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Inclusion Confusion, Continued

  |  June 6, 2003   |  Comments

What's XML paid inclusion and how can you harness it for optimal ROI?

Reader response to last week's "Paid Inclusion Confusion" was very positive, so this week I'll continue the series with information on management and return on investment (ROI) optimization.

First, though, let me address some questions readers raised about my last column and take a step back to bring beginners up to speed on XML paid inclusion.

The Basics

XML paid inclusion was designed to address some of the drawbacks of organic search engine optimization (SEO) programs. No matter how well you design your site, the limitations of search technology may prevent it from being crawled very often. XML paid inclusion makes sure the search engine gets information about your site, though there's no ranking guarantee.

Here's how it works: Sites provide search engines with an XML file (an Excel spreadsheet can be converted to XML format, for example) that contains relevant information about the site's pages, to make sure they're included in the search engine's index. That relevant information includes title, description, keywords, and body copy for each URL in a clean, controlled format the search engine can easily read.

That information-rich file resides either on your site, the site of your value-added XML agency (VAXA), or the servers of an XML reseller. The search engines pick up (retrieve or spider) the file regularly, the same way you'd download a PDF or Word document from a Web site, so they can include the pages in their indexes.

Each engine has its own update frequency. Inktomi, for example, refreshes every 48 hours. Frequent updates mean marketers can ensure the information is fresh by removing feeds for defunct pages or adding feeds for new or updated pages. The second advantage is marketers can modify and clarify a feed that may have been poorly representing the page's content. Quality issues tend to show up as poor conversion.

Between updates, you can manage and optimize the feeds to address quality issues and changes in your site. Because of the method's technological nature, resellers and VAXAs, such as those mentioned in my previous column, are usually part of the process.

Optimization

"At the end of the day, paid inclusion is all about ROI and relevancy," said Paul McCarney, director of strategy at Decide Interactive. "If you continuously optimize feeds around ROI and relevancy, everyone wins -- users, search engines, and customers."

All resellers and VAXAs have their own philosophies on how best to balance relevancy and ROI, and they each give varying levels of control to you, the marketer. This column will help you define your needs, goals, and objectives so you can ask the right questions to find the best partner to help you get the most out of your XML paid inclusion program.

Let's assume you have an XML feed for thousands of pages. The words, phrases, and structure in each feed listing combine to represent each page in the engine index, as they would if the search engine spider had found those elements by visiting your page.

Just as in organic unpaid searches, it's possible your listing may show up fairly high in some searches that don't accurately describe your landing page. In this case your listing would be doing a disservice to the searcher (and even worse, cost you money, because you're paying for each click). If you get visitors from unpaid search listings, you don't worry too much about free visitors who aren't perfect quality, but you are paying for XML traffic.

Your conversion and ROI tracking system should identify listings that aren't converting and allow you to drill down to the phrases used by searchers. If you have thousands of pages, not all will receive the same level of traffic (the typical 80/20 or 90/10 rule applies). For each listing, searches that led to visits will also be very diverse. For example, one XML feed for HerRoom.com's home page recently received clicks from 35 different keyword combinations. If some of these combinations were to repeat and not convert to sales, the XML could be edited to improve ROI.

Similarly, some listings may generate high volumes of clicks and have a high ROI already. By looking at a similar report for those listings, a skilled XML editor, who is also a copywriter, can use the information about successful searches to:

  1. Tune the listing for more volume by adjusting the title and description to most accurately describe the page in a compelling manner

  2. Apply this listing's data to similar listings (perhaps on pages for similar products where ROI or traffic is poor)

  3. Tune for even greater ROI

Just as with organic SEO, XML optimization has a lot to do with copy, linguistics, and messaging. That's why your team should understand XML and your ROI goals, as well as your marketing message and business goals. Editing XML feeds for clarity, ROI, or traffic volume can be very time consuming. However, the more valuable the traffic is to your organization, the more likely you will see a positive ROI from editing activities.

The best way to attack a manual editing project is by concentrating first on improving the listings getting a high level of traffic. By focusing on the most important listings, you (or your team/agency) will assure budgets are being spent wisely. When it comes to evaluating how much time and energy to devote to editing, you should look at the expected campaign ROI and how valuable XML traffic is in comparison to the other traffic sources.

If, after a few edits, an XML feed element (page) continues to burn budget without delivering value, don't hesitate to shut down the listing for that one page. Just because you can create an XML feed for every page on your site doesn't mean you have to.

If that page gets found by a search engine spider naturally, you won't have as much control over how the listing looks. But any traffic you get is unpaid in that case, so a bit of targeting mismatch won't likely bother you.

Some engines are against XML inclusion. But with XML inclusion, marketers have an interest in improving relevancy because they pay. The argument can easily be made paid inclusion actually improves search result quality.

At a recent conference, several major catalogers told me they had been surprised by how powerful an XML paid inclusion campaign could be. As the CPCs in their Overture and Google campaigns were rising steadily, both XML and CPC directory inclusion (such as that employed by LookSmart) become even more important elements in a well-balanced campaign, particularly when they were actively managed for efficiency.

LookSmart's directory inclusion is a close cousin to XML paid inclusion. The best optimization practices are similar in some ways and very different in others. I'll cover best practices in LookSmart directory inclusion in the near future.

Note: In my haste to get last week's column out, I unfortunately neglected to include resellers based outside the U.S. in the list of Inktomi XML paid inclusion resellers. In addition to those mentioned last time, Decide Interactive (Australia) and Referencement (France) are also remaining Inktomi resellers. These international resellers do business globally.

Don't miss ClickZ's Weblog Business Strategies in Boston, June 9-10.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee, Didit cofounder and executive chairman, has been an acknowledged search engine marketing expert since 1995. His years of SEM expertise provide the foundation for Didit's proprietary Maestro search campaign technology. The company's unparalleled results, custom strategies, and client growth have earned it recognition not only among marketers but also as part of the 2007 Inc 500 (No. 137) as well as three-time Deloitte's Fast 500 placement. Kevin's latest book, "Search Engine Advertising" has been widely praised.

Industry leadership includes being a founding board member of SEMPO and its first elected chairman. "The Wall St. Journal," "BusinessWeek," "The New York Times," Bloomberg, CNET, "USA Today," "San Jose Mercury News," and other press quote Kevin regularly. Kevin lectures at leading industry conferences, plus New York, Columbia, Fordham, and Pace universities. Kevin earned his MBA from the Yale School of Management in 1992 and lives in Manhattan with his wife, a New York psychologist and children.

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