Seven steps to SEM success

What with fluctuating bids, increased competition, and new technologies, conducting a successful search engine marketing (SEM) campaign becomes more complicated every day — and that’s regardless of whether you manage your SEM inhouse or use an outside provider. Little wonder that many marketers have the urge to throw up their arms and give up.

But SEM is too effective to make giving up a viable option. What is viable: overcoming the complexities with a well-thought-out plan.

Over the years we’ve developed a comprehensive, seven-step plan. You can use this checklist not only to implement an inhouse SEM program but also as a guide when evaluating how vendors might strategize and implement your paid-search campaign.


This important phase includes taking stock of your current SEM program (if any) — including your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts; any assets, including staff, you have that might be useful for an SEM program; and management’s expectations.

When reviewing your existing SEM efforts, make a point of answering the following:

  • What activities are you conducting for SEO? For paid search?

  • What are the results? Are you meeting objectives?

  • Are affiliates in the mix? If so, what is their role? Are they allowed to bid on branded keywords?

  • What shortcomings in the current program have you identified?

  • How much keyword coverage does the current campaign have?

  • Are your landing pages, and the Website as a whole, SEM/SEO friendly? For instance, if a shopper finds a link to your Website when searching the term upright vacuum cleaners, does the link in fact take him directly to a page selling upright vacuum cleaners?

The next step is to inventory the assets you might need for the SEM program. In addition to determining the personnel you can allot to SEM, assess the performance tracking, reporting, and analysis capabilities at your disposal, along with the graphics and copywriting expertise.

And don’t underestimate the importance of understanding what management expects from SEM. You’ll need the answers to these questions:

  • How will the SEM program be judged?

  • What performance metrics will be used?

  • What is the marketing budget?

  • What reporting does management require? How often?

  • How involved will management be?

  • What is their understanding of SEM?


In this phase, you start matching up staff with tasks and mapping out the nuts and bolts of your SEM program: developing a list of keywords, marketing communications, and landing pages that correspond to the SEM message; implementing conversion tracking, URL management, and testing; daily decision-making on bids, budgets, and results; and creating reporting templates for marketing analytics.

Once you’ve got your SEM staff in place, you’ll need a kickoff meeting to ensure that everyone understands the mission, the message, and his or her individual responsibilities.


Even if you’re handling SEM inhouse, you need to get input from people outside of your SEM group, as it’s just about impossible for one person or even one small group to come up with every angle to address. Similarly, if you’re using an outside vendor, you will want to combine your keyword ideas with theirs.

When developing your keyword library, it helps to break it down into several types of lists:

  • A branded keyword list

    This group of words/phrases will become your most productive targets. If you’re using affiliates, you should not allow them to bid on these. These terms include your company name, slogan, and product/service brand names.

  • Product or service keyword list

    This list includes all variations of what your products or services do and are. This should be a relatively tight list that is consistent with your existing Website navigational structure.

  • General keyword list

    This includes generic terms that customers and prospects may use to find your products or services. These typically have the lowest conversion rate, but they still need to be part of your campaign. For example, if you sell DVDs, it is necessary to bid on the keyword “DVD” so that shoppers become aware of your Website early in their shopping process.

  • Affinity keywords

    Every campaign must look into relational keyword concepts that have a loose correlation to your business. If you sell power tools, for instance, considering bidding on keyword phrases associated with home improvement.

  • Multiword keyword list

    This all-important list includes three-, four-, and five-word phrases. Often they have the highest level of conversion because they are so specific, but they are requested by only a limited number of searchers. So if you sell computers and you inventory an HP flat-screen 17-in. monitor, bidding on that exact phrase will be much cheaper than bidding on monitor or flat-screen, and your conversion rates will be significantly higher.

  • Keyword extrapolation

    Open your thesaurus and think about all the ways people may search. Say you sell shoes. Your keyword extrapolation should go something like this: shoes, womens shoes, women’s shoes, woman’s shoes, ladies shoes, lady shoes, ladies’ shoes, dress shoes, open-toed shoes, open-toe shoes, red shoes, brown shoes, black shoes, cheap shoes, discount shoes, inexpensive shoes, low price shoes, and so on. And don’t forget to mix and match these terms to find those multiword keyword phrases such as cheap women’s red dress shoes or ladies black high-heeled shoes.

