Review: Search Marketing Benchmark Guide

MarketingSherpa’s “Search Marketing Benchmark Guide” is a bible for search marketers. Every year for the past five years, this study gets updated with the most recent and relevant data related to the world of search marketing and the current online landscape.

Report Overview

Among many other topics, the study touches on analytics tools being employed and how they are utilized to optimize campaigns; the influence of search marketing on branding metrics; the impact of specific search marketing tactics, such as audience targeting; and how the emerging trends such as mobile search are affecting the industry.

You can purchase the full research study, but if you are short on cash or time, I’ve pulled out some of the most interesting findings to share with you. My overview is based on some of the executive summaries already provided by MarketingSherpa, including the interview transcript and presentation discussed in the article, “New Research Reveals What’s Working in Search.”

Below are the report’s key findings and my thoughts on them, based on experiences working with clients.

Investment Levels

Almost half of all agencies surveyed said their clients are likely to have fixed search budgets that are too small, which force them to go dark once funds are depleted. Only 19 percent of marketers surveyed said their clients have ideal budget levels to sustain an efficient presence in market. I’ve seen this with many of our clients, who still haven’t shifted enough of their marketing dollars into online — let alone search marketing — to really exploit this medium to its full potential.

Viral Marketing

When researchers asked whether search marketers have set aside budgets for viral marketing, close to 40 percent admitted they have never allocated budget to such initiatives, with only 7.5 percent aggressively pursuing viral initiatives. This finding doesn’t surprise me, particularly since a lot of our clients have only a modest level of knowledge of online marketing and know even less about viral-marketing initiatives. How can you get them to set aside budgets for these activities if they don’t know what they’re paying for?

Staff Retention

As demand for SEM (define) talent has increased, staff retention has been a challenge for agencies. However, close to 30 percent of agencies now say it is “very easy” to retain their staff, a significant jump over previous years. As the industry matures, there are more skilled search marketers, creating less opportunity for staff to be wooed away by another company. While I agree that more people possess SEM skills, I’ve had difficulties finding search marketers who are comfortable with the client-facing agency work.

Audience Targeting

Any form of targeting — be it geographic, demographic, contextual, behavioral, or time-based — tends to produce enhanced ROI (define) for search marketers. Geotargeting results in the highest overall ROI, with time-based targeting activities such as day- or week-parting resulting in the lowest of all targeting tactics. To me, targeting is a given, particularly geotargeting. As engines come up with more sophisticated ways to target, these should be tested aggressively to see what works best to reach each of your client’s audiences in the most efficient way possible.

Keyword Selection

Search marketers are going after long-tail terms more aggressively: 54 percent of search phrases have three or more words. As search marketers begin to realize that it’s the niche search queries that result in the best conversions, they invested more heavily in these terms. We are huge proponents of long-tail terms, as we find these produce higher qualified visitors and the most cost-efficient conversions.

Analytics Programs

Google Analytics’ stock continues to rise, as the program retains the title of the most frequently used analytics program of search marketers. In fact, its usage has improved by 12 points in just 12 months. This is likely due to the ability to link directly with Google AdWords, as well as the enhanced paid search campaign data versus traditional analytics programs (and of course, because it comes with no licensing fees!). The MarketingSherpa survey also found that when choosing an analytics program, marketers view accuracy and ease of implementation as the most important factors.


When looking at metrics to measure campaign success, search marketers cite conversion by segment and ROI as two of the most frequently underused. This is likely due to the fact that historically the emphasis has been on click volume and click-throughs and companies haven’t had the measurement framework in place to accurately assess these metrics.

First, Google Analytics users can set up conversion goals easily enough so they can see exactly how each source is driving conversions. We find the biggest difficulty is linking sales data to marketing investments, particularly in industries where there is no e-commerce and a longer sales lifecycle. However, in most major industries, there should be third-party vendors that can help you measure this.

Application of Search

Search is expanding outside of the traditional realms we’re accustomed to. It’s being accessed more frequently on mobile devices, and even more interestingly it’s being successfully employed for branding programs. It was always thought that search was a direct-response medium, but research has shown it has the ability to influence brand awareness and perception. This is good to know, particularly for those clients for which there isn’t a conversion goal to be taken on the Web site. In these cases, you can use traditional metrics like impression and clicks and combine these with survey data to get a sense of the branding impact.


There is still a lot to learn about search, and as this report demonstrates, a lot has changed in just one year. Whether you make use of this guide or some other source, you must stay abreast of the changing search marketing landscape.

Join us for a Search Engine Marketing Training in Boston, November 6 at the Hilton Boston Back Bay. Not only will you walk away with the knowledge and skills to be a successful search engine marketer, you’ll also jumpstart your career and enhance your professional know-how.

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