With more and more evidence of the spiraling economy all around them, marketing departments and firms everywhere are bracing for a hit.

Historically, marketing has been disproportionally on the receiving end of layoffs and budget cuts once a recession kicks in, but will this ring true for those in search engine marketing (SEM)? The Google AdWords-driven ecosystem, being relatively new compared with other elements of the marketing mix, has not yet been stress-tested by a major, all-encompassing economic recession.

Pay-per-click (PPC) search marketing is well positioned to sidestep much of the inclement economic weather, and here are 10 things you can do now to avoid (most of) the guillotines looming over your counterparts in traditional marketing.

1. Trim the fat on your PPC campaign

Yes, the CEO of a PPC management firm is actually telling you that you might need to lower your PPC spend. At Apogee Search, we have been moving away from a pure percentage-of-spend billing model to reduce the gross conflicts between traditional PPC and media buying compensation plans, which have a strong incentive to always recommend that clients spend more and more.

The hard work with PPC budget reduction is that you don't want to just lower your daily budget on the search engines, lower bids across the board, or do other sweeping things that will also cut your lead flow by the same percentage that it reduces your spend.

Some campaigns are highly optimized, making fat-trimming more difficult, but most campaigns are wasting a portion of their spend on audiences that will never convert. Now is the time to refine your campaign to ensure that you pay only for relevant traffic.

2. Add negative keywords

Run Google search query reports to see what actual search terms are driving your traffic (and costing you money). If you are using broad match at all, chances are there will be some irrelevant terms in there that will surprise you. Add these irrelevant terms as negative keywords in both Google and Yahoo.

Are you seeing a lot of lines like "108 other unique search queries?" Most analytics programs will show you a list of the search queries that brought traffic to your site, and you can supplement Google's data with these reports.

Don't just focus on reducing unwanted clicks, also trim out irrelevant impressions. Why do this when you are only paying for clicks? Because it will actually reduce your costs. Google has put more and more emphasis on its quality-score algorithm, and one major element of a keyword's quality score is the click-through rate. If adding negative keywords removes 20% of your impressions on a keyword (those that were so irrelevant they weren't generating any clicks), that would increase your click-through rate by 20%. The corresponding increase in quality score should increase your average position or decrease your cost per click.

3. Refine ad copy

Now is the time to stop wasting money paying for clicks from people who will never fill out a lead form. Many companies default to exciting ad copy that is focused on grabbing attention and generating clicks. In a tighter economy, ads need to be targeted to attract only relevant traffic.

Make your ads specific, and make sure they accurately represent your company. Often it makes sense to use your ads to actively qualify prospects. For example, if in your search for customers you are looking only for companies with over 50 employees, consider saying so in your ad copy. If you are looking only at helping people with more than $10,000 in debt problems, consider saying so in your ad copy.

4. Add dayparting

Another good way to reduce spend without reducing overall performance is to daypart--turning your ads off entirely at times of the day that don't deliver quality traffic. Be sure to test your assumptions. Depending on your audience, you might see viable traffic after business hours or on weekends.

Tip: When analyzing your lead data, be sure to sort them by first-visit time, rather than actual lead conversion time. We sometimes see companies that think clicks at a certain time are worthless because leads don't come in at that time. But if there's a long lag between first click and lead, the assumptions can be incorrect.

For example, if a company doesn't see good leads until 9 AM Eastern, it might want to pause its campaigns overnight until 9 AM Eastern. However, if there's an average 45-minute lag time between first click and lead, then a better choice would be to pause campaigns until 8 AM Eastern.

Google allows you to pause campaigns at certain times, and also to selectively lower bids. Turning your campaign off entirely on the weekends might be overkill, but automatically reducing bids 50% on weekends might give you a similar number of qualified leads with less cost.

5. Increase your conversion rate

This will often turn out to be the single most powerful leverage point you have in your toolkit for SEM campaign performance.

Let's say you have a Web property with a conversion rate of 2%, and your monthly PPC investment produces 20,000 clicks per month. That comes out to 400 leads per month.

Now let's say you increase that conversion rate 20%, so you have a new conversion rate of 2.4%. With the exact same traffic, suddenly you're generating 480 leads per month. Your sales force would probably be happy to see those extra 80 "free" leads.

However, a 20% increase in conversion rate is actually on the low end. For lead-generation campaigns that are currently sending visitors to regular pages within the site, a specialized landing page can double or triple conversion rate. Optimization of existing landing pages using professional tactics and tools often increases conversion rate 50-100%.

6. Add compelling lead bait

Even the best landing page design and copy may not convert at the level you need if your call to action is simply "contact us." Many viable prospects won't take that extra step of filling out a lead form without an extra incentive. In a slow economy, people may be even more hesitant to engage with sales people, but they will be looking for useful information.

Whitepapers, webinars, and case studies are all great lead bait. A prospect who might not be ready to fill out a generic contact form might be very interested in reading an informative whitepaper, or watching a useful webinar. Case studies can also work as long as they provide value to your visitor and aren't simply tooting your own horn.

Leads that come in through lead bait might not be as hot as people who fill out a contact form, but the quantity increase can be well worth the investment, and good content will warm up the prospect.

7. Test all major changes to your Web site

Not all site changes increase conversion rates. We have seen companies redesign their sites to have a better look and feel and then see a decrease in conversion rate despite positive feedback about the design. Even landing-page best-practices don't work in every instance.

There are many great testing platforms out there, and some, like Google Web site Optimizer, are even free. It is relatively simple and painless to test everything but minor changes to your site.

If you launch a new landing page, A/B-test it against the one you were previously using. If you are making several individual changes to a landing page, homepage, or any page on your site that affects your PPC campaign, consider using a multivariate test to see which variables have the most impact and which combination is the best.

A word of warning: these tests can quickly add up to dozens of possible combinations. If you have a low lead flow, these tests can take months to accumulate statistically significant data. Be sure to limit your variants to a level that your traffic can support, and consider sticking with A/B testing if you usually see under 100 leads a month.

If you discover that some of your brilliant ideas are not so brilliant after all, you can quickly fix them before someone else notices. And if your ideas are successful, you have some hard data for bragging rights and job security.

8. Track past online conversions

Your PPC spend issues may not always be that you need more leads; rather, you may need better leads. You need resources to follow up on leads, and your sales team might not have the manpower to follow up on each lead in a timely manner.

If you're not tracking your PPC campaigns all the way through to sale, you won't know which keywords or even which campaigns or search engines are generating the leads that are turning into sales. If you can't point to the ROI of your campaign, you can't defend its budget if times get tight.

If you do end up with a reduced budget or reduced sales team, wouldn't you like to deliver only the worthwhile leads and cut out the time and expense of junk leads?

This data takes a while to accumulate, since you must wait until leads make it all the way through your sales cycle. If you have a long sales cycle or low lead volume, it can be many months before you have any statistically significant data.

Work now to integrate your PPC (and SEO) data into your CRM system so you can have solid ROI numbers for each of your online campaigns—before you need those numbers.

Once you get enough data, you can start optimizing your campaign toward activities that are generating revenue rather than leads that go nowhere.

9. Keep an eye on the competition

Stay aware of what your competitors are doing, but don't imitate them. Your strategy, analysis, and data all might be stronger than theirs. When watching competitors, get an idea of their sophistication level by looking at their tracking system and tracking syntax, keyword coverage (on both relevant and irrelevant keywords), ad copy, and landing pages.

If you're wondering how a competitor can be successful in position No. 1 on a highly competitive keyword, look at their sophistication level. Maybe they've just never noticed how unprofitable that keyword is for them.

Of course, if you have a competitor that seems to have a very sophisticated campaign, you might be able to gain some insight from studying its moves.

10. Don't panic

When companies see a month with lower PPC performance, or even a bad day, sometimes they enter panic mode and try to make dozens of changes at once.

Make major changes slowly, observing results before making another major change. Don't adjust keywords, bids, ads, dayparting, and landing pages all in one day, or you won't know what change had what effect. Wait for statistical significance before jumping to conclusions.

Worst-case scenario: If a budget cut comes your way you will be able to achieve the same results with less spend. Best-case scenario: Your ROI increases, your budget remains constant, and you rise in position.

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William Leake is CEO of Apogee Search (www.apogee-search.com).