Chances are high that if you are a search engine marketing professional, you've run into folks that break it. Chances are even higher that if you're a small business owner, you've either already broken it, or are going to break it. What is it? The number one rule of pay-per-click advertising: It's NOT about buying clicks.

I can't count the number of times that I've spoken with clients, potential clients, or folks in discussion forums that are absolutely thrilled with the "success" of their pay-per-click campaigns. "We're getting so much traffic now" they tell me, or "we've doubled traffic and our sales have gone up." They can't get over how successful they've been with their campaigns, especially since they are running them themselves and are new to the idea of search marketing.

Unfortunately, they just don't get it. They don't understand that while they know how to set up a campaign, manage bids, and have even been able to see a rise in sales or leads, they are still breaking the number one rule of pay-per-click. They just don't get that it's not about buying traffic.

It's about buying conversions.

Pay-per-click programs have an almost magical appeal to the average small business owner. They're not complicated like organic search optimization and they aren't expensive like more traditional forms of advertising. The president of a small company can sit at their desk and purchase visitors for what they think is an excellent price. They can increase their traffic, gain more page views and sell more products. This is a good thing.

But, that good thing needs to be better. I'd say no less than 75% of the time that I speak to someone that's running their own pay-per-click campaign they can answer two questions for me almost immediately.

  • How many visitors did you buy last month?
  • How much did those visitors cost you?

That's an excellent start, but what these business owners really need to be able to answer are questions like these:

  • How many clients did you buy last month?
  • How much did each client cost you?
  • Which keywords buy your best clients?
  • Which keywords do you plan to stop bidding on, or drop your bid prices on?

What I usually get in response to these questions is a blank stare. That's understandable, as most of the people digging into pay-per-click are experimenting with a new form of marketing and simply don't have the knowledge or training to even know what it is that they don't know. They see their traffic rising and their sales rising and that's enough for them. They know that pay-per-click works, they don't know that it could work better.

Pay-per-click campaigns aren't about buying traffic. (If all you want is traffic, you can pay a college student to sit around and click on your Web site all day.) Pay-per-click campaigns are about buying customers. They are about finding the phrases that deliver buyers to your Web site and knowing how much money you make off of each buyer. Pay-per-click gives advertisers an opportunity to fine tune their marketing dollars so that they are spending their money in a way that delivers the most value.

Think about it this way. Running a pay-per-click campaign without doing any tracking of which phrases convert is like launching ads on television, radio, billboards and the yellow pages all on the same day. Sure, you're probably going to see a rise in sales, but you have no way of knowing which ads caused them. Perhaps 90% of your new sales came from your radio ad and 5% came from TV and billboards. Maybe NO ONE calls as a result of your yellow page ad. Do you want to keep throwing your money at the yellow pages? Do you want to spend the same amount on the TV and billboard ads as you do on the radio? No, you're going to spend your money where it has the most impact.

A good pay-per-click campaign is the same way. Adding thousands of keyword phrases to a campaign and then simply setting back and celebrating because you received more traffic doesn't make any sense. Take the time to find out which visitors are worth the most to you and then make changes to your campaign. Realize that the only number that matters in pay-per-click is your ROI, not your hit counter.

There's an understandable "warm-fuzzy" factor that goes with a small business's first experience with buying visitors through a pay-per-click engine. But most small businesses can't pay the bills with warm-fuzzies. Inevitably, the point comes where the PPC manager starts to tinker with some of the campaigns, or discovers a conversion tracker and a light bulb goes off over their head. This is the point at which a PPC campaign starts to be about selling, and not simply buying.

So, if you are new to the PPC game, or just getting ready to drive in, let me save you, and your PPC manager several months and quite a bit of money. Write this phrase down, tape it to your monitor, and repeat it at least once a day.

Pay-per-click is not about buying visitors, it's about buying customers.

Don't forget to checkout the other half of this series: The Number One Rule of Organic Search Marketing.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
May 9, 2005

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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