Successful Search Engine Marketing – 3. Landing Page Optimization and Design

In this third post in the ‘Successful Search Engine Marketing’ series, I’ll be providing some tips on how to make the clicks you send to your website convert better for you by optimizing your landing pages.  In 2010 we’ll be following up with a post on how to choose the optimal pages on eBay to which to direct your traffic.  However, when buying traffic from search engines, it is also important to ensure that you are sending visitors to the best possible pages on your own site, and that the look and feel of those pages is as good as possible.  Doing this successfully is key to making sure that your Search Engine Marketing budget is being spent profitably. Landing Page Design Guidelines

One of the comments we hear most frequently from our publishers is that their performance is heavily affected by the way search engines (particularly Google) view their website.  Most search engines publish guidelines on what they consider to be good landing page experiences, to which they advise websites who advertise with them to adhere– for example, you can find Google’s guidelines here.  Websites which do not meet these recommendations often find that the landing page component of the ‘Quality Score’ search engines assign to their ads is very low, which can lead to being charged higher minimum CPCs in order to advertise your website.  In more extreme cases, some publishers have found that search engines have barred them from buying traffic to their websites until the quality of their sites has been improved sufficiently to comply with these guidelines.

Although the guidelines for each of the search engines differ, they all boil down to the general mantra that you should build your website with your visitors in mind.  Four common themes emerge from looking at these guidelines:

1. Unique, relevant content.  Ensuring that you have unique content on your website is critical for all websites, and the lack of original material is one of the complaints most commonly raised specifically against affiliate websites.  Original, value-added content can come in many forms – for example, reviews of products (whether written by you or generated by the users of your website), information about the category or niche you are promoting, or editorials about the newest product releases.  The important thing to remember is that as well as being unique, the content you are adding to your website should also be relevant to what the user is looking for – in other words, don’t place reviews of mobile phones next to listings for handbags.  Always think about whether the information you are placing on your site will make sense for users, and will add value to their browsing experience.  Many search engines will not allow multiple ads for websites which have the same content, so ensuring that you are offering something unique is crucial if you want to maximize the visibility of ads for your site.

2. Original look and feel.  Another criticism often leveled at affiliate websites by search engines is that they look too similar to the website for the company whose products they are promoting.  Again, the key here is to think about how your site design can add more value to the overall user experience than simply re-skinning your merchant’s site.  A few things that you might want to try testing out include different page layouts, giving a variety of different search options (for example, by price range or by location), and filtering the results you show on your website to the most relevant for users (for example, a site about an individual brand’s laptops may want to exclude accessories for that laptop from the results they display to users).  Again, search engines look very closely at how similar sites look to each other, and will restrict the number of ads they show for sites they consider to look to close to each other, in order to encourage a true range of choice for users when they search on the internet – so having a site which looks different from your merchant’s website is vital to running successful SEM campaigns.

3. Ease of use.  The easier you can make it for users to find what they are looking for, the better.  There are three broad elements to this.  Firstly, you should ensure that a user can find their way around whichever page they visit on your website.  In order to do this, you should try to make sure that the key features of your page (for example, editorial content, products and merchandizing, pricing information and display or text advertising) are laid out logically and consistently.  Secondly, users should be able to find their way from one page on your site to another.  For example, if you promote different product categories on your site, clearly signpost on each page how users can move to another category than the one they are currently looking at.  If your site offers search functionality, make it clearly visible to users where they can find it.  Also, make sure that your site has an up to date Site Map.  Finally, make sure your site offers a ‘clean’ experience to users – for example by not using pop-ups and pop-unders, ensuring that advertising is integrated as seamlessly as possible into the overall look and feel of the site, and that your pages load quickly.  For more information in this area, Google offers several useful hints and tips in its Webmaster Guidelines.

4. Transparency.  Most of the guidance here comes down to being open and honest towards visitors to your site.  A few specific best practices include: • Be clear about the nature of your website.  Make it obvious to your users who owns and is responsible for the content on your website and about what areas your website covers. • Clearly signpost when links or images on your website will take users to another site, and ensure that users are sent to the most relevant place on that external website, including checking that the links you are using to redirect users to other sites work correctly. • Do not make changes to the way users’ browsers behave (for example the ability to use the back button) unless you first inform the user that this will happen, give them a clear path to stop this from happening, and give straightforward instructions as to how they can return to their computer’s previous settings.  The same rules apply to installing software on users’ machines. • If you collect personal information on users, ensure that you give users the option to opt out of providing this, that you comply with the relevant privacy laws in all markets in which you operate, and that you clearly state your website’s privacy policy.

Remember, following these guidelines is not only important in running successful SEM campaigns.  The principles behind them are best practices for how to operate any website, regardless of the sources of your traffic.  Furthermore, much of the guidance here underlies basic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques, and following this advice should therefore also help you to drive free traffic from search engines to your website.

Choosing the Optimal Landing Pages for your SEM Traffic

Once you have designed the pages of your website, you need to decide to which of your pages you will send users who enter via a search engine for each keyword purchased.  Having a site which looks great and is easy to use is all well and good, but if the keywords you purchase and the pages to which you send users are not aligned, the experience for visitors to your site will still be poor. 

The most important principle to remember here is that you should make the end to end experience for users clicking on your SEM ads as smooth as possible.  In the blog post on Creating Appealing Ad Text, I talked about the importance of ensuring that your ads not only receive a high Click Through Rate, but also that the users clicking on your ads convert successfully.  A major part of this is making sure that the ad text you use creates an accurate expectation of what users will see when they come to your site – and that the page on which you land them meets that expectation.  The possibilities for testing and optimizing the landing pages you use are almost unlimited, but here are a few hints and tips that in my experience have made a big difference to the percentage of visitors from SEM who end up purchasing items:

1. Use appropriate deep linking.  This one is pretty basic, but given the impact it can have on performance, it nonetheless bears repeating.  In the vast majority of cases, sending users to the homepage of your website is not the best option!  If you are purchasing the keyword ‘Green Day CD reviews’, send users who click on that ad to a page where they can easily find reviews of Green Day CDs.  While linking to pages which are too generic is the most common mistake, linking to pages which are too specific can also be a problem.  For example, if the keyword you are purchasing is relatively generic (e.g. ‘handbags’), sending users to a page which only has one type of handbags probably narrows the selection of items too far, since they have given you no indication of what color or brand of handbag they are looking for.  Thus, users will have to do more work to find their perfect item, which makes it less likely that they will make a purchase.

2. Target different page layouts to different groups of keywords.  The keyword a user comes through is often a good indication not only of the product that user is interested in, but also how they are likely to decide which offer for that product to purchase.  If someone visits your site from an ad for ‘cheap video games’, it’s a pretty clear sign that low prices is what this user is after.  In this example, if you are a shopping comparison website, it may make sense to order the different offers for a product from the merchants you promote according to price, starting with the cheapest.  

3. Do not assume that all visitors to your site will behave the same.  There are many ways in which you can segment your traffic, and you may find that the preferences of these user segments differ significantly.  If your website promotes multiple product categories, try to understand how consumers in these categories behave and adapt your page layout accordingly.  Users looking for higher priced items normally look for more information about the products they are purchasing than those looking for something cheap – so providing information such as reviews and adverts for complementary services such as insurance can help to turn the visitor from a browser into a buyer.  We have even found that visitors from different search engines consistently behave differently, even when they come through the same keyword.  eBay offers many different ‘sort orders’ (for example, by price or by popularity) for the items on search results pages.  When testing out sending visitors from SEM to these different sort orders, we found that in many keyword segments, users from Yahoo! consistently preferred to see their search results ordered according to different logic from Google users.

Optimizing the landing pages you send your traffic to is one of the most open-ended aspects of SEM – the possibilities of how you design and organize your pages, and which users from which search engines you send to which page for each different keyword, are literally endless.  Nonetheless, applying some basic design principles and testing out different layouts can reap huge benefits for the performance of your SEM campaigns.

I’ll be back again before the holidays with the fourth post in the Successful Search Engine Marketing series, this time focusing on the secrets of which parts of the search universe you should – and should not - buy your traffic from.

Chris Howard

European eBay Partner Network team leader and one time eBay UK SEM manager