Follow these steps, and before you know it, you’ll have keyword coverage on thousands of keywords.


The coordination of marketing communications between the SEM program and the Website or landing pages is a step that’s often overlooked. As mentioned earlier, a consumer who has just searched for upright vacuum cleaners has certain expectations that he will arrive at a Web page that features a range of options on upright vacuum cleaners. Unfortunately many marketers are missing the point today, delivering a substandard user experience.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind when choosing and implementing your landing page choices:

  • Conduct overall landing page analysis to determine if your pages need reworking to be compatible with your SEM listings. If your site is not SEM friendly, make sure you have the means to make it SEM friendly.

  • Assign someone to test all links so that each SEM listing is pointed to the correct page.

  • Ensure that the Website has tracking capabilities (such as pixel codes) so that SEM clicks can be properly tracked and allocated.

Most important, keep in mind why Google has been able to gain such loyalty with its customer base: relevancy. Emulate the relevancy quality of organic listing within all your paid-search marketing efforts.


This area of the SEM equation is perhaps the most misunderstood and underappreciated. Copy is critical to SEM success, period. A lot of copy is poorly written, because many people placed in charge of SEM programs don’t know how to write good copy and don’t understand that copy needs to be targeted and focused, not general and broad.

For instance, a listing says: Men’s suits. Check out our wide selection of styles and colors. We expect to be dropped on a landing page with lots of suit choices at a range of prices…right? So we click on the link, and it takes us to a page where the starting price for a suit is $450, with the average price point around $750. Guess what? We’re outta there. A smarter communication strategy would be to hit trigger words that would have notified the user, before the click, of what to expect upon site entry. These trigger words would include adjectives such as impeccably tailored, luxuriously styled, or custom fit.

We have tested a wide range of copy blocks over time, and we offer these questions for you to consider when formulating your copy:

  • Is your copy accurate and not misleading?

  • Is your copy written to attract only the most-qualified clicks, rather than broad copy designed to attract a lot of clicks, many of which won’t convert?

  • Does your copy include any of the words that search engines typically don’t allow, such as best, number one, and other superlatives?

If you are using an SEM vendor, beware of compensation structures that tack on a fee for each click; these provide copywriters with an incentive to write descriptions that attract a large number of clicks without regard to the quality of those clicks.


The big day is almost here. You’re ready to upload your listings to Google, Yahoo!, and other engines. You’re set to push the button that turns on your SEM listings and makes everything go live. But before you do:

  • Set up your Google and Yahoo! accounts, being sure to specify daily spending limits.

  • Establish categories of keywords for all search engines.

  • Test the URLs for each keyword to ensure they point to the right landing pages.

  • Review the copy to ensure that no errors occurred in upload translation and that copy corresponds to the search listing.

When you’re sure that all is well, push the button to launch your campaigns. And then get ready to start watching the numbers and analyzing the results. Prepare to start tinkering with bids, keywords, and copy sooner rather than later. And don’t forget the final step…


As your SEM campaign starts and progresses, the key to your long-term success is continual analysis and optimization. While many marketers use bid-management technology exclusively, a combination of technology and human analysis is actually the best way to optimize.

The objective in the postlaunch phase is to identify the keywords that produce volume at the right price and then maximize the value of them, while also identifying losing keywords and either reducing the amount you bid on them to where they become profitable or eliminating them. Specifically:

  • Based on the volume for each keyword, determine how often that word needs to be reviewed. A word producing 100 clicks a day needs to be analyzed much more often than one producing 100 clicks a month.

  • Implement a reporting system that gives management an accurate picture of the campaign. Include qualitative observations so that they know what’s behind the numbers.

  • Based on results, determine how changes in bids (up or down) will be made.

  • Continue brainstorming for new keywords and phrases.

  • Examine what I call the “search continuum” to see where conversions are being lost. This continuum starts with someone clicking, then going to your site or landing page, then going to pages within your site. At some point, that visitor either buys or abandons. See if you can pinpoint where abandonment is occurring, so that you can address that problem.


The more SKUs you have, the more robust your SEM program needs to be. With click prices in some categories averaging more than $2 each, you can’t afford to waste money with broad matching tactics to cover all the keyword combinations. If you are not prepared to implement all these steps in inhouse, look at outside vendors — but only those that have a comprehensive program, because a breakdown in any of these steps can lead to the failure of an SEM program.

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

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