Actions Speak Louder in SEM

Search engine marketing (SEM) has been around since the early ’90s. Paid search marketing began in 1996, when Open Text tried and failed at paid placement. GoTo (now Overture) succeeded a year later. Paid placement sparked a search marketing revolution. Hundreds of thousands of marketers added search to integrated marketing plans. Based on reader feedback, there’s still confusion among marketers regarding how best to execute a search marketing campaign, particularly one that meets specific goals or objectives.

Much of the confusion is over campaign tracking and optimization. All campaign optimization starts with tracking, of course. Tracking documents which engine, keyword/listing, price, position, and creative combinations deliver specific results — but that’s just the beginning of a successful campaign. Tracking, while necessary, doesn’t create a successful, efficient campaign. Tracking is not optimization. Many marketers aren’t tracking at all. By default, they can’t optimize a campaign based on post-click objectives.

Marketing teams or software crunches tracking data using analytics. Then, the teams take considered, accurate, and appropriate actions at the right time. The right action at the right time is the essence of optimization. Optimization decisions are based on specific objectives and goals, knowing where you are now and where you want to be.

Several types of analytic functionality allow you to combine conversion statistics with cost data to calculate return on investment (ROI). From this, an action plan can be charted. Below is an overview of leading companies offering analytic functionality, categorized by type. It is by no means comprehensive but will assist you in evaluating options.

Third-Party Ad Serving

Ad-serving companies, used by clients and agencies for years, can keep track of media-buy clicks and post-click behavior. These products and services are designed for online marketing tracking and management. CPC or CPM data is entered into these tools to provide ROI metrics. All the players currently offer solutions across media types. They have rich media and text link tracking support. The major players (alphabetically):

  • Atlas DMT: The Atlas Web site says, “Our end-to-end solution enables you to plan, serve, analyze and manage successful online campaigns.”

  • Bluestreak: Bluestreak describes itself as a “global online direct marketing firm.” Its Ion service is a “full service third party ad serving that simplifies the processes and improves the results of online marketing.”
  • DoubleClick’s DART: The DoubleClick site lists a primary feature as “track results beyond impressions and clicks to understand conversion, ROI and branding.”
  • Mediaplex’s Adserver: Mediaplex describes the product as “the most advanced technology available for managing online advertising workflow and increasing campaign effectiveness.”

Web Analytics

Web analytics firms evolved from a background of general visitor tracking and have added media tracking during their evolution. Many do not have graphical media serving technology to facilitate serving banners or rich media, but they all have visitor tracking. Each tool has its own features, functionality, and strengths. Costs very. You should use a Web analytics firm even if you also use a third-party ad server. The top analytics firms (alphabetically):

  • Coremetrics: Coremetrics analytics are user-profile-centric. Its description reads, “Coremetrics Marketforce for Retail is the only web analytics platform that captures and stores all visitor and customer clickstream activity.” Its Marketing Management Center offers reports designed around marketing tracking and reporting.

  • Fireclick: Fireclick Netflame takes pride in its unique, graphical reporting interface. It describes itself as a “cost-effective, simple solution for increasing traffic, conversion rates, and profitability by addressing all aspects of customer experience on the Web, from navigation and design to campaign tracking and promotion effectiveness.”
  • Keylime: Keylime, an Overture-owned company, describes its focus as to “provide enterprises with a single, unified view of the customer — turning valuable customer insights into actionable knowledge.”
  • NetIQ’s WebTrends: The diehard of the Web analytics business, WebTrends has expanded by creating an analysis tool that works on existing log files to include a remote ASP solution. Its site describes the newer product as “allowing you to optimize your media mix including Search Engine Marketing, improve web site conversion and segment your most valuable visitors for repeat business.”
  • Omniture: Omniture places significant emphasis on testing and optimizing nonmedia elements as well as allowing inbound traffic to be tagged and identified. Its newest platform, SiteCatalyst 9.0, is described as “unprecedented features previously unavailable in the analytics industry that immediately enable enterprise companies to gain insight into unique online customer segments, make educated decisions and thereby improve business processes and ROI.”
  • WebSideStory: WebSideStory’s HitBox may be best known for low-end page counters and basic reports, but it also offers high-end solutions. “HitBox helps you track, analyze, and optimize the performance of your online initiatives.”

Several larger affiliate marketing solutions include tracking and may offer a module that meets your needs. I’m running out of space, so I’ll cover affiliate marketing and search in a future column.

Evaluating Needs

The list of options above is hardly complete. When evaluating vendors, remember to evaluate search campaigns (or any campaign, for that matter), one must combine tracking data (showing conversion percentages and behaviors) with cost data. That’s how you arrive at success metrics. Often these are ROI-type metrics such as cost per order (CPO), cost per action (CPA), or return on advertising spending (ROAS). They could include experiential branding or other metrics.

After determining the ROI or efficiency of each listing, you’ll need to make decisions and optimize based on these metrics. Some campaigns with a small number of keywords (or a large number of keywords with very little volatility) can be changed manually, based on reports from a Web analytics or ad-serving/-tracking tool. Larger campaigns usually require an analytics service that integrates with a paid search campaign management service.

Several top search campaign management companies can implement tracking themselves. Often, they can also work with data from other providers or an in-house analytics tool. One reason to consider an automated campaign management solution in conjunction with tracking is the ability to optimize a campaign quickly can be critical, particularly for paid placement campaigns.

How do marketers select a Web analytics vendor or third-party ad-serving solution? It helps to prioritize the of tasks required. These might include:

  • Banner ad serving

  • Rich media ad serving
  • Graphical media campaign optimization
  • E-mail open rate tracking
  • SEM click tracking
  • Conversion tracking by media
  • User behavior analysis/abandonment analysis
  • Lagged conversion analysis
  • Lifetime value behavior profiling
  • Automated campaign management (direct or via partnerships)

Regardless of which tracking and analysis tool you use to generate reports and develop strategies, once analysis is done, human or automated campaign managers must then create action plans. They’ll ensure the campaign stays on course and delivers results in line with objectives.

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