning up a feed, uploading assets and doing basic manipulation and reporting. These are the check-box items. If your technology or service partner can provide this, you can run PLAs. But it doesn’t mean you can be effective.

To truly turn the corner and make PLAs a win, there’s more to be done. Using semantic optimization, you can better position the products in your feed to match actual consumer intent. This is part art and part science.

Most feed-based systems will do as much one-to-one mapping of words in a feed to related searches as it can find. But semantic technologies inherently better understand the meaning of the content and do a better job providing the right content to the right searcher.

Semantic technologies can also develop much more granular product targets in PLAs. This allows you to dive deeper into relevancy, attributes and price point than managing at the brand or campaign level, allowing you to avoid using overly vague creative or price ranges (who shops for watches somewhere in the $25–$475 price range?).

Lastly, make the most of your creative. Leverage inventory levels and promotions, the same as you would (you would, wouldn’t you?) with SEM. And continually test creative. Again, you wouldn’t set it and forget for paid search.

By leveraging this extra refinement, we’ve seen clients experience triple-digit growth in performance, driving more spend to PLAs more efficiently, generating a greater return overall on their marketing dollars.

The growth of PLAs has been a double-edged sword for marketers. The good news is you can choose which side of the sword to be on. By taking full advantage of PLAs with the right systems, you can make it fight for you and not make it a sword you simply fall on.

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