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Most companies should be using paid search as a mandatory component of their marketing. And with search engine marketing spending expected to reach $25 billion by 2012, according to Forrester Research, it is obvious that a good share of marketers understand its potential.

However, if a company is just beginning to consider paid search, or is not taking full advantage of paid search's benefits, understanding best-practices is essential to success.

Search is one of the most targeted forms of marketing, since the prospect is already looking for what the marketer is offering. To leverage that built-in personal connection, paid search campaigns should apply the following best-practices, whether executed by an agency or managed in-house.

1. Set the strategy

Like most types of marketing, search campaigns without a marketing strategy are doomed to fail. Consider the following components of paid-search strategy:

  • Goals and objectives: Set goals in advance and don't lose sight of them as the campaign continues.
  • Target audience: Whether looking for new customers or trying to re-engage with old ones, research and plan keywords and ads around the needs and interests of target customers.
  • Offer: Most campaigns require a relevant offer. Consider the available assets and determine what would be the most compelling offer. Consider sales events, whitepapers, research, e-newsletters, or timely events such as webinars or conferences. Coordinate offers with other campaigns—offline as well as online.
  • Conversion: Plan conversion elements in advance. Registrations, purchases, goal pages, or email signups can be used as a way to measure success.
  • Natural search: Consider natural-search results and make sure that these two marketing aspects are working together. View results side by side.
  • Timing: Plan paid-search campaigns around other marketing campaigns, including lead-generation efforts in all channels.

2. Choose the keywords

The keyword list is one of the most important aspects of a paid-search campaign. Some ways to create an effective keyword list are these:

  • Current data: Review Web analytics reports both for search terms that people use to find the organization's site and the search terms they use on the site. Evaluate both to determine whether those visitors converted to prospects or customers.
  • Competitors: Take a look at competitors' sites and the keywords they use; review natural-search as well as paid-search keywords.
  • Research: One of the best ways to find out how customers search for products is by asking them. Companies can use their sales force or customer service desk to ask customers directly, or conduct market research.
  • Other online sources: Blogs, wikis, and other user-generated content contain a wealth of information that can inform keyword selections. Marketers should review links coming into their site as well, to see how keywords are used in the links—to determine how others describe the site and company.
  • Company terms: Don't forget online and offline campaign names, brand names, trademarks, new products and services, and new industry terminology. Avoid corporate-speak—words used internally may not be the keywords used by prospects or customers
  • Phrases: Most people search using phrases, and add on terms when they refine their search. These long phrases can be used for paid search, using options the search engines provide, including paid search listings for any phrase containing a keyword, or negative keywords—ensuring that a listing does not appear for phrases containing specific words.

3. Write the text copy

Before writing ads, organize the keywords into ad groups. The groups should contain like terms and phrases, enabling marketers to optimize campaigns more easily. Ad groups also can use similar text ads, written for the group rather than individual keywords. This can be a time saver when purchasing large numbers of keywords.

  • Prequalify visitors: Keyword ad content should help qualify the visitor to minimize the cost of unqualified clicks.
  • Keywords: Include keywords in the ad's title and content.
  • Call-to-action: Tell people what to do and create a sense of urgency to maximize response.

4. Plan the landing pages

Paid-search campaigns that have a goal usually require a landing page; that is, they don't drive people to the homepage of a Web site. Landing pages ensure that visitors complete their task and allow marketers to monitor and optimize the pages. Pages should be related to the paid search ad's offer and intent.

  • Keyword inclusion: Use the keywords in the title and headlines of landing pages.
  • Registration pages: Keep text bulleted and easy to read. Only "require" fields that are absolutely necessary. Limit navigation on the page but lead visitors back to the main Web site once their task is completed.
  • Sales or other conversion pages: Lead visitors directly to the most relevant page for their search. For example, the keyword "DVD player" should lead to a page where a customer can research and purchase a DVD player.

5. Test and optimize

Using tracking through the search engines or Web analytics tools, track paid-search clicks through to conversion. Determine what makes some keywords perform better than others and make changes accordingly, through testing.

  • A/B testing: Change one element at a time—whether the ads or the landing page copy or layout. Test for a period of time, measure, and evaluate again.
  • Test ideas: For landing pages, try colors, branded elements, calls-to-action, or different field requirements. For ads, try different calls-to-action, offers, or targeting options available from the search sites.

* * *

Sites such as Google and Yahoo offer many tools that can assist with campaigns. Also, take a look at options such as mobile search, local search, Google Maps, and options where ads appear on sites other than search engines.

And, finally, remember that paid search is one aspect of marketing. All forms of online and offline marketing may motivate a company's customers or prospects to search and click on search listings.

It is not advisable to view paid search in a vacuum—when planning for success, marketers must remember what drives people online to see and click on their paid search ads.

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Jeannette Kocsis is vice-president, digital marketing, for Harte-Hanks (, a worldwide direct and targeted marketing company. Contact her at 845-339-0022 or via