10 Tips for a Successful Holiday Paid-Search Program

The 2011 holiday season is right around the corner. Is your paid-search program ready to roll? Even if you think you’re ready for the holiday season, here’s 10 things you can do now to ensure a successful paid-search program.

1. Bid based on inventory levels:
Product-specific keywords often generate the highest sales per click in a paid search program. But when stock runs out, performance can suffer dramatically.

At the same time, low-stock products may not need a marketing push to sell out. Consider inventory position in keyword bids to allow you to save some spend or shift it to areas with an abundance of stock.

2. Anticipate conversion spikes (and drops) for bidding:
If your bidding is heavily tied to recent weeks’ performance, you will under spend as holiday demand ramps up and overspend as it falls off. Use the prior year’s data as a guide for key dates such as Black Friday and your shipping deadlines while keeping in mind that sales can shift due to changes in promotions, consumer sentiment and nuances of the calendar.

3. Set up procedures for rapidly launching new product keywords:
Acquiring a hot new product for the holidays can make or break the entire season. But if you don’t get keywords up and running in paid search you’ll be invisible to many potential customers.

Ideally you’ll be able to anticipate and devote extra attention to your biggest products, but since that’s not always possible, you should have systems in place to recognize new products and apply basic — but solid — keyword coverage in a timely fashion.

4. Nail down those promo calendars:
As marketers we need to be amenable to last-minute promotional changes, but locking messaging down in advance helps ensure that it will reach its full potential. Delays in editorial review with the search engines sometimes means that time sensitive copy languishes unseen by your audience during critical periods.

With a bit of lead time, you can skate copy through the editorial department in advance and schedule it to run at the key moment. To that end, Google’s automated rules are a convenient and reliable way to schedule copy changes outside of business hours.

5. Implement Google Ad Extensions:
Anything that can give you more real estate on the search results page at no additional cost is a good thing. Google Ad Extensions do just that, and help to drive up clickthrough rates for PPC ads. Google Sitelinks provides additional links under your main ad and can be used effectively to reinforce holiday messaging and promotions.

6. Separate out a mobile campaign and decide on its goal:
Measurable conversion rates from smartphone users simply don’t stack up to those of desktop users. As mobile nears 10% of traffic for many advertisers, this can significantly affect one’s view of overall online performance.

Since that platform’s value may be less direct (mobile is conducive to product research, store locator views, etc), it may be wise to treat it more like a branding effort than a direct response vehicle. It’s also important to distinguish tablet traffic, which is also growing rapidly, but performs as well — if not better than — desktop traffic.

7. Duplicate top keywords on different matchtypes and targeting settings:
Keywords that exactly match user queries almost always perform significantly better than broadly matched terms and traffic from search partners. Broad and partner terms are still valuable. Rather than changing the matchtype and targeting settings for existing terms, duplicate them in new campaigns and bid each according to their value.

8. Audit top keywords from the last holiday season:
Certain keywords can really take off during the holidays, both in potential sales and costs. Make sure you turn off any outdated terms (e.g. for products you no longer carry) that may have gone dormant and unnoticed during the rest of year.

On the other hand, try to expand keyword terms that flourished during the previous holiday. This will improve traffic during the upcoming holiday season.

9. Make sure budget caps aren’t limiting your program:
Setting budget caps with the engines isn’t the ideal way to restrict a PPC program’s cost, but it’s a sensible way to provide an extra set of guardrails against unusual spending. During holiday peaks, spend can often be efficiently raised to five to 10 times typical levels. Be sure that the guardrails keeping your program on track during the rest of the year aren’t restricting it during the holidays.

10. Organize your accounts to allow quick and flexible copy changes:
How are you likely to run promos this season? By brand, category, subcategory, or some combination? If your account isn’t well-structured with tightly-themed adgroups, you could find yourself mired in necessary copy changes to ensure that your copy is accurate for all the keywords it covers. If you’re down to the wire, start by paying special attention to your highest traffic keywords.

Mark Ballard is a senior research analyst at search engine marketing firm Rimm-Kaufman Group.

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