HOW TO ACHIEVE THE PERFECT BALANCE IN SEARCH MARKETING
While most consumers may not think twice about which words or descriptions that are typed into a search engine provider, for companies and brands, getting these search intents right can make a huge difference to their balance sheet, and the traffic that is directed to their e-commerce websites.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Advertising (SEA) are two different types of online marketing that address the same objectives of increasing overall search visibility and generating highly qualified traffic to a website.
However, both strategies are too often defined and managed by different agencies. Organic and paid search strategies can and should always be leveraged by one another to achieve search synergies and improve Return On Investment (ROI).
While SEA is an instant solution to generate traffic and conversions to a website, SEO has a longer-term approach to performance. The “mistake” brands often make is that they tend to invest in massive budgets for SEA with the objective of having direct increase of traffic for specific search terms, while putting very little effort into optimising their website for SEO, creating customised SEA assets and coordinating their investments with their current SEO performance.
There are a bunch of challenges that can arise when SEO and SEA strategies are not properly integrated with one another.
In my experience, I’ve come across many of the following cases:
- budget distribution not reflecting actual demand
- media budget not being spent as planned
- wrong URLs being used as landing pages
- visibility gaps for strategic keywords
- organic traffic cannibalisation
- poor engagement on site
- low conversion rate
- higher cost-per-click
- poor ads performance
But getting straight to the point… How can brands build a perfect search profile to avoid these challenges arising?
Among all the points to consider, there are five very important ones brands should not forgo when building up their search strategies. If these are properly covered, not only will brands decrease their advertising costs over the long run but they will also be able to increase their search traffic overall.
1. Analyse search performance at a global level
SEO and SEA are closely related but are also two different areas of expertise. For this reason, many agencies and brands tend to analyse and orchestrate the performance of both channels separately. This can be problematic when different stakeholders are managing SEO and SEA for the same brand and are not communicating on a regular basis with one another.
Reassuringly, I have seen this situation evolve over the past year, and I am receiving more and more requests from brands willing to analyse their search data at a global level in order to optimise their media mix.
However, the time and frequency needed to achieve search synergies is often underestimated by brands, which can result in lower efficiencies and performance.
To achieve search synergies, brands need to allocate specific resources for it, and I will explain why.
There is a lot of data to analyse because there are a lot of dimensions to consider (topic, market, language, device, time of the day, time of the week and so forth). Search is all about granularity and attention to detail: for each specific dimension, it is important to analyse search volumes, rankings, share of voice and competition in order to properly define budget allocation.
Once the strategy is well defined, it is once again about analysing data: it is important to regularly monitor your search performance at a global level. And when I say regularly, I mean at least once a month in order to ensure you can always optimise either your website (SEO) or your campaigns (SEA) to stay on top of the game and limit the risk of having competitors overtaking the search result you were taking for granted.
Building up a comprehensive search dashboard, including a wide set of SEO and SEA metrics per market, is a stepping stone to building an integrated search strategy. It might require significant work to be properly set-up but once done it will help brands better monitor their search performance on a monthly basis and optimise their SEA campaigns accordingly on a recurring basis.
2. Apply learnings and define proper budget allocation
Brands need to understand their analytics and then use that data to fine-tune and customise their SEA so they can target their advertising more specifically and make more money.
You can’t imagine how many times I have seen significant ad budget being wasted because estimates were not made properly before defining the yearly budget allocation.
Of course, it is difficult to forecast precisely the average cost-per-click (CPC) over a year, but agencies can assess granular budget repartition by focusing their analysis on search volumes and historic cost-per-click data. Brands should consider adapting their budget allocation to the actual search demand, based on the analysis mentioned previously.
It is key to choose the right battles, and when I say battles I am talking about search intents, locations and devices. All strategies are good to take, but SEA battles are not always the same as the SEO ones: you need to make sure that you define an integrated search strategy that will allow to maximise your visibility on strategic topics and drive more revenue to your business. This will help avoiding organic traffic cannibalisation and bridging gaps with lack of organic visibility.
Another very important point to keep in mind is that all markets behave differently, and analysis needs to be looked at a market and language level if brands want to make their advertising dollars work better. Each market has its own challenges and opportunities: not only are search volumes different but also average CPC, competition and most user behaviour varies a great deal from one market to the other.
For example, when comparing the click-through rates of the United States, United Kingdom and France for equal positions we can already see that in some countries users are more willing to click on paid ads versus others (in some countries users might see an ad as a point of reassurance while in others they might see it as a push from brands and tend to run away from it).
3. Favour synergies: SEO and SEA are connected to one another
If you don’t have a cohesive search strategy, it means you are not creating synergies between the two and you will have a hard time decreasing your paid search budget over the long run.
How does one create synergies though? Based on the points and analysis mentioned above, there are a lot of optimisations that can be done on both SEO and SEA sides. It’s all about implementing and prioritising actions that will deliver the best value in the short and long run.
