Insurance companies have been battling for high rankings on the search engines for years. Now, making an end-run around the search engine wars by simply paying for placement.With these firms, the game is no longer who is best at coding search-engine friendly pages. Instead, it's who is willing to bid the most for the most popular keywords used by people searching for insurance on the Web.
Under the Google AdWords (https://adwords.google.com) program, for example, an insurance firm can open a paid search account and begin bidding for the ownership of keywords in a matter of minutes. The reward: Win the bidding war on a keyword of your choice, and your firm's link will be sent to the top of Google's sponsored links.
"Google AdWords is an integral part of our marketing strategy," says John Swigart, chief marketing officer for San Francisco-based Esurance, who describes his company as "born on the 'Net."
"Overall, we find that 40% to 50% of people who click through on a Google link complete a form, and 5% to7% of those insure with us," Swigart adds. "We estimate that we're paying $200 to $230 for each new customer using Google AdWords. Granted, the entire paid search market has gotten much more competitive during the past year. But we're still finding it very profitable."
"Paid search has been one of the most successful marketing tools to emerge on the Web," says Matthew Josefowicz, manager, insurance group, for Celent Communications Inc., Boston. "The online channel is a very important marketplace, and insurance companies are finding that paid search is working."
On a recent (September) check of various search engines, Esurance was the first sponsored link returned on Google for the phrase "auto insurance Los Angeles." 21st Century Insurance came up second on Google for the phrase "auto insurance San Francisco." And Ameriquote.us, an insurance broker, held the top spot on MSN Search for the key-phrase "home owners insurance Phoenix."
Using similar key phrases on other major search engines, high rankings were achieved by firms such as AAA, Geico, AIG Direct, and Eral Sutton Insurance Agency, based in Kingwood, Texas.
"AdWords is a great program for advertisers with limited budgets, and for those interested in trying out keyword-based ads before making a larger buy," says Larry Chase, author of "Essential Business Tactics for the Net." The program is popular among even the smallest of businesses, he adds, because each client has the ability to place a firm ceiling on the amount of clicks it will pay for on any given day.
Here's how it works: