If you are skeptical about whether search engine marketing works, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose from trying it.
By Erik J. Heels
First published 12/1/2005; Law Practice magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association
About Search Engine Marketing
Step 0 – What is P4P?
In a nutshell, pay for performance (P4P) search engine marketing allows you to specify keywords, associate text or banner ads with the keywords, bid on the keywords, and have your ads appear when users search on your keywords. Advertisers do not pay when their ads are displayed, they only pay when their ads are clicked. Pay per click (PPC) (where advertisers pay for each click) is the most popular form of search engine marketing, but there are other variants, such as paid inclusion (where advertisers pay a search engine to index their website) and pay for ranking (where an advertiser pays to guarantee a particular position on search results pages). P4P was introduced by Overture (http://www.overture.com/), which is now called Yahoo Search Marketing (http://searchmarketing.yahoo.com/).
Step 1 – Choose Your Engines
According to Alexa (http://www.alexa.com/), the top three search engines are Yahoo (http://search.yahoo.com/), MSN (http://search.msn.com/), and Google (http://www.google.com/). Ads you place on Overture will appear on both Yahoo and MSN, and Google has its own P4P service called AdWords (https://adwords.google.com/select/). Microsoft has also launched its own adCenter P4P service in selected non-US markets and will likely launch in the US in 2006 (http://advertising.msn.com/searchadv/). For now, you can choose Overture, AdWords, or both. If you are just starting out, I recommend starting with Overture, since it has been around longer and, in my opinion, produces better and more predictable results than AdWords (more on this below).
Step 2 – Choose Your Keywords
What kind of law firm do you have? What kind of law firm do you want to have? You should choose keywords that precisely identify what you offer with whom you offer it to. You should try to get your ads placed in the top three search results, since not all websites that include Overture or AdWords ads display all of the ads for a particular search.
If you choose keywords that are too general (such as “patent attorney”), then you will end up paying too much to get your ads ranked in the top three results. If you choose words that are too specific (such as “patent attorney MIT engineer Maynard Massachusetts”), then your search ads will not appear frequently enough (or at all).
For example, my firm, Clock Tower Law Group, provides patent and trademark services for toys, games, and sporting goods markets. So we use two-keyword phrases that combine what we do (patents, trademarks) with who we do it for (toys, games, sports). If you search on Yahoo for “billiards patent,” you’ll see the following ad:
Need a Billiards Patent?
We specialize in sports patents and have rates half those of big firms.
If you conduct the above search, please don’t click on my ad, since I will end up paying for this. Also note that I have not included the actual domain name that I am using for my ad campaign (more on this below).
You should start with general search terms and try to add as many specific search terms as possible. For example, if your firm provides immigration law services, you might want to include search terms for each country, e.g. “Finland visa,” “Finnish visa,” “Ireland visa,” “Irish visa.”
Step 3 – Write Your Ads
Your ads should be short, memorable, and should give users a reason to click. It’s helpful if you include the search term in the title or body of your ad. Although Overture allows for longer ads than AdWords, I recommend that you use AdWords’ shorter limits: 25 characters for the headline, 35 characters for line 1 of the ad, 35 characters for line 2 of the ad, and 35 characters for the displayed URL. You only have one or two seconds to get a user’s attention, and I believe that shorter ads work better. Also, if you stick to the AdWords limits for your ads, you’ll be able to manage your ad campaign better as it grows (more on this below).
Step 4 – Place Your Bids
It’s very easy to overbid on search terms and get high rankings and lots of clicks, especially for terms that are too broad. If you’ve kept your keywords at least two words long and written good ads, then you shouldn’t have to bid too much to get a top-three placement. Start by bidding $0.10 per search term. Resist the urge to tweak your bids every day. You have to let the system work for a reasonable amount of time before you can begin to draw any conclusions.
