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To Succeed in Paid Search, Think Inside the Box

  |  January 14, 2011   |  Comments

Test and hone these four tactics and you're bound to profit.

Mavericks seem ubiquitous. Anointed (and sometimes self-appointed) radicals abound: entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban, politicians like John McCain, and even golf pro Phil Mickelson have been tagged mavericks. Think the label might be overused?

Speaking of Lefty, here's his secret. Mickelson became notorious early for his prodigious drives into the deep rough and his low-percentage gambles that often knocked him out of the running instead of into contention. It was only when he resolved to bend the existing rules to his benefit, rather than throwing out the rulebook entirely, that he reached new heights of success.

Perhaps Mickelson's most famous rule-bending episode occurred during the 2006 Masters, where he did something that was perfectly inside the rules – but not a single other player in the field even considered it. In keeping with the rules of golf, Mickelson carried 14 clubs in his bag. Two were drivers. One, an inch longer with a slight tweak to allow the ball to draw from left to right. The other, intended to hit it more or less straight, or fade slightly from right to left. The end result: fewer fairways missed, and as Mickelson put it, "half the trouble."

Rather than raging against the rules, Mickelson's equipment maneuver actually kept him more obsessively "down the middle." He looked carefully at what was allowed, and saw more flexibility on the menu than other people did. His trick to winning is to play more by the rules, not less.

You'd find the same tendency in challenging logic and strategy games as well, from chess to Scrabble.

Paid search, too, feels like it has a lot of tight, constraining rules. But like chess, once things get started, the dynamic flow allows for a breathtaking number of permutations. Follow the rules better, think of the stuff you can buy if you win, and you won't be bored.

In a field of relative amateurs, most of whom will be trying to make their mark with "clever" tactics that don't work, you're bound to make it onto the leaderboard if you focus zen-like on perfecting fundamentals. While others are trying to impress their friends around the virtual water cooler with long-tail keyword research and Quality Score myths, why not take a few weeks to practice your focus just on writing more effective ad copy? (Of course, you won't be done in just a few weeks. Some of the theories you seek rock-solid statistical support for may take a year or more to prove out in a large, granular account.)

Here are four key examples of thinking way inside the box. Test and hone these tactics and you're bound to profit.

Plain, plainer, plainest ad copy. Just communicate with prospects. Don't try to out-think them. If you're going back to work on an account full of ads that have been trying harder and harder to grab people's attention, why not simplify instead of trying to be more clever or creative? Here is a rough approximation of three real world headlines I recently worked on. The existing ads were poor performers - they tried to grab the searcher's attention with (obviously disguising the real ad somewhat here): "Do You Ride Tiny Elephants?" Everyone doing a search for "ride the biggest bloomin' elephant I can afford" knows they don't want to ride a tiny elephant. Instead, I tested "Riding Elephants? Go Big." It worked better. Then I simplified it further to "Big Elephant Experts." That one did the best. Why? Because we're playing by the rules. The high-intent customer's rules. Their mental map of what they expect and hope to find.

For the customer, it's quite possible that coming up with the idea to ride the big elephant was enough mental strain for the day.

DKI. It shouldn't be too surprising that there isn't a consensus as to whether it's best practice to use Dynamic Keyword Insertion in headlines. Quite simply, in some contexts it works, and in others it doesn't. It's too easy, though, to fall into a pattern of not testing it because you've found it usually fails for your accounts from an ROI standpoint. As the new year kicks off, retry DKI in headline tests throughout your accounts to see if it might succeed in some cases. It's the ultimate example of rule-following, in that its purpose is to mirror the user's query and give 'em what they want. Often, there's nothing more persuasive than the searcher's own words.

Best call to action (or none). Have you fallen into the habit of tacking "Buy Now!" onto your ads and never trying anything else? Within the available character limits, there are dozens of other themes you can try: "Compare and Save," "Check Out Feedback from 200 Customers," coupon code discounts for a limited time, or of course, variations on no call to action if the available characters are better used to describe benefits or to signal e-commerce intent (like shipping; large enterprise focus; local or global reach; etc.).

Overweight winning ads in tests. Phil Mickelson cut his trouble potential in half by putting two drivers in his bag so that he'd be hitting the safest shot off the tee regardless of whether a fairway was dogleg left or dogleg right. Similarly, when you're rotating ads and testing new contenders, run two or more safe, winning ads instead of just one. Always create at least one "copy" (with slight variations if you prefer) of your most proven ad to date, so that new contender ads don't cost you too much money. Experiments are key; you can't learn and improve without them. But by using this workaround, you can proactively manage how much of a bite out of your winning routine the experimentation should take.

By the way, you're probably curious to know whether Mickelson won the 2006 Masters Golf Tournament. Yes, he did.

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Andrew Goodman

Goodman is founder and President of Toronto-based Page Zero Media, a full-service marketing agency founded in 2000. Page Zero focuses on paid search campaigns as well as a variety of custom digital marketing programs. Clients include Direct Energy, Canon, MIT, BLR, and a host of others. He is also co-founder of Traffick.com, an award-winning industry commentary site; author of Winning Results with Google AdWords (McGraw-Hill, 2nd ed., 2008); and frequently quoted in the business press. In recent years he has acted as program chair for the SES Toronto conference and all told, has spoken or moderated at countless SES events since 2002. His spare time eccentricities include rollerblading without kneepads and naming his Japanese maples. Also in his spare time, he co-founded HomeStars, a consumer review site with aspirations to become "the TripAdvisor for home improvement." He lives in Toronto with his wife Carolyn.

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