For both paid and organic channels, search engines use algorithms to rank URLs. Even though there is no direct link between organic and paid search results, it is clear that there is an indirect impact between one another. Brands should think of search experience optimisation when defining their strategy, by focusing on the users rather than the channel in order to create a great search experience, from the Search Result Pages (SERP) to the landing page.
If websites are optimised for SEO – meaning that they address the key organic ranking factors (content, technical, links, engagement, context) – brands will have a higher chance to get a good quality score for the keywords they are bidding on with SEA. Mechanically speaking, this will also help to decrease their average CPC.
Quality score is a key performance indicator for SEA and has a direct impact on how the ad rank is given by search engines (ad rank = quality score x maximum bid).
Aside from average CPC which helps define ad rank, search engines tend to score the quality of websites with similar criteria for both SEO and SEA. For this reason, the milestone that brands should focus on is a well-developed and structured website with rich content and best-in-class user experience.
Always keep in mind that search engines are machines relying on algorithms, at the service of the user. Even if you just experiment yourselves with implementing SEO best practices on a specific landing page, and then promote it through SEA: I guarantee your average CPC will be lower on average than the one you get usually and your conversion rate will increase.
To get started with these synergies, my recommendation is to have at least the basics of SEO implemented:
- meta titles
- meta descriptions
- heading tags
- content that matches users’ intent
And the most important thing to remember is that it also works the other way around. SEA contributes to good SEO in some indirect ways … So never forget to promote your landing pages through SEA, social media, display and programmatic marketing, if they are properly optimised, it will definitely send some good signals to search engines and help them get uplifted in organic rankings!
4. Optimise SEA accounts and customise ads: granularity is key
Most brands pay little attention to the need to regularly tweak ads for SEA, mostly because paid search ads are often created in an automated way instead of being customised. Automation definitely allows agencies to create quickly several sets of ads and ads variations, however it will lead to higher acquisition costs (sometimes 10x higher vs. SEO) and lower engagement than if they were customised.
Companies and brands often spend thousands on advertising that does not result in effective results, which also gets us into media mix optimisation. What brands need to do is look at things on a more granular level, work hard on their SEO and customise their SEA ads because it will result in more value for money (lower advertising costs and better performance). As a result, they will free advertising budget and be able to invest more on other strategies such as content creation and amplification.
I am always a little surprised when I see brands validating search ads in the blink of an eye, only once a year, while it will take at least two to three iterations every month before approving social media ads or captions. Why would you go more in depth for social media than you would do for search?
With search, you are able to go one step further by making sure your ads and landing pages are always adapted to the search queries you are targeting. Because search is the best media to target users that are specifically showing interest for a brand or range of products with tailored messages and at the right moment they are searching for the information. On Google Ads you even have the opportunity to create specific audiences and to create customised ads in order to deliver tailored advertising messages to each audience you’ve created. Context is key and with an integrated digital mix you can ensure to target the right people, at the right place, at the right time, with the right message.
5. Test, measure, learn and reiterate based on results
Last but not least… You have to test, test and test again! Likewise for all digital channels, it is key to try new strategies on SEO and SEA and to measure the profits they bring in order to prioritise actions that will deliver the best value for their business.
To measure profit, I often compare the before and after cost per transaction and level of revenue: this helps me identify the right battles and define my optimisation roadmap. Besides from profit measurement, there are also lots of quality and engagement metrics that can be used to assess the impact of an optimisation.
In order to build the perfect search profile, you need to try out a lot of things, always measuring results and reiterating when you identify that they bring value. SEA being an instantaneous lever, you need to have an iterative mindset and define a testing roadmap to ensure you are making the most out of it. And most importantly you need to remember that learnings for SEA are almost always applicable to SEO!
For instance, returning to my point earlier regarding ads customisation, feel free to do some A/B testing on your SEA ads by trying different sets of headlines and descriptions. If you identify some ads that result in higher CTR (click-through rate), then maybe that’s the frame you want to roll out for other campaigns.
You can even use top performing ads to rewrite and optimise your SEO meta titles and descriptions! Other points that I recommend you to test are generic queries, landing pages, locations, time of the day or week, extensions types based on devices targeted.
To sum up:
Research and analysis, strategy definition, proper budget allocation, synergies empowerment between SEO and SEA, ads customisation, test & learn and iterations are the main components brands should focus on to make up the perfect search profile.
These are key elements because they help to assess demand and make sure it is addressed with a specific and integrated search strategy. In the end, they also allow brands to better plan their media investments and their optimisation roadmaps in order to improve their ROI overall.
Yes, applying all these elements takes a lot of time but if brands want to get the most out of their digital investments, they need to pay more attention to how important search is. Having a tailored and granular approach to search will be key to improving their digital strategy overall.
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Pauline Monnin is a Search Project Manager at DLG in Geneva. She specialises in website optimisation, user experience and media mix optimisation. In addition, Pauline helps to drive innovation on digital projects within the DLG team. Previously, she spent two years working at Bayer Consumer Health helping brand managers defining search strategies for their brands.