Search Engine Sales vs. Search Engine Marketing


Hundreds of thousands of marketers who place pay-per-click (PPC) search engine listings on Google, Yahoo, MSN, and other venues think of themselves as search engine marketers. In fact, they’re not behaving like search engine marketers at all. Most engage in search engine sales, not search engine marketing (SEM).

What’s the difference? Search engine sales is a construct we’ll use in this column. In contrast to SEM, it’s a process in which all decisions regarding campaign optimization are made with an immediate focus on sales, regardless of other marketing goals.

Search engine sales campaigns ignore the buying cycle. They ignore the fact some search keywords, listings, and search engines may influence sales at a later date, perhaps after another search.

Affiliate marketers who outsource “marketing” to affiliates (expecting the affiliates to invest their own money arbitraging PPC search results to be paid on a performance basis) don’t behave like marketers at all. They outsource sales to third parties. Affiliates won’t invest in advertising that results in sales through other channels or sales that are lagged, as these would be attributed to other affiliates or campaigns. The affiliates aren’t behaving as marketers but as commissioned salespeople or a commission-based channel.

The marketer benefits from the search engine sales-think that drives his affiliates behavior. Marketing benefits from sales-centric advertising purchased by an affiliate based on an expected return (payout) include:

  • Sales from dropped cookies not attributed to the affiliate
  • Sales that occur after the cookie expires
  • Untracked offline sales
  • Overall brand lift due to ad exposure and site interaction

Even search engine “marketers” who set up campaigns based on immediate, trackable sales glean the above unmeasured benefits. Despite these benefits, a search engine sales approach is wrong for nearly every marketer and results in far less net search profit. The reason is opportunity cost, the result of not doing something you could have that would have resulted in a profit (or positive outcome).

After years of reminders from practitioners, peers, and pundits, most marketers engaged in PPC SEM have embraced metrics, measurement, and Web analytics. Even more are taking proactive campaign actions based on data from campaign analytics.

Really visionary marketers work with internal and external technology, as well as tap experts to build more sophisticated media models to understand where search fits into integrated marketing and media plans. Insight into user behavior is required to build truly profit-maximizing plans. We know from all other media and purchase research not all customers and prospects engage in buying behavior the same way.

Diverse targets make building integrated media models for search a bit more difficult. Yet almost every business has common factors their very best (i.e., most profitable) customers have in common. Zero in on these, learn how you acquired your very best customers, and seek out commonalities in their purchase cycles. Perhaps they evolved through the buying cycle over time and had many brand touch points prior to making a final buying decision. Additional factors to look for include:

  • Prepurchase research search behavior (most purchase decisions are preceded by two-six or more searches, according to a comScore/DoubleClick study)
  • Competitive set (who else was under consideration?)
  • Offline media consumption patterns and ad exposure frequency
  • PR exposure
  • Buzz exposure

MSN and perhaps other engines will soon offer the opportunity to build a media model around our best customers, determine demographics, even boost bids for the demographic most likely to buy or, more important, most likely to result in a high-profit customer. There may also be opportunities to add behavioral bid increases based on how receptive to ad messages an individual has been in the past.

One easy way to think about search engine sales versus search engine marketing is marketing is designed to create interest, awareness, and demand. Sales fulfills an existing demand.

If you considered yourself a search engine marketer but now realize you’re operating purely in search engine sales, there’s no need to panic. However, in the PPC keyword auction marketplace, if your competition uses a holistic, profit-maximizing approach to bidding while you myopically focus on immediate sales, you may think their bids are crazy. In fact, those bids may be based on a highly thought-out strategy.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.


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Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.