The write stuff for SEM

Aug 01, 2006 9:30 PM  By

Ask almost any SEM vendor about the key ingredients to search success, and you’ll hear about technology, bid management, and keyword strategy. Hardly anyone talks about what tends to be the most critical component of paid search success: the marketing communications strategy.

Don’t believe me? Contact senior management at Yahoo! and ask why they have abandoned open auction bidding for a “Googlesque” approach that takes into account the listing’s relevancy. Wall Street applauded the search engine’s decision because improved relevancy will in the long term generate more clicks and, more important, the type of qualified clicks that advertisers desire.

Writing effective search copy is extremely difficult. So be mindful that many search “technology” vendors may be lacking in the copywriting department.

All advertisers must take these three mission-critical factors into account:

  • In almost all types of advertising, you have space or time to tell a story. Whether it’s a 60-second TV spot, a full-page print ad, or a direct mail catalog, you have the ability to motivate consumers to respond because you have time or space in which to do so. In search, though, the amount of space you have is tiny.

  • For most advertising, you pay a set fee for the ad, and the goal is to generate as many responses as possible — more is better because every response lowers your cost per order or cost per lead. Not so in search, however, because you are paying for every response (click), and unqualified responses are a waste of money.

  • With nearly every kind of advertising, you have very few competitive ads near yours (classified is one notable exception). But in search, you have dozens of competitors above and below your listing, as well as competitors that show up in the organic rankings.

Out with the bad, in with the good

Now let’s look at the requirements of search copy. You have only three lines to work with. On average, that’s a grand total of 15-20 words. You can’t use graphics. You can’t use certain “superlative” words or exclamation points. Basically, in the name of relevancy, all the practices you were taught in Marketing 101 are not allowed. Quite possibly the biggest challenge is that you don’t want to get as many people as possible to click on your ad. Again, because you are paying for each click, quality, not quantity, matters.

Your three lines of copy have a dual goal: to encourage consumers to click on your ad instead of your competitors’ ads, and to discourage all but the most qualified consumers not to click — all in 20 words or less.

Poor copywriting can be found on just about any search you conduct. For instance, on a search for “suits,” we find the following ad: “Suits, Fashionable Color-Coordinating Sets. Find Fits That Flatter Every Body! www.chadwicks.com

On the whole it may seem like a fit, but Chadwick’s is a women’s apparel merchant. How many women do you think are searching on the term “suits” as compared with men? What’s more, how many men do you think have heard of Chadwick’s? While my wife may think I’d look good in lavender or mauve, I think I’m going to pass on this one.

Our recommendation: “Women’s Suits & Apparel. Dress with style and sophistication with our selection of designer suits. www.Chadwicks.com

These changes tell search users that 1) the merchandise is for women only; 2) the merchant’s selection will likely be conservative in appearance; and 3) the company sells quality dress apparel. This basically deters the males searching on this term from clicking on the ad, but secondarily allows Chadwick’s to stand out from the pack of men’s retailers on a “cross-gender” type of search term and communicate its brand promise.

Keyword-directed copy

I can’t tell you how many times I see copy that has nothing to do with the keyword searched or is very generic in nature. This is almost always due to laziness on the part of marketers who really need to spend the time and effort to write different copy for every keyword or group of related keywords.

For example, a search on the term “dirty diapers” in Google brought us the following ad, where keywords are indiscriminately inserted into general copy messages: “Dirty Diapers. Looking for Dirty Diapers? Find exactly what you want today. www.eBay.com

Thank you for the offer, eBay, but I’ll pass. For all those stay-at-home parents looking for a way to make some money on the side, however, eBay has apparently found a marketplace for those presents our little ones leave us. Wait a minute…upon clicking and viewing the destination this has no relevance at all.

I’m sure you get the point. And yes, this ad really exists (unless the folks at eBay have already read this article and taken it down).

When contemplating search copy, put yourself in the consumer’s shoes. He types in a word, expecting to see results and copy addressing his need. He clicks on an ad that meets his expectation, and then expects to land on a Web page that features the product or service he desires. Anything less is unacceptable. Therefore, not only must the search copy have relevance to the search term, but it also has to lead the searcher to a relevant Web page. Rule of thumb when constructing copy: Think about the rationale for someone’s searching on the keyword term, and match your marketing communication strategy and landing page strategy to that rationale.

Whether you have 100 or 100,000 keywords, you need professionally written direct response copy by someone who is well schooled in search. If you don’t have it on your bookshelf already, go out and buy the book Words That Sell by Richard Bayan. This book will teach you how to communicate succinctly within the limited space available. If you don’t have that resource inhouse or through an outside party, find it now. With all the money you spend on search, don’t neglect your copy.

Lowering CPC rates

Here something to make your finance team happy: Good copy equals lower costs and higher positions within the search results. These will eventually translate into more sales volume at a lower cost to acquire. That will be music to their ears.

The effect that good copy has on your “quality score,” otherwise known as your relevancy quotient, can be critical. Google, MSN, Ask, and other search engines weigh the relevancy of your ad into your costs and ad position. Our experience shows that targeted, relevant copy can decrease your cost per click (CPC) 10%-60% without any change in average position.

One last word of advice: Beware the competition. Because the shoppers looking at the search results page see your ad as well as your those of your competitors, you need to be aware of what rivals are saying in their copy. Recent studies show that only 35% of searchers believe that the “top positioned” paid-search ads belong to the “authority” sites. Because two-thirds of the people don’t believe the integrity of the paid listings, it’s all the more important for you to communicate why you are better than the others.

When faced with eight to ten competing ads above the fold, consumers will make a choice based on the copy. Whoever most effectively bridges the semantic map of the consumers’ intentions wins. It’s that simple.


Tim Daly is vice president of marketing and strategy at SendTec, a St. Petersburg, FL-based direct marketing services provider.