Holiday Search Tips from Some Magi

It’s time once again to start preparing for “The Season”, the make-or-break home stretch for many retailers that begins on Black Friday and ends when the last FedEx truck leaves the dock on Christmas Eve. And those who sell online may be expecting a whopper this time around, according to at least one preliminary forecast. The Online Holiday Shopping Preview issued last week by market research firm eMarketer predicts that e-commerce will hit $26.2 billion for the last quarter of 2005, up 21.9% over the last three months of 2004. Most of that increase will come from increasing numbers of buyers transitioning their purchases from offline channels to the Internet, according to the report.

If those estimates are true, then it’s also time for online marketers to start tuning up their search engine campaigns to snag their share of those shoppers. In fact, it may almost be past time: The same eMarketer research reports that show 60% of Internet merchants said in July that consumers will start their holiday shopping before November 1 this year. In fact, 25% said those holiday sales would start in August or September.

Given those predictions, this seems the right time to send along some holiday-themed search engine marketing (SEM) tips from some notable experts in the field—three very wise folks indeed.

Stuart Larkins, vice president of search for Performics, says his agency is telling clients that they need to take a three-phased approach to assembling a holiday keyword strategy, moving from broad generic keywords early in the shopping season to more branded terms later on, and being ready to cut back on SEM drastically just before Christmas.

Larkins’ advice is linked to past Performics “search before purchase” research showing that consumers actually begin researching their online purchases long before they make a buying decision and start not with brand name keywords (Canon, Sony) but with generic product names (digital camera, laptop).

“In that first phase, the consumer’s out there doing basic research, looking at what the latest fashions and trends are—taking a lap around the mall,” Larkins says. “So have a big program of broad generic keywords to remind them of the range of products that you sell.” At this stage too—which roughly extends from early November through Thanksgiving—merchants who also market through affiliates will want to be sure to monitor what’s seeing well with them, to spot this year’s Tickle Me Elmo as soon as it leaves the launch pad.

The second stage of holiday SEM, kicking in on Black Friday or November 25, calls for focusing on brand terms and high-converting generics. At this point shoppers have done their basic research and they know what products they want. Give them a reason to buy those from you by stressing the call to action in your search ad copy. Reassure them with a delivery guarantee; stress that your prices are the lowest; and trumpet your free shipping.

“Keyword prices climb steeply during this period, so manage your budget so that you don’t run through your allotted keyword spending too early,” Larkins adds.

In past holiday seasons, there has then come a third stage—“Last year it happened around December 18,” Larkins says—when searches, clickthroughs and conversions all suddenly plummet. At this point, consumers have either finished their shopping or don’t trust that their online orders will arrive in time. “But from what we’ve seen in past years, what doesn’t happen is a corresponding drop in keyword prices,” Larkins says. “So advertisers need to reset their bid levels for this much, much lower search volume right before the season’s end. You can really get badly burned on keyword spending if you don’t shift gears.

Peter Hershberg, managing partner with Reprise Media, says that marketers planning their holiday SEM campaigns should not forget to look beyond Google, Yahoo! and MSN to the smaller or vertical search engines, including both alternative searches and comparison engines. Not everyone starts building a holiday shopping list from scratch, he explains. Some buyers start the season with a pretty good idea of what they want to give or have been asked for. Those buyers aren’t doing basic product research on the Web; they’re looking for the most fashionable, fullest-featured version of an item at the best price.

“This is one of those times when Yahoo! Shopping and become particularly important,” Hershberg points out. “They’ve got distribution to many partners that advertisers probably would not be able to reach directly on their own, and they have a large customer base of people who are specifically looking to buy product.”

It also becomes more important during the holiday season to effectively manage the “long tail” of search, that large volume of very specific keywords that may not get searched often but that convert strongly to sales and at a lower price than more popular terms. “The cost-per-click inflation that we see over the course of the year goes up even more steeply in the fourth quarter,” according to Hershberg. “So the more specific your keywords are—the further out on the search tail you go—the better your chances of fighting those inflationary forces.”

Reprise advises year-round that its clients track every keyword on each of the engines they’re advertising on. But that word watch becomes especially important during the holiday sales rush, because it’s the only way to make sure that search terms that are popular with other marketers—almost any combination with the word “gift”, for example– are going to produce the right return on investment (ROI) for you.

And marketers may be time-pressed during this crucial sales crunch, but they must still make time to modify their search ad text and their landing pages to reflect their special offers. Consumers are beset by choices at this time of year, Hershberg says; make it easy for them to understand why they should buy from you rather than a competitor, and then roll that marketing message through both your search ads and your Web site. “Make sure you modify your creative content to make that as specific to the holiday shopping season as your keyword bids,” he advises. “If you’re offering free shipping or delivery guarantees, those appeals should be prominent in the ad copy and also on the landing pages that consumers click through to.”

Efficient Frontier CEO Ellen Siminoff reminds online merchants that while search engine marketing is more crucial than ever this holiday go-round, they also can’t afford to take their eyes off the retail basics of inventory, fulfillment and suggestive selling.

For example, some merchants try to compete on every keyword relating to every item in their category—sometimes without taking actual inventory into consideration. “If I click on your search ad for a product and it turns out you don’t have that product in stock for the holidays, I’ve wasted my click and you’ve wasted SEM money,” she says.

Then too, delivery promises are more than a search ad title. Sellers need to lock down their order processing and shipping systems. “If you guarantee delivery by the holidays in your search ads and on your Web site, you’d better make sure you can come through,” she says. “Failing to do so is worse than not having promised it in the first place and creates much more customer disappointment.”

Similarly retailers should think themselves into gift recipients’ heads and anticipate the batteries, cables or other supplies they may need to enjoy their present. If you’re a toy retailer selling “Thomas the Tank Engine” train sets, throw in some extra track. If a computer accessory works either with Mac or PC, consider bundling it with both FireWire and USB cabling.

These are all things that should concern offline retailers too, Siminoff concedes. But it bears emphasizing that search marketers need to concern themselves with more than just their advertising at this crucial time of year.

“It’s vitally important to be on the right keywords,” Siminoff says. “But once you draw customers into your ads with those terms, it’s just as important to offer them something they think is relevant and valuable. And once they’ve converted, you’ve got to have the inventory, you have to be able to deliver, and you should be sure you include all the necessary pieces and add-ons.”

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