SEM Meets SaaS

The complex art and science of search engine marketing (SEM) has, almost overnight, become an essential skill set for any company that hopes to succeed at e-commerce.

It’s a fact that Backcountry Edge, a four-year-old online purveyor of high-end hiking and camping gear, learned early on. So the company was quick to sign up last year as a beta participant for a new software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering from Clickable Inc.

The Clickable service aims to remove as much of the complexity from search engine marketing as possible, and as much of the drudgery too. According to Backcountry Edge marketing specialist Pam Emery, it succeeds pretty well.

Here’s how SEM typically works. To ensure your company’s ad (complete with a link to your Web site) appears prominently in the ‘sponsored links’ section of a search result page when a prospective buyer keys in a particular search term, you bid for words on an open market at each search engine or ad network.

It’s a little like day trading, and it’s now a multi-billion dollar market, with even small companies like Backcountry Edge spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars a month. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s MSN are the big three players but there are scores of others.

The more you bid, the higher up your ad appears in the list of sponsors on search-result pages – and, theoretically, more customers will click the link to go to your page. And if you’re doing the rest of your marketing right, you’ll reap more sales.

Backcountry Edge stumbled on Clickable almost by accident. Realizing that she didn’t have time she needed to devote to search engine marketing, Emery went looking last year for a bid automation product that would reduce some of the labor involved.

In the course of her research, she came across mention of the upcoming Clickable beta and signed up immediately – one of 3,000 applicants for a 500-participant test program, Kalehoff says.

Simple Setup

Implementing the product was a breeze. It runs on Clickable’s servers and displays in a browser. Backcountry Edge had to provide information that lets Clickable log in to its accounts with Google and Yahoo, but otherwise, getting up and running was a matter of turning on and starting to work.

Clickable offered her an online orientation session, but she says, “By time I had the walk-through [a day later], I was already all over the software. It’s just so easy to use and approachable.”

Besides Clickable’s mouse-over Help functions which help you navigate the interface, the product also features built-in tutorials on basic search engine marketing concepts and best practices. None of this is rocket science, but it can be complex, especially for the math-challenged, and there is little in the way of good educational material available, Kalehoff notes.

Tracking Results

Clickable provides a single interface that customers can use to manage accounts with multiple search engines, and it automates analysis of campaign results.

The product answers basic questions, says Max Kalehoff, the company’s vice president of marketing. How am I doing – what’s my return on the money I’m spending on ad words in terms of site visits by prospects and online sales? And what can I do to get a better return?

Should you bid more or less for a word? Bid on different words? Change the wording of ads? Modify the landing page where customers end up in hopes of increasing the number of site visitors who actually buy?

The answers are critical. Getting them wrong can mean missing opportunities to increase sales. Or wasting money on ad spending that produces poor results.

Getting it right requires understanding how the search engines work and how to analyze data they provide and that you mine from your own e-commerce systems. It also needs somebody to keep on top of accounts and campaigns all the time – because of the dynamic auction market, search engine marketing is a constantly moving target.

The skills needed to do all of this are still rare, so it’s difficult to acquire them through hiring personell. Small companies may have no option but to learn for themselves as they go, which is what Emery has been doing – between being an online product expert and customer service consultant for her employer.

“The time I have to spend on this is very limited,” she says.

Monitoring, managing and analyzing results for the accounts the firm has with the big three search engines takes a lot of time too. Each of the search engines works differently, which means before Clickable, she had to learn different interfaces to enter bids, manage campaigns and check results.

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