Explaining Paid Search to Everyone’s Mom, Including Mine

When I’m in mixed (non-search-geek) company, the question of work occasionally comes up. The conversation generally goes something like this.

Me: Hi Sarah, I haven’t spoken to you in so long! How have you been?
Sarah: Great – I’m just finishing up my degree in [Insert Tangible Career Choice Here]
Me: How wonderful that you’re studying [Something Concrete and Immediately Relevant]
Sarah: Thank you! I’m very excited! [awkward pause]…So how are you doing?
Me: Great! Business is good – you know, busy, as usual…
Sarah: [clearly fighting an internal battle with herself about asking me what I do for a living…again] I’m sorry, what is it you do again?

At this point I have the option of making my job sound like something tangible and easily understood. For example:

Me: I’m a marketing consultant! (an attempt to sound less like the computer nerd I am)

At which point Sarah will nod politely and move away, immediately dismissing me as a failed novelist who edits dry, corporate blurbage for insurance companies and real estate conglomerates. So, I hate using that answer and try to save that response for extreme Luddites and the elderly. Here’s another approach I often take.

Me: I’m an Internet marketing consultant.

You see, it’s the word “Internet” that makes ALL the difference. People LOVE the Internet. They sort of get what it is by now so this generally provokes one of three responses 1) [knowing smile] Oh, YOU’RE responsible for all of those pop up ads! 2) It’s your fault I get all that spam in my inbox! Or 3)[If I’m lucky, she responds this way] I’m trying to promote my web site – any tips for me?

But, since I generally get the first two responses rather than the third, I’ve just been stating it as it is:

Me: I’m a search marketer. [pause & search the other person’s eyes for some shred of recognition]
Sarah: [demonstrating not one shred of recognition] Oh…I don’t know what that is.

So for the imaginary Sarah, my mom, your mom and everyone else who really doesn’t get how I can possibly make a living being a search marketer (e.g., “is that even a REAL thing?”) this post is for you.

What is a Search Marketer?

Search marketing is dominated by an insulated cast of “rockstars,” cyber geeks, early adopters and industry insiders who create a vast echo chamber of acronym riddled, slightly contemptuous Tweets, blog posts and Plus 1’s at every hour of the day. Thus, it’s difficult for me to explain what it is because within this insulated world (navigated via Google-colored glasses) I don’t have to. But for you, mom, I’m going to try.

Search Marketing encompasses two very specific internet marketing tactics. The first, search engine optimization (SEO) is not actually what I do. But for the sake of those who do it (I’m looking at YOU, Nick and Steve…), I’ll briefly define it.

SEO is the act of optimizing your web site for specific keywords so that when a user searches for something on Google, e.g., Justin Bieber Tickets), your web site shows up at the top of the search results (assuming you sell Justin Bieber Tickets).

Search Marketing also includes paid search – and this is what I do! I help clients manage ad campaigns on Google, Yahoo & Bing so that when their customers type in a relevant search term (e.g., beauty products) their ad will show up in the search results.

When you do a search on Google, you probably don’t think about this stuff. You just see a bunch of results, and you click on the most relevant or interesting one. But the search results are actually broken down into three sections of results on the page – two out of three of these sections (the top and right side of the page) are actually paid results.

Okay, all very interesting (or maybe not) but it still doesn’t help my mother understand what I do all day. I’ll get to that in just a second, but first I want to throw some statistics at you because you’re still probably wondering how it is I can make a living from this one tiny sliver of advertising.

Well, as it turns out, it’s not so tiny. In terms of scale, Internet search is enormous.

    • Globally, 1.6 trillion searches were conducted in 2010
    • There are 191.1 million search users in the U.S.
    • 82.6% of Internet users use search in the U.S.
    • US advertisers spent $14 BILLION on paid search in 2011

(yes “billion” with a “B”)

With numbers this big, is it any wonder that so many companies advertise on Google and other search engines?

So, getting back to my job…

I mainly deal with Google, so I’m going to focus my explanation on this engine which seems only fitting since Google controls about 66% of search engine market share as of March 2012.

Google’s advertising platform is called AdWords. It is a self-serve platform that enables web site owners to sign up, add a credit card number and begin creating ads. You can be up and running with your Google advertising campaign in a matter of minutes, but that’s really an oversimplification because – like all things Google – there are many things to consider. That’s where I come in.

I help clients develop a keyword marketing strategy specifically for Google. This includes working with them to create a list of keywords they want to bid on. Keyword advertising is a pay-per-click bidding model (“pay-per-click” means that advertisers only pay when you click on their ad).

Advertisers, quite literally, bid on keywords. The higher the bid, the higher the position of the ad – except it’s not really that straightforward (of course). Google’s system suppresses ads that are not relevant to a user’s search query even if they are the highest bidder. By suppressing ads that aren’t relevant to a user’s search query, Google prevents advertisers from bidding on terms like “shoes” when they sell “toasters.” This suppression is accomplished via a complex and dizzying formula which Google calls “quality score.” The higher the quality score (on a scale of 1 to 10), the more relevant the term. But I digress.

In addition to creating keyword lists for my clients, I also categorize the keywords so that the words are grouped in a meaningful and intuitive way in the AdWords system. I also write the ad copy and assist clients with setting up tracking of their campaigns. My typical client has anywhere from 1500 to 10,000 keywords in their AdWords accounts. Once the campaigns are created and launched, it is my job to manage all of the campaign elements – including the keywords and ad copy. I also help my clients manage their budgets by keeping track of how much they spend each day, week and month, and ensuring the stay within their planned budget.

Some clients come to me with existing campaigns that they need help with. When this happens, I provide an extensive audit of the campaign and submit a written plan of action for helping them improve it or providing training so they can improve it themselves.

What I do isn’t so different from other marketers. It involves planning, strategy, extensive client communication, performance reporting and a lot of follow-up. The main difference is that I am hyper focused on one vendor – Google. Also, there is no down time with paid search. There are always new competitors entering the space (it is an auction model, after all). Google is always rating my clients’ ads and keywords and penalizing the poorest performing keywords and ads. It is my job to monitor this and adjust the campaign on a near constant basis so that my clients get the best return on their investment possible.

Gosh, mom, I feel like there’s so much more to say but I don’t want to overwhelm you. I also help my clients optimize their landing pages, test new copy and incentives and branch out to other forms of online marketing that are only peripherally associated with paid search (like Facebook ads).

If you’ve read this far, you probably understand why I’m tempted to say I’m a “marketing consultant” and be done with it. Thanks for hanging in there.

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