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Bridging the SEM Knowledge Gap

This article was originally published on ClickZ.com on May 15, 2009. In a way, it’s more current today than it was when I wrote it, because the changes in the search ecosystem have continued to accelerate at a rapid rate and these shifts will happen with increasing frequency in the future.

ew industries change as quickly and dramatically as the digital marketing industry. Within online marketing, the SEM space undergoes significant changes on a month-to-month basis. This dynamic change and the simultaneous changes in best practices make it challenging for all search professionals to stay current. Hands-on pros have the toughest job, because the interfaces they use within the search engines themselves and within their chosen campaign management solutions will often change simultaneously.

The gap between one’s knowledge and current best practices can have a material impact on campaign performance. Search engines often roll out changes to targeting or other control levers that empower both the proactive elimination of low-profit clicks and the capture of high-profit clicks. Failure to understand and deploy some of these targeting options and campaign refinements results in a poorly optimized campaign.

Perhaps the most exasperating thing for managers of firms where search marketing is a critical part of the online media mix is that looking at campaign performance reports doesn’t tell them anything about the knowledge or skill level of their team members (or, for that matter, their SEM agency). As long as management (which might be you) are presented with snazzy positive reports, there’s no way of knowing what the opportunity cost is of not having best practices in play.

Campaign performance is impacted not only by the actions of a search manager but also by the advertiser bidding algorithm (if bid automation is used), changes in quality score (regardless of whether this is visible in the search engine interface), changes in searcher behavior (perhaps due to a macroeconomic change, like reduced disposable income or a drop in consumer confidence, both of which might impact conversion rates, lead quality, or shopping cart size), and of course the competitive ecosystem. The competitive ecosystem is more than just the bidding actions and reactions of all your competitors but also the changes they make to ad creative pricing or changes to their Quality Score.

Unfortunately, some factors that SEM managers must take into account are opaque, meaning we can only see the results of the above-mentioned factors on our own campaigns. Knowing the signs to look for in a campaign and in a competitors’ campaign is a bit of an art and a science. That’s why communication among SEM peers and ongoing learning and advancement programs are so important.

The challenges of keeping up are different, depending on the role of the search marketing professional. In some SEM and interactive agencies, there are both structured and unstructured forms of training and information sharing. The advantage of larger agency groups is that a best practice learned by one individual or team can be communicated and deployed to others.

For in-house SEM professionals who don’t have the benefit of a community of peers with whom to interact in-person on a day-to-day basis, the following means will to some extent replace the knowledge transfer that occurs in person:

  • Attend conferences that focus on hands-on training, and attend sessions where both tactics and strategy are discussed if you need strategic guidance as well.
  • Take online training that has been kept up to date. I’m biased toward the SEMPO institute as a member of SEMPO’s board of directors, but you have other options as well.
  • Listen to recent Webinars taught by those in the industry whose opinions you value.
  • Invite conversations with search engine support staff (although engine staff aren’t uniformly trained and of the same caliber, there are some who are great resources not only because they are trained by their fellow staff but also because they learn from their clients, becoming a conduit for information).
  • Read columns written by those in the industry whom you believe are in a position to learn not only from their own activities but from some of the above sources.
  • If possible, manage more than one campaign. Campaigns with different success objectives operating in different industry sectors will have different data and competitors, allowing for learning within a completely different ecosystem.

Given the volume of changes and information occurring, the challenge for many is prioritizing which tactics, techniques, and best practices should be learned and implemented given a limited amount of time. For example, a campaign with a high diversity of different landing pages and keyword clusters (e.g., a retail campaign with many product and category landing pages) will require a different approach from a campaign where the majority of search volume is concentrated in a small set of keywords.

Similarly, a campaign for which localization will improve results dramatically will require a different prioritization of tasks than a campaign for which creative and landing page messaging is the same nationwide, even if geo-bidding is used to pump up position in high-value geographies.

You’ll never be able to perfectly bridge the SEM knowledge gap, and we all need to keep learning and improving every day. But by acknowledging gaps in your knowledge you can make a concerted effort to stay current and lead the pack.