Step 5 – Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Like any marketing program, you will need to measure key metrics for your P4P marketing campaign. For every channel of marketing that I use (e.g. direct mail, P4P, print advertising), I measure 1) items (e.g. total pieces of direct mail, total number of yellow page ads running), 2) cost, 3) prospective clients generated, 4) new clients generated, and 5) cost per sale. I measure the results monthly to make sure that I have a balanced marketing portfolio, namely that prospective clients and new clients are coming from a variety of sources. It is never a good idea to put all of your eggs in one basket. From this data, I know monthly, yearly, and cumulative cost-per-sale for each marketing channel. While some channels are more efficient than others, I keep a channel active whenever its cost-per-sale is less than the average revenue per client.
With P4P marketing, the “items” you should measure are clicks through to your site. If about one percent of your ads impressions turn into clicks (a 1% click-through-rate or CTR), you’re doing fine. In P4P terms, a “conversion” is when a user who clicks through to your site does something, such as subscribing to a newsletter, buying something, or filling out a contact form. My website is geared towards getting users to fill out a contact form. I count this as a “conversion” (i.e. a prospective client generated), and a conversion occurs with about 7% of the users who click through to my site (a 7% conversion rate). If your website isn’t geared towards getting a user to do something measurable, then you won’t be able to measure the success of your P4P marketing campaign.
Every month, you should analyze the data and act accordingly. If your ads have a low click-through-rate, write better ads or raise your bids. If you have a low conversion rate, fix your website to make it easy for users to act and make sure that your website tells the same story as your ad. If you have a hard time converting prospective clients into clients, ask each group why they did or did not hire you. When you sign on a new client, ask them where and where else they heard about you. My proposal letter includes a questionnaire, and I assign full or half credit to each channel of marketing for each new client. For example, if I send a piece of direct mail to existing clients about a new service offering and a client hires me to do additional new work, then I credit the new work to 1/2 direct mail, 1/2 existing client.
Step 6 – The ‘More Below’ Stuff
The more complex your P4P marketing campaign gets, the more difficult it will be to manage. Just as I don’t care that some of my marketing programs have a lower cost-per-sale than others, you shouldn’t care that some of your search terms produce better results than others. You should still use all search terms that produce any kind of results and just worry about the bottom line. Fortunately, there is a service that allows you to provide results-based management of both Overture and AdWords ads. With Inceptor’s BidCenter (http://www.inceptor.com/), an advertiser can group ads into portfolios (not unlike stock portfolios) and provide targets for the entire portfolio. For example, you might want to maximize the number of clicks you get each month within a specified budget (plus or minus 10%). This sort of management is possible with BidCenter. Once your information is entered into BidCenter, your budgets and bids are updated automatically on Overture and AdWords. When Microsoft stops using Overture and launches its own P4P service, services like Inceptor’s BidCenter will become even more important. If you are serious about P4P marketing, you should be using Inceptor’s BidCenter.
There is anecdotal evidence that suggests that Google may punish advertisers disproportionately for lowering the bids on AdWords advertising. For this reason, I recommend that people start out with Overture, because the search rankings are more predictable. On the other hand, Overture has a painfully slow approval process for new ads, but new ads on AdWords appear instantly. For more information, see “Google Goes Las Vegas” by Robert X. Cringely (http://www.pbs.org/cringely/pulpit/pulpit20050922.html).
Finally, it will be tempting to check your website’s access log files to look for relevant information about your P4P marketing campaigns. Don’t bother. If your site has been indexed by any search engine, chances are it is getting lots of good traffic and lots of junk traffic. For example, I wrote a popular article about how I would do an intellectual property audit for Spongebob Squarepants (to demonstrate how we could do the same for our clients). The article produced prospective clients, but it also produced visitors just looking for Spongebob Squarepants. One marketing consultant actually seriously suggested that I shouldn’t write about Spongebob at all, but that consultant obviously missed the point. Junk traffic doesn’t hurt you, but it can make the good traffic hard to find (and measure). One solution is simply to rely on the stats provided by Overture, AdWords, or Inceptor. Another is to do what I did and use an entirely different domain name for your P4P program. Then you’ll have unadulterated website stats, at least for a while. Spongebob Spongebob Spongebob! So there.