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Searching for SEM Sanctuary: How to Tell When You've Outgrown Your SEM Solution, and What to Consider in a New One

Posted on October 16, 2008 by Archives

We recently made the decision to switch SEM bid management partners. It's not that something went awry with our previous partner, we just outgrew their product and it didn't make sense for us to make the switch to their product that would have fit our size. Fortunately an existing partner in another channel had a solution that leveraged bid technology that we were already familiar with. As we reviewed what worked, what didn't work, and what was missing, I put together the following list of items that were important to us in the decision making process.


  1. Budget - This is probably the largest factor to consider when looking for new solutions, or when reevaluating your current solution. If you aren't looking for a different tool and are content with current performance, perhaps you can negotiate a lower rate or fee if you've been with a particular partner for a certain period of time. As we researched alternative solutions, we had to clearly define what our budget was. With a set budget, we could quickly eliminate the solutions we could not afford. No one can tell you that your organization can afford to spend more (this can also be a good bargaining point). Surely, there are some amazing partners in the SEM bid management arena, but with better tools typically comes higher prices. Our past partner had a flat monthly fee which was favorable, as we prefer fixed costs over variable costs and other pricing models. We could not afford to step up to our old partner's top product mainly due to price, and the new solution that we ultimately chose has a pricing model that is based on a revenue share instead of percent of ad spend.
  2. Optimization Settings - If you are a sophisticated organization you will need the ability to optimize SEM campaigns against multiple objectives. Maximizing or optimizing just one variable won't scale or be as sufficient as your organization grows and matures. Also, look for a solution that will let you set targets at account, campaign and ad group levels. We previously used a portfolio based approach to target one goal for our account.  This was great at the beginning, but may not work well for some merchants, and eventually did not scale with our growth. Different product groups in our campaigns (with different margins and sales velocities) need different targets and our SEM tool needed to support this. 
  3. Automation & Integration - If you add our growing product offering, multiple websites (and more planned), continuously changing product stock levels, and my lack of time (which is always diminishing) you find yourself with the need to have automated solutions to do the grunt work.  Not only do these solutions need to be automated, but they need to be easy to implement. The new solution offers automated URL tagging which is great because I shouldn't spend my time tagging tens of thousands of keyword URLs. This solution also offers tools to generate new keywords which aren't in your current inventory. How sweet is that! While I'm sleeping in on Saturday morning the system is finding new keywords for me that users are actually using. Another helpful feature we found to be extremely helpful was the ability to pause and resume keywords automatically based on actual inventory levels. Before, with the old system, I had to login and pause keywords and ad groups manually when we ran out of stock.  Often times the system wouldn’t update until a day or two after we actually ran out of the product. This meant we were potentially still spending dollars on products we couldn't sell because we didn't have them in stock. When the product came back in stock, I had to resume the paused keywords, and again there was often a delay until this update could be processed.
  4. Monitoring Conversion Assists - With separate tools for CSEs and SEM, we had no visibility of conversions that came from multiple touch points. We would pause a keyword because it wasn’t profitable.  We would target different objectives for our CSE efforts but could not tie these efforts together for the best outcome. It's not that we were naive to this idea in the past; we just didn't have the resources to track this effectively. Now with CSE and SEM under the same roof, we can identify when users interact with our ads across multiple channels and sites. We won't kill a keyword because it doesn't convert by its lonesome, because we've observed this keyword as being an integral part of the conversion funnel. If you pull out a keyword in that funnel, the whole conversion path could fall apart.
  5. Agility & Growth - The world of eCommere changes daily. Our business continually faces new and unique challenges. We need a partner who can grow with us and who can develop solutions to overcome newly discovered obstacles. As our business moves toward the next level in both sales and sophistication it was imperative that our partners can grow with us. Ask the SEM tool provider what their development and product release approach is?  Do they roll out releases every few weeks, or wait months before new features are released and bugs are corrected? Will this partnership grow stale before the length of your contract is up, or will it be a lasting relationship that goes for many years?


As we bid adieu to one partner, we welcome the other and look forward to success together. This is just our experience, limited as it may be, but I'd still like to hear what other aspects are important to you so comments are welcome...


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