5 things every business owner and marketing manager needs to know about PPC/SEM/AdWords

Having worked with AdWords for the past five years, both at Google and as a Digital Marketing consultant, here’s my attempt at demistifying this essential marketing and sales tool. This is not a one-stop guide to becoming an SEM expert. Rather, it is a primer on the various elements involved, and on how to make sure your AdWords guy/agency is using this extremely powerful tool right.

The jargon

Before getting into this, let me clarify the distinction between a few of the terms — chances are you’ve heard the words SEM, PPC and AdWords used seemingly interchangeably:

  • SEM (Search Engine Marketing): it’s a subset of Pay-per-Click (PPC) advertising. It is restricted to paying for a click through to your site from Search Engines like Google, Bing & Yahoo.

  • PPC: it comprises all advertising that entails paying on a per-click basis, which includes anything from SEM, to ads on Facebook and Twitter, to even display advertising (all together comprising digital advertising)

  • AdWords: Google’s advertising platform can be used to do both search-engine and display advertising. It is predominantly seen as a PPC/SEM tool, which explains why people use them interchangeably. Therefore, you could be doing SEM using Bing’s network, or PPC using LinkedIn advertising.

  • SEO or Search Engine Optimization: even though we are not going to discuss SEO in this article, this entails directing people from search engines to your site using only the free, unpaid listings on the search page. Setting this up and getting it to work for you is another kettle of fish and will be dealt with in another article.

If you have heard — or actually use — these terms in a different way, you are more than welcome to share your views in the comments section below.

1. What SEM really means

This section is for those who have never heard of SEM, so if you already know the basics, feel free to skip on ahead to section 3.

Let me introduce an analogy: A PPC/SEM ad (of which AdWords is a subset) is like having someone outside your store in the mall, directing people to come in. Most of the people have come to the mall (search engine) to shop, but there are also lots of people just there to browse, hang out and socialize.

What’s great about this is that you can, not only control exactly what your salespeople on the street are saying, but also who they approach and where exactly they direct them to. As you might imagine, effective SEM selling is thus the result of combining these three parameters and getting them right – saying the right thing (perhaps a little less important) to the right people in the mall (very important), and directing them to exactly the right section (webpage) of your store, which has what they are looking for.

2. Start small and focused

Unlike a sales team, SEM advertising should only work when you want it to – there’s no case of having hired someone and hence needing to give them something else to do. With that in mind, it’s best to deploy your salespeople (keywords) to target your warmest leads initially – remember that sending them out to meet people is not cheap. If you are an apparel retailer, for instance, go after those who are actively looking for apparel via search engines (users typing in ‘best/cheap/where to buy jumpers’) rather than related searches like (‘jumper designs/famous makers’). Another huge benefit here is that, unlike with other forms of advertising, by using different sized nets you can get your salespeople to approach differing numbers of people (the potential leads).

Staying structured can help massively here: if your business is very location sensitive, try different campaigns with different location specific keywords in each. If, like in most cases, your product is the key variable in driving sales, have different ‘AdGroups’ — if not different campaigns — for each product. If your business is location sensitive, a skilled AdWords/SEM/PPC expert could help you devise a structure that takes the two variables into consideration. Other than effort, added granularity does not cost you anything extra and will almost always pay dividends in the long run.

3. Optimize and build

Here comes the most important part: SEM in particular works best when you come back to your salespeople (keywords) at least 2 times a week and look at what has happened with them directing customers in store (more details on timelines and frequencies below). Which ones were the most effective? What were the words? Which pages did they direct people to? You can spend hours seeing who they approached using the ‘search terms report’ – the exact terms people typed in that led your salespeople (keywords) to show up and get their attention in the first place.

Next, test and expand into new areas by deploying more keywords. Get them to cast a wider net (keyword match types) and get them to be more attention grabbing by increasing bids.

4. Spruce up your Keywords

AdWords, Bing & Yahoo – the predominant platforms for SEM advertising – all have advanced features (extensions) to make your salespeople (and the message they carry) more appealing. They might show potential customers several destinations (multiple pages) which they can reach within your site, and how you might have multiple relevant products for them. They can display a map of all your store locations and provide your phone number so that users can call you from the mall’s streets directly (the search engine). For eCommerce sites, your sales team (keywords) can even be equipped with images of your products for the customers to browse away from your store (product extensions).

5. The "Surround Sound"

To borrow a phrase from a client, the next thing you need is ‘Surround Sound’. Make your salespeople stand out from the crowd – keywords associated with a well-known brand are more likely to succeed and drive users towards your website. To continue with the analogy, try and get on the mall’s speaker system, post on the billboards in the mall and hopefully you will see a clear, positive impact on the effectiveness of your sales team (keywords)

Before jumping into suggested timelines on the key tasks involved, please do stop by the comments section below and let me know if the analogy was useful, and whether you would like to see similar articles involving other marketing channels and methodologies.

Annex: suggested timelines

This list represents a rough guide on the order in which to do things. As mentioned in point 2, start with one campaign for you key product in a specific location, or if you have a group of similar products (seasonal wear that’s in demand for instance), set up a few campaigns for them.

Time estimates are indicative – more sophisticated campaigns involving sub-categories of products/groupings will entail more time. But in general terms, the following chart represents averages. Also, the frequency of optimisation represents initial estimates and should go down as the account gets more and more finely tuned.

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Kartik does online marketing stuff at Onfido. He plays with marketing technology, gets excited by data and comes up with weird logic regarding pool, football and every thing in between.