The Search Engine Marketing minefield

The Search Engine Marketing minefield: where does PPC fit in?

Any marketing specialist worth their salt will tell you that it’s a more complex discipline than most people realise. Even before the internet age, achieving healthy returns across a range of mediums – display, classified, print, broadcast, sponsored PR, direct marketing – was a tricky business. But rapid online evolution – in particular, the rise of the search engine – has upped the ante considerably.

With challenges, though, come new opportunities, and so SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is an important consideration for any marketing campaign. But it’s not a straightforward landscape to navigate.

Where is the balance between organic long-tail content strategies and paid campaigns?

How do you cut through inconceivable amounts of noise to get your business noticed?

And, with search engines frequently changing their parameters - often without warning - how can you future proof your website to ensure you’re staying competitive in the SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages)?

Getting it right takes care, thought and hard work. Perhaps more importantly - getting it wrong can be a costly business that risks harsh ranking penalties and a mess that might take years to clean up. So, where to start when it comes to planning your SEM route? One of the most important areas to understand is the difference between paid and organic SEM – and the valid, but sometimes limited, role of pay per click (PPC) channels in beefing up your rankings, traffic and conversions.


Where does PPC fit into an SEM strategy?

Generally speaking, SEM refers to marketing strategies that prioritise paid or sponsored channels. Whereas organic content strategies are about developing content that Google will assess and index over long periods of time (get more on that in our article on why longtail content is important).

In terms of paid SEM, strategies can basically be broken down into three areas: PPC campaigns (Google Ads), native advertising (Outbrain, Taboola) and sponsored links (often as part of a paid deal with a third-party website).

More on sponsored links in a moment (newsflash: they’re not as great a solution as they may first sound).

First, let’s zoom in on the most obvious options and what you should consider before you get started.


Google Ads: it’s not as simple as it seems

The most obvious PPC channel is Google Ads. Make no mistake, though, you’re paying to play, not to win. That’s because you’re not guaranteed a specific result. What you’re buying is the right to bid on – not dictate – ad placement, frequency, targeting and all the rest of it. So, your competitors will always exert an influence on how and where your ads end up in comparison to theirs.  This is one of the main reasons why Google Ads get more expensive every year. 

If you’re competing against those with heftier budgets, higher rankings or more accurately targeted messaging, your chances of coverage reduce. Plus, many people don’t realise that the quality of your website – in hundreds of different ways – will influence where and how Google chooses to deploy your budget.  But never before have businesses had an opportunity to know with such clarity, the desires of the potential customer.  With PPC on search engines, the customer literally types in what they want into the search engine.  Mens jeans, electric guitar, laptop with 4GB RAM, are all examples that businesses can specify that they wish to enter into the auction to bid for that potential customer’s interest

Used intelligently and with realistic expectations, PPC ads can be an amazingly powerful tool. But the objectives and reach need to be clear. And many business waste millions a year in potential revenue because their ads are not configured correctly.  Make no mistake, Google and the other search engines have made fortunes because advertisers are badly informed and often run ads campaigns that waste a lot of money and provide very poor returns.

Google Ads for example, is a great way to boost targeted promotions, product and service launches, and specific sections of your website. It is, however, finite. Your investment will only ever generate a return for as long as you keep that investment running. The moment you pull the campaign, the momentum is lost.

That’s exactly where the importance of organic content comes in. It’s that content that Google indexes over the long term. So, if your site is packed with well written, relevant and authoritative content, that will continue to benefit you even if advertising budgets suddenly dip.

We’ve seen this in action with many of our clients during the Covid 19 shutdown. Their attention to content over years – not months – is what has protected their rankings during a time when marketing budgets have been suddenly and severely reigned back.


Native advertising: the pros and cons

If you’re not in the know, native advertising is the process of driving traffic through sponsored long-tail content. It’s what drives the obligatory “you might also like” articles that we all see when we’re browsing. Put simply, it’s the digital equivalent of syndication.

So, if longer content matters to your potential customer and you wish to advertise 'in the press', there’s a way to generate traffic to that content via a form of PPC.  So that’s the conundrum solved, right?

Sorry, but we’re back to the bidding war again. As with Google Ads, quality, relevance and clarity are key to winning your place but the volume of searchers on the network are much, much smaller. Plus, placement doesn’t equal traffic.

The good news is that, again, native advertising does have its part to play. The key is quality and testing. A well-placed, well-timed, well written article can garner a massive amount of interest and might drive huge volumes of traffic your way (as long as you pay for it). But poorly put together content, or a message that people are not interested in, no matter how much sponsorship muscle you put behind it, is frankly a waste of everyone’s time, especially your reader. And ultimately, it’s your reader you should care about.


*Sigh*…OK, so I’ll sponsor some links then?

Feeling a bit jaded at this point? We get it…but let’s reiterate, PPC does have a powerful role to play in SEM if applied in the right way and with the right objectives. One area you do need to be really wary of, though, is sponsoring links.  We have all had emails claiming the impossible from bloggers that just want your money but cannot prove any actual value in return. 

Why? The answer is fairly simple. Google exists to serve its users. The people who search. Like you, and us, and everyone else on the planet. Advertisers are an important revenue stream, but to generate that revenue Google depends on firstly generating the best, most accurate search results it can. To achieve this, an extraordinary array of technology is working all the time to scroll, assess and index not just subject matter, but quality, relevance, and authority.  This makes links particularly important in Google’s eyes.

Links are one of the key metrics Google uses to validate the authenticity of content. Therefore, sponsored links from blogger websites who are just trying to cash-in are a no-no.   

Google is ramping up penalties for those who try to mislead the search bots with aggressive paid-link / blogger strategies. The truth is that we don’t know where all of this will go , which is exactly why we need to be aware of it now. And that’s why we advise our clients to avoid paying for links under any circumstances.

They might claim to offer a quick and easy traffic-building fix or boost your rankings today, but next month, or next year, Google may suddenly change the parameters and roll out heavy penalties for those who have attempted to exploit the system over time.  It has been shown to do this in the past and our hope for a level playing field is that Google will continue to ramp up their organic penalties against sites who regularly pay bloggers for this practice. 


Three ways to make sure you’re SEM strategy is hitting the mark

None of this is easy, of course, and none of it is static. But the good news is that there are some general rules you can apply to give your SEM strategy a solid chance of success, and ensure that you don’t fall flat on your face now or in the future…

Be specific: on your campaign’s aims, the message or offering, and the campaign scope in terms of time, budget and targeted return on investment.

Test and adapt: like all marketing, this is not a “one size fits all” scenario. The only way you can really know which channels and techniques will drive returns for your business is to test them out. So, do exactly that…because allocating some budget to SEM testing now may well save you a small fortune by avoiding uninformed mistakes in the future.

Don’t rely on paid channels: eggs…baskets…you need them spread out. Achieving the right balance between a solid organic content strategy, boosted where needed with a canny PPC campaign, is just the right approach for a better chance of long-term success.

Confused by the options? Excited by the possibilities? Really just don’t have time to be thinking about this stuff? We’d be happy to have an initial, sales-free chat about your situation, your challenges, and how we might be able to help. Find out more about us and contact our lovely team.




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