Since 2003 I’ve been blogging on SEM, and for most of that time I’ve tracked queries that lead people to my blog. In addition to learning that offhand references to Michael Jackson songs can lead to tons of unwanted traffic, I’ve learned a great deal about what SEM buyers are looking for. In this blog post I’ll list some of the types of SEM-related queries I’ve seen, and comment on what the queries say about search marketing.

SEM Vendor Queries
‘ppc management [vendor name]‘
‘Google recommended bid management tools’
‘[vendor name] competitors’
‘[Vendor 1] [Vendor 2] [Vendor 3] [Vendor 4]‘
‘top SEM firms’

It’s perhaps no surprise that when people responsible for SEM at an advertiser or agency are looking for SEM tools, they go to search, but what is surprising is how little objective content they find. Do a search for any of the above queries, and what you’ll find is that aside from industry-specific blogs such as mine, there are no independent third party reviews on SEM tools to speak of. Not so for more mature technologies such as CRM, databases, industrial supplies and web hosting. Perhaps someone should take this bull by the horns? Anyone? In the meantime, SEM technology buyers should post on forums such as Webmasterworld, SearchEngineWatch and DigitalPointForums asking others what experiences they might’ve had with Vendor X, Y or Z. Also, if you’re going to settle on the right solution, see who is & isn’t advertising on the SEM-related queries you’d expect them to, and keep in mind that irrational SEM bidding by SEM vendors is a sign they probably won’t take good care of your own campaigns.

SEM Sales Rep Queries
‘Chris Zaharias Omniture’
‘Anil Kamath Efficient Frontier’
‘Kevin Ryan Motivity’

No doubt the SEM buyer is trying to learn about the SEM salesperson they have met or will meet, but more importantly, I think SEM buyers want to know that the people they’re speaking to out SEM tools actually know what they’re talking about, participate in industry conferences and discussions, and have enough knowledge of the space for their viewpoints to be worth considering. Over the years I’ve had many, many business relationships start with people coming to me and saying, in effect, ‘I wanted to get your opinion on your and other solutions because I keep seeing your name as I research the space.’ Horn tooting aside, this really means that most of the people representing SEM firms in pre-sales discussions don’t know enough about the space to be trusted as capable of giving accurate assessments of their and other vendors’ solutions. And further, these SEM credibility searches make clear the unfortunate predicament SEM buyers face: there is no objective source of SEM vendor reviews.

SEM Campaign Management Queries
‘history of bid management’ – surprisingly, there are quite a few students of the space, but very little in the way of Wikipedia entries or historical SEM articles. This will change, but only if SEM buffs do their part.
‘Google match types’ – probably the most frequent query I see, reflects consistent industry concern that the match types Google defaults to are not the ones that best serve advertisers.

‘Expanded Broad Match’ – likewise, you never see people searching for Exact or Phrase match ; those match types work the way you’d expect them to, whereas EBM is much more challenging for advertisers to understand.

‘Automatic Match beta’
‘search query length’ – I’m seeing more of this query lately, perhaps because people are seeing shrinkage of the long tail in their own campaigns.

‘SEM optimization algorithms’ – not as rare a query as you’d think, shows that buyers know SEM systems’ math is an important consideration.
‘ppc distribution fraud’

‘AdWords account hijacked’ – little has ever been written about what is actually a very regularly occurring PPC-related crime, but hardly a month goes by without someone on an SEM discussion forum claiming that their account was hijacked and new campaigns added that drive traffic to a fly-by-night affiliate program.

Perhaps just as interesting are the SEM queries you don’t see. Why aren’t people searching for
‘best SEM user interface’
‘SEM buyer’s guide’
‘what to look for in SEM solutions’
‘SEM vendor reviews’

Because the majority of SEM solution buyers are first-time buyers, most don’t know what they don’t know and just assume that if they research the vendors that contact them, they’ll do fine. That couldn’t be further from the truth, though, as SEM firms are notoriously good at – lo & behold – using search to identify prospects and will take advantage of novice buyers like you wouldn’t believe. So as an SEM solution buyer, recognize the lack of objective information, talk to as many other buyers as possible, and know the vendors from multiple viewpoints online and off.

2 comments
Chris Zaharias
Chris Zaharias

Hi Guy, Historically, SEM-related sites have faced a challenge in their coverage of the SEM tools space. On the one hand, most of the participants on these sites are SEM consultants who tend to de-emphasize the importance of technology in SEM management, yet SEM vendors pay most of the bills, both in terms of advertising on these sites and booth space or sponsorships at the conferences these sites promote. As a consequence, SEM sites tend to shy away from SEM tools discussion because their most active participants won't accept discussions that emphasize the importance of tools and the limitations of man-hours, and because they don't want to risk offending their paying customers. These discussions need to happen, though, as search advertisers clearly recognize the need for technology to augment their SEM work.

Guy Hill
Guy Hill

Hi Chris. Very interesting article. I love "log analysis" (or SQ analysis, etc.). Always fascinating. I think you make a very good point about independent SEM tool review, etc. I was just talking w/ an editor of an SEM-related site, and I specifically asked if "harsh" or "controversial" reviews or articles would be desirable? I'm wondering if this is an "advertorial" violation... as in, "if I bash a vendor or class of vendors, would that mean a reduction in ad spending by those vendors to my publication?" That could very well be part of the problem. Good editorial content is always priceless. We all need to learn. Cheers to you, and thanks. [Guy Hill DroidINDUSTRIES.com