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As marketers, we spend our professional lives striving to gain as much visibility for our clients or products as possible, so it seems silly to think that being number one can actually be dangerous to the health of our businesses.

But it's true—it can be, especially when it comes to paid search engine marketing. But wait: isn't paid search marketing the holy grail of Internet marketing? Not necessarily.

Paid search is a great tool, and when planned, executed and analyzed properly it can lead to a very high return on your investment. Be warned, though: to get the most from paid search marketing, you need to leave your ego at the door and get over your “I must be No. 1” complex.

Cleaning House

Success begins at home, as they say. A good way to make sure that paid search engine marketing pays off for you is to make sure that your own site is clean and easy to navigate. You can spend millions on paid search marketing and never see even the slightest return if your site annoys users with things like flash intros or difficult navigation.

People want the Internet to be fast and easy. When it isn't, they get frustrated and look for alternative sites that are. If the sites ranking above you are hard to use, slow to load, or just plain unprofessional, don't outbid them to rank higher in the search engines.

Be obsessed with usability, and all of your marketing that focuses on driving users to the Web site will have a greater impact.

Researching Keywords

I recently typed in “buy office supplies online” in Overture, only to find that the number three advertiser is paying a max bid of $1.50, while the number four advertiser is paying a max of $0.56! That is potentially a dollar more per click.

Furthermore, the number-four advertiser sells only ink—no pens or staplers—just ink for printers.

Why would I—as a marketer in charge of search engine marketing for a printer ink store—pay $0.56 for users typing in “buy office supplies online”?

If someone is savvy enough to type in “buy office supplies,” they are probably savvy enough to also type in “printer ink,” if that is what they actually wanted.

People don't type things in search engine boxes that they are not looking for! Don't make the mistake of realizing a good ROI in paid search marketing for the terms most applicable to your business, and then try to extrapolate that ROI to terms that are borderline and not 100 % applicable to your business. Many marketers make that mistake, and the result is that ROI on pay-per-click marketing efforts takes a nosedive.

I bet that the ROI on terms for printer ink was good, and the marketer in question may have assumed a similar result for other—generic—terms. But that is not the case.

Embracing Humility

In search engine marketing, there's nothing wrong with being second, fifth, or tenth in the results. Remember, the Internet is a research tool for a vast many of users; the less commoditized your product, the more likely your potential audience will dig through numerous options to research multiple companies before making a decision.

When is the last time you were looking for a product or service on the Internet and bought it from the first site that came up in a search engine, without at last checking a few other sites too? You may buy products like pens and paperclips from the first place you see. But this does not happen in service businesses, or for products with moderate or high price tags.

Check your ego at the door. Being number one in the search engines does not make a product or service the best—it just means that the organization paid the most to be there, and many Internet users know this. (Be advised: this is not the case with Google, however, where click-through does have an affect on rank).

Don't take being number one in a search engine a life-or-death requirement. If the success of your business hinges on ranking high in search engines, you need to re-evaluate your marketing plans. Paid search marketing should be only one piece of the pie.

Copyrighting and Testing

Here are two questions:

  • When is the last time you swapped copy on a paid search ad?

  • Did you track the results?

One of the great things about Internet marketing is that it allows the marketer to test—and switch gears on a dime.

More marketers should take advantage of this opportunity.

Think of at least three features of your product or service. Use a different product feature once a month for three months, without changing other factors. At the end of the three-month period, take a look at the impact on conversions or other important metrics.

Which Feature Highlights Resonated Best with Your Audience?

Maybe as another test you can create a splash page. When users go from your paid ad to your Web site, they get a page with a specific message. Then, test your conversion rate with and without a splash page—you could try different copy or layouts for your splash page, too.

You may have to devote some months for isolated testing (not testing too many features at one time). We know that paid search is here to stay, so testing for 3-6 months is worthwhile if what you learn about your audience affects your paid marketing approach for years to come.


Finally, many of the pay-per-click search engines are allowing you to get conversion metrics on your keyword buys by just adding some code to your task-completion page. It started with Findwhat, and now the other major players have followed. This is a free service, for now, on the big pay-per-click engines, so use it!

If you are not using the conversion tools from the various pay-per-click search engines, then use your analysis tool to look for trends in the behavior of users that comes from pay-per-click search engines: are they more likely to convert, or less? What about the abandon rates for those that come in through paid search listings?

Learn your audience segments, and you may find that users coming to your site via paid search have a different set of needs and expectations than those who come through print ads or email.

Setting up a paid search marketing campaign is easy; making sure you are targeting the right terms, at the right costs, is the difficult and time-consuming part.

Next time, take a look at the following paid-search-strategy checklist; if anything, it will act as a sounding board for your paid search efforts:

  • Do you know which specific keywords are most profitable?

  • Are the words you target exactly what your business offers?

  • Do you know which paid search engine is the most likely to convert?

  • Do you know the cost per click at which terms become unprofitable?

  • Have you tested new ad copy? If yes, have you analyzed changes on conversions and other business metrics?

  • Do you always pay to bump yourself up to number one without first looking at the sites above and below you?

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image of Wil Reynolds

Wil Reynolds is the founder and director of digital strategy at Seer Interactive. He's helped Fortune 500 companies develop SEO strategies since 1999 and leverages "Big Data" to break down silos between SEO, PPC, and traditional marketing.