James Arnold, Chief Digital Officer, Rooster Strategic Solutions

I love search. In fact, if I had a dollar to spend on marketing, I’d put it into search. Why? Because when used correctly, search engine marketing lets you connect with motivated customers at the exact moment they’re ready to buy. No other medium comes close.

Sean Cotton, president and co-founder of Coegi, is another believer. He recently led a discussion on search at Rooster’s AMIDA Conference and explained how search is particularly effective in helping ag-based companies close the loop from research to sale. More than 75 percent of customers begin their purchase process online, reviewing products. For more than half of them, a digital touch point was the last stop before making a purchase. Most studies show that every dollar spent on search generates two to three dollars in return.

SEO + SEM = SERP. Let’s say you’re looking to buy a portable generator, so you type “portable generator” into Google. A page pulls up with a variety of links; some at the top are clearly marked “Ads” from companies like electricgeneratorsdirect.com; below that are links to Home Depot, Consumer Reports, and other sites.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of making web pages organically match a particular search, either by liberal use of keywords consumers use in their searches – such as “portable generators” – or by including valuable information and resources consumers will find useful, such as reviews and how-to videos. SEO increases the likelihood that consumers will see your links at the top of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERP). Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is the practice of marketing where businesses use paid advertisements to ensure their links are at the top of the SERPs; these are clearly marked as “Ads.”

Both SEO and SEM are important aspects of search. But SEO is where marketers should start because there’s no out-of-pocket costs. You don’t pay Google for traffic or clicks with SEO; instead, you earn a free spot in the search results by having relevant content tied to the keywords and phrases consumers are already using.

Improving SEO performance. Search engines use algorithms to determine the placement of links on SERPs. By understanding the components of these algorithms, marketers can increase the likelihood their links will appear at the top of search pages.

For instance, Google assigns an AdWords Quality Score to individual links to rank the listing priority. This Quality Score includes several factors:

  • Site performance. A site that functions well and loads quickly will receive a higher score than one that is slow or not working properly.
  • Site content. Sites that employ common keywords and titles on its pages – such as “portable generators” – are weighted higher than those that don’t.
  • User experience. The site’s ease-of-use is also factored in Quality Scores.
  • Sites that are considered authoritative by the search engine – such as Home Depot or Consumer Reports – receive higher weighting.

In short, before you embark on an SEM program, make sure your web pages are in order. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes, understanding the keywords they use when they’re researching products and services, and use these terms throughout your site. Include useful information and ensure that your site is working properly and easy to navigate.

SEM takes it to a new level. Once your web content is SEO-optimized, you can use paid techniques to help generate more leads. In his presentation at AMIDA, Cotton used a fishing analogy. SEO is like putting hooks in the water; the more you put in, the more fish you’ll catch. When people are looking for information, answers, or how-to videos, the more listings you have, the more likely you’ll catch their attention. Paid search is like using a rod and reel; you can continually adjust where they’re fishing, and by using different bait, you’ll catch more customers.

But there are disadvantages to SEM. For one, it’s “pay to play.” Marketers have to bid on specific keywords and phrases to ensure their listings appear near or at the top of SERPs, and the listings disappear entirely when the campaign stops. And over time, consumers may see paid listings as merely “advertising,” and ignore them in favor of organic links.

With this in mind, there are some specific strategies to help make SEM more effective:

  • Be relevant. The goal is to find the intersection between what we as marketers want to say and what prospects are interested in hearing. It’s common for advertisers to have a predetermined idea of the key words and ad copy they want to use, as well as specific web pages for which they’re very proud, such as an elegant home page. But these may not be what end consumers are interested in seeing or reading. Customers typically want something specific when they search. If what they find is boilerplate ad copy or a home page, they won’t be satisfied. To get the most ROI from your efforts, start by examining the data in your campaign on an ongoing basis. What themes are resonating with consumers? What pages are they visiting? Which videos do they view most frequently? You can use this information to craft your SEM strategy.
  • Be informative. Consumers embark on a research journey before they purchase. One study found that 69 percent of consumers believe that a brand should educate, as opposed to simply sell. They’ll go back for more specific information, perform cost comparisons, and value tools such as calculators. This forces us as marketers to look at paid campaigns in a more holistic fashion as opposed to the bottom of the sales funnel.
  • Be specific. Have you ever clicked on a link and wondered why you wound up on the page you encountered? It may be entertaining, but it’s confusing. Make sure you communicate a specific purpose to the link you’re paying for, with a clear call-to-action for the consumer, such as: download a white paper; find a coupon; use a calculator; or compare specs with competition. Then make sure the link takes consumers to that specific feature of your website.
  • Measure carefully. SEM works best when marketers have a clear understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish, which means having specific Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). There are a number of metrics that can be measured, including Cost Per Click, Click Through Rate, Cost Per Acquisition, Customer Lifetime Value, or Return on Advertising Spend. Each of these can help ensure your budget is being used wisely, as long as you understand what you’re measuring and take proactive steps to increase performance.

In summary, with search you take advantage of a single, universal truth: When consumers use a search engine, they’re actively seeking information with a high likelihood of purchasing a product or service. SEO and SEM ensure that you’re a part of the conversation.

It can be complicated, but I don’t know of any other medium that promises a higher return for your advertising dollar. For that reason alone, search should be a major portion of your marketing spend. If you have questions, Rooster can help you with SEO and SEM activities, and I’d love to start a conversation.