SEM Top 10: Get More from Your Shopping Feeds

Whereas keyword paid search allows marketers to advertise on relevant phrases, feed-based search allows you to advertise relevant URLs.

These shopping comparison data feeds can be an effective way to ensure that engines send traffic to every page on your site that you wish. They can be effective at pulling value from the “long tail” of the search distribution.

Working with companies ranging from start-ups to the Fortune 500, we’ve found it profitable for catalogers to provide feeds for such sites as Yahoo Shopping, Yahoo SiteMatch Exchange (the former Inktomi), Froogle, Shopping.com, Pricegrabber, MSN Shopping, and Gifts.com. While these sites command far less traffic and generate far fewer sales than Google or Yahoo search, they can provide modest additional revenue at a reasonable advertising cost.

To get the most out of the feeds, work with your inhouse IT resources or outsourced agency to prepare special files containing information on each URL you want to promote. Information for each page typically includes the product name, the description, the price, and an image link. Independently or through your agency, submit these special files to the feed engines. Typically, retailers submit feeds daily or weekly.

The decision to handle the feeds inhouse or to outsource them depends on the availability of IT resources and the skill of your marketing team in optimizing feeds for each engines. If you choose to work with an agency, ask if will be building your feeds itself or if it too is outsourcing them. If your agency is outsourcing the feed work, ask which company is actually doing the work and what level of service–frequency of updates, speed of problem resolution, billing audits–you can expect.

Also make sure your reporting platform integrates all your efforts across all the data-feed venues into one set of unified reports. It’s helpful to integrate your paid keyword search into the reporting as well. This lets you avoid “double counting” orders. Double counting can occur when prior to purchasing from you a person clicks on both a paid-search ad (say, a Google AdWords ad) as well as a data feed ad (say, a Yahoo Shopping link).

There are two aspects to feed quality: feed validity and feed effectiveness. Feed validity is about making sure your feed is well formed, adhering to the engine’s specifications. Each feed engine has its own rules governing copy, superlatives, use of brand names, etc. Feed effectiveness is about making sure your feed is the most effective marketing vehicle it can be. While all effective feeds must be valid, valid feeds aren’t always particularly effective.

Creating a valid feed hinges on matching your product categorization or taxonomy to that of each feed provider. The feed providers often place URLs sent to them into a slot in their taxonomy–in effect, a bin. Your goal is to make sure each of your product pages lands in the bin most likely to be explored by a qualified customer.

A key challenge is that product categorization may change seasonally on both your part and the part of the engine. You can help get your products listed in the appropriate categories by staying on top of the engine’s changes as well as your own changes. Make sure your internal expert or your agency is informed whenever your merchandising team revises product categorization. Failing to do so can lead to mismatched or “orphaned” URLs.

Set up an automated routine to remove discontinued items from your feeds. This should be done automatically each day or week. And continuously monitor your presence on the feeds. Most of the feeds will simply drop any URLs they consider malformed; only some will tell you when they do so. While it may not be practical for those with broad assortments to confirm the presence of every SKU, it’s worth checking regularly on your most important products.

Feed effectiveness is where it becomes clear that serving feeds is not just an IT function, it’s also a job for your marketing team. As with paid search, you want to fine-tune your program to hit specific economic targets.

The techniques you use are similar to those that characterize organic search optimization:

• Success in natural search starts with getting your pages found (indexed) and increases as you tune these pages to increase their importance in the eyes of the engines. • Success with feeds starts with valid data and increases as you get more of the right terms and words into the right data fields.

But unlike with natural search engine optimization, here you’re not optimizing single pages, you’re optimizing a batch.

You need an algorithm that handles your entire product assortment. While some of the engines allow you to improve placement by bidding, many do not. Success depends then on what you send, and as we mentioned earlier, each feed requires its own recipe.

You’ll also want to use product titles that reflect how most people describe the things you sell; jargon can make you hard to find.

Just as effective paid search requires monitoring of individual keywords economics, success with the data feeds depends on atomic analysis. Obviously you want to remove chronically underperforming products, and there are times you may want to suppress marginal performers as well.

Retailers are often excited about the prospect of using their feeds to showcase their entire product catalog, but this is not always wise. Say a cataloger offers 400 SKUs. If th top 80 items generate all sales from the engine, it should consider eliminating the remaining 320 from the feed. By intelligently pruning your product list, you can make sure your best products aren’t competing for attention with your duds.

Just as the best chefs are always experimenting, smart marketers are always testing. Work with your internal team or your search agency to establish a feed testing regimen. Test one feed algorithm against another. As always you’ll want to ensure that each URL has a unique tracking code identifying the specific product on your site and the engine where your ad is served.

The bottom line? Approached intelligently, the shopping comparison data feeds can help you sell more.

Alan Rimm-Kaufman is founder and Lawrence Becker is vice president, marketing and business development for The Rimm-Kaufman Group (www.rimmkaufman.com), an online-marketing consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA.

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