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The Importance and Power of Launching an SEM Labs Program

Many companies work hard to develop and optimize their paid search campaigns. And when those campaigns in both AdWords and adCenter are performing well, it’s sometimes easy for complacency to set in. There might be hundreds of ad groups set up, tens of thousands of keywords running, and ROAS is strong across campaigns. Based on what I explained, you might think this is a good time to keep things as-is, bask in the glow of high ROI campaigns, and drink a margarita at your desk, right? Wrong! I believe this is a perfect time to expand your boundaries, test the waters, and implement an SEM Labs initiative.

SEM Labs

What is an SEM Labs Program?

Simply put, it’s a program for testing new functionality, networks, ad types, and even new platforms (using a percentage of your overall SEM budget). Both AdWords and adCenter are continually rolling out new functionality, and I find that many companies aren’t even aware of what’s possible. For example, advertisers can run contextual advertising on the Display Network, launch mobile-only campaigns, leverage behavioral targeting via Remarketing, run video ads on YouTube, etc. These are all great candidates for a labs program. In addition, your SEM Labs program doesn’t have to be solely focused on SEM. You could test other paid efforts that fall outside of SEM, like Social Advertising campaigns.

Budget-wise, you could allocate a percentage of your overall SEM budget to your labs program. For example, you might choose to take 10-15% for your labs effort. Since it’s a test program, your end-goal is to learn as much as possible via those campaigns in order to promote, and implement, successful efforts.

The Importance of Testing New Efforts

In my experience, I’ve found it’s easy for marketers to miss important opportunities for expanding their efforts if they;

  • aren’t fully aware of what’s possible,
  • don’t jump in and test new platforms and targeting capabilities.

When set up and managed properly, an SEM Labs initiative could help a company reach more prospective customers, while diversifying its advertising mix. In a best case scenario, the new efforts could actually outperform current campaigns. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen this happen more than a few times. Let’s take a look at what some of these efforts could include.

Potential components of an SEM labs program:

1. The Google Display Network

The Display Network is a massive opportunity for companies, yet I find many are either afraid of it, or just haven’t tested the waters yet. If you’re not familiar with the Display Network, it consists of any website running Google Ads, and it reaches approximately 80% of all web users. Yes, 80%. You can run both text ads and display advertising, and ads are contextually served based on the themes and interests you target. The Display Network also includes Google properties like Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, etc.

Example of both an image ad and text video overlay running on the Display Network (on YouTube):

PIC google-display-network-youtube

I wanted to quickly address the “fear” of the Display Network I mentioned earlier. When set up and managed properly, the Display Network can be extremely powerful. I bolded “when set up and managed properly” in the previous sentence, because that’s where many companies fall short. Unfortunately, if you quickly launch Display Network campaigns without a solid understanding of how it works, and let those campaigns run without refinement, then you are setting yourself up for failure. The Display Network is like the Amazon Jungle, you can walk down one path and find treasure, while the next path could lead to a 40 foot long anaconda that hasn’t eaten in weeks. One brings you wealth, the other a painful experience (or horrible ROI).

My recommendation is to map out your target audiences, and begin to develop campaigns for reaching those users across the Display Network. You can do this by identifying websites, topics, and interests to target. You’ll find there are times that Display Network campaigns perform extremely well, and at a lower cost than running on the Search Network. That said, you won’t know until you try.

2. Remarketing

Since I already covered the Display Network, it’s a great time to introduce Remarketing in AdWords. If you’re not familiar with Remarketing, it enables you to target people that have already visited your website as they travel the web. For example, if I visited your running sneakers category on your ecommerce website, and didn’t buy, you could present ads to me after I leave your site. Your ads can be displayed across the Google Display Network via both text and image-based ads.

For example, you could provide special offers, calls to action, etc. knowing those users already visited a certain section (or page) of your website. You can also drive these visitors to specific landing pages, knowing that they were already exposed to certain products or messaging.

If you’re interested in testing Remarketing campaigns, but don’t know where to begin, you should check out my two-part series covering how to set up Remarketing in AdWords. The first tutorial covers how to set up a basic Remarketing campaign, and the second part covers how to set up custom combinations to exclude visitors that already converted (so you don’t look foolish or get yourself in trouble).

Setting up a Remarketing campaign using a custom combination to exclude users who converted already:


3. Google AdWords for Video (YouTube Ads)

If you have already created YouTube videos for your business, then YouTube Ads could be a great addition to your labs program. I find many companies don’t realize that there’s an advertising opportunity in YouTube that can be set up and managed via AdWords. It used to be called YouTube Promoted Videos, and now has been rebranded as Google AdWords for Video.

When setting up your video campaigns, you can create targeting groups to reach specific types of audiences. For example, you can target people by:

  • topics
  • demographics
  • keywords, interests
  • placements, etc.

Similar to search-based AdWords campaigns, the pricing is CPC-based and can be managed via your AdWords account.

Google AdWords for Video enables you to target users on and across the Google Display Network. For example, your ads can show up when people search for specific keywords on (either above or to the right of the search results). In addition, if a placement on the Display Network supports video ads, your advertisement could show up there, as well. Setup-wise, if you already have videos sitting in your YouTube channel, then there’s no cost for building creative. You could set up your campaigns immediately and test the waters.

An example of search-based YouTube ads (via Google AdWords for Video):

Adwords for Video

4. Mobile-Only Campaigns (and Beyond)

Both AdWords and adCenter provide the ability to target mobile users via specific campaigns. This enables you to break down your campaigns by desktop and mobile users, which lets you easily view performance for each segment. In addition, both platforms enable you to target sets of users within “mobile”. For example, you can target specific operating systems like iOS and Android. You can also target by device, such as smartphone or tablet.

Mobile Targeting Options in AdWords:

adwords mobile campaign

Also, beyond just duplicating desktop campaigns and targeting mobile users, you can also tailor your ad creative and landing pages. For example, you could drive mobile visitors to mobile landing pages, which would be formatted for mobile devices. You might also choose different ad creative knowing people are on the go, or on their tablets.

Performance-wise, it’s extremely important to understand how well each segment converts. Imagine you had a 3.5% conversion rate in your original campaign (which combines desktop and mobile users). Then, upon breaking down your campaigns, you realize that desktop converted at 8%, mobile converted at .5%, and tablets converted at 2%. You would obviously take that data, analyze the barriers for mobile visitors, and refine your efforts.

5. Social Advertising

Although this topic isn’t Search-related, I’m including it in this SEM labs post (since it’s a CPC-based, paid advertising channel). In my opinion, too many companies have quickly launched Facebook Advertising, only to see a lot of clicks, high bounce rate, and low conversion. Those companies might be quick to point out that social advertising doesn’t work for them. But, that might not be true. The performance of your social advertising campaigns can only be based on how much effort you put into the research and setup phases of developing those campaigns.

Both Facebook and LinkedIn provide some incredible targeting capabilities, including interest-based and demographic targeting. Using the capabilities of each platform, you could break down your target audiences and develop granular campaigns for reaching them. Note, this takes a lot of time and effort, but can pay huge dividends down the line.

Breaking down campaigns this way enables you to surgically refine your efforts. Over time, you can start to identify highly-performing audience segments, understand which types of creative work best with those segments, and provide a new, highly-performing channel for your business. Don’t cut out social ads until you test them the right way.

For example, imagine you sold high-end wine accessories. How about targeting men interested in wine, that live in New York City, are 40-60 years old, like red wine, and specific wineries. That’s the type of powerful targeting that’s available in Facebook.

An example of Facebook Ads in action:

Facebook Ads

Unfortunately, you cannot set up this type of targeting via Search yet (although that might be changing with AdWords+ and Search, Plus Your World). My recommendation is to map out some robust social advertising campaigns targeting various audience segments. Track their performance at a granular basis and refine your efforts over time. My guess is you’ll be surprised with the results (as compared to the carpet bombing approach many companies use on Facebook).

Summary ““ Set Up Your SEM Labs Initiative

My hope is that after reading this post, you are eager and willing to set up a labs program at your company. As I covered in this post, without a labs program in place, you could very well be missing strong opportunities to reach new customers. So map out your plan today, present it to stakeholders, and launch a labs program. New customers are waiting.



  1. David February 28, 2012

    Hello Glenn,

    Great to see your first post over at SNC, I agree completely with the idea and it’s something I would always try and work into a marketing schedule.

    The only caveats is many of these tests may fail, and failure is part of any learning and education process. But I see concerns as often these labs take extra time/energy that not all marketeers maybe willing to invest in their clients/campaigns…

    I have a small trial campaign running just for SEO purposes doing my keyword research for content and link building strategies. But would love to test some more LAB functions on that campaign if allowed…

  2. Glenn Gabe February 28, 2012

    Thanks for your comment David. And you’re absolutely right about testing and failure. Some tests will definitely fail, but as an old mentor of mine once told me, [b]you can learn a lot from a failed campaign[/b]. 🙂

    In addition, the successful labs efforts can pay huge dividends. Some companies would have never tested social ads, youtube ads, etc. without having a labs program in place.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. Barry February 28, 2012

    Great post Glenn. Too often the temptation is there to just stick with the tried & tested and not take a risk on newfangled stuff.

    I try out new features now and again on our own campaigns, with the hopes of learning enough about them to be able to sell them properly to new and existing clients and thus get some more money off of existing retainers. I’m probably not as diligent in trying out new stuff as I should be – time to dig in I suppose. 🙂

  4. Glenn Gabe March 1, 2012

    Excellent point Barry. Testing isn’t just for clients! Agencies and consultants should be testing these new opportunities as well. Glad to hear you will be digging in. 🙂

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