SEM: Outsource or In-House?

Search marketing campaigns can get complex. There’s planning, research, creative, trafficking, tracking, and optimization. You can do it in-house, hire a consultant, have your interactive agency handle it, or have an organic search engine optimization (SEO) company oversee paid search.

Prospects and clients frequently ask who should manage their paid-search campaigns. Before answering, I try to understand exactly what they mean. Paid search engine marketing (SEM), and organic SEO for that matter, is not static. The best SEM and SEO campaigns are living campaigns. Paid search requires a constantly evolving strategy and more “babysitting” than other marketing efforts due to the volatile, dynamic nature of search inventory (particularly auction-based inventory).

To answer who should manage a search campaign, let’s look at the stages. Depending on the skill set and tech prowess available in-house, you may find a mix of internal and external resources to be the best solution. You may need no assistance at all. A review of the elements and stages of your campaign identifies weaknesses where an external vendor, agency, or consultant can assist. The stages are:

  1. Campaign planning. This is no small task. The planning stage requires the team to have a strong understanding of:

    • Site-centered business objectives and site conversion objectives, including CPO/CPAs, or blended objectives, such as BEI

    • Technology options and/or manual methods to measure conversion
    • The breadth of your site and which optimal inbound landing pages to focus on
    • Conversion path current site visitors take and any abandonment issues
    • Keyword research tools so you can go broad with your listings for improved user experience and find golden nuggets where return on investment (ROI) is particularly high
    • Available paid-inventory opportunities and, based on your objectives, if a simultaneous or a phased launch makes sense (a phased launch permits learning from phase one of the campaign to be applied later)

  2. Creative development. Paid-search venues require different creative strategies. When planning creative for Overture, Google, LookSmart, and XML paid inclusion, use of copy, messaging, and style vary. There are differing standards for title and description length. Google requires more compelling copy to take advantage of its relevancy boosting algorithm, whereas Overture copy can be more qualifying in nature, as long as the CTR (Overture’s “Click Index”) is not significantly different from neighboring listings. In XML and LookSmart feeds, titles and descriptions impact the relevancy of your overall listing. This affects the likelihood of coming up in search results.

    Don’t underestimate the importance of the creative process. The language in your listings, regardless of type, determines a searcher’s first impression. Ensure language is clear and meets objectives.

  3. Campaign trafficking. Assume your listings and feeds are ready, your out-the-gate strategy is set, and analytics technology is in place to measure effectiveness and provide data for campaign optimization. Now, you need to get those listings to the engines with unique, listing-by-listing tracking codes embedded into the links so you can close the loop and optimize (manually or automatically). To get the most out of the campaign, listings will change over time. You remove under-performing listings and add new ones. Perhaps test new creative executions. Develop a system to make this process easier.
  4. Auction campaign optimization. At this stage, technology is in place and you’re measuring all campaigns. Some listings deliver huge ROI, others are scaled back. This system should eliminate waste and capitalize on successes. Allocate time and/or automated resources for optimization. These areas need attention:
    • Optimize auction engine campaigns based on your data, if possible, in real time or frequently.

    • Test and adjust auction engine ad copy when appropriate (either to enhance effectiveness of a listing that works or to rescue an under-performing listing).
    • Test and adjust XML feed listings when they’re not performing.

  5. Campaign expansion. Weeks or months go by. The campaign is running well. Waste has been eliminated and high-performing listings are humming along. Now, the strategy shifts to expansion:

    • Use top-performing listings as a basis for keyword brainstorming.

    • If you have a reasonable budget, run analysis on network buys to see how well individual traffic sources convert. Some may sell inventory directly on a sponsorship basis. Yahoo or MSN traffic may be strong enough to justify a deal to supplement your Overture campaign. Similarly, if AOL performs as part of an AdWords campaign, perhaps AOL has a search inventory product that would also deliver.

A wealth of expertise is available in the SEM/SEO community. Conferences such as Search Engine Strategies are filled with professionals who live and breathe SEM, sharing best practices. Each person or agency has strengths in technology, creative/copy, strategy, or operations. As with any other complex endeavor, specialists include consultants, copywriters, vendors, and technology platforms. You may have the resources to do everything in-house, or you may find tapping outside resources more effective and efficient.

A mistake I see all the time is a mismatch between the task and the person assigned to it. If you’re a lawyer, accountant, or business owner, changing bids in Overture or listings in Google might not be a good use of your time. Make an educated, informed, and strategic decision before assigning tasks to man or machine. It could mean the difference between success and stagnation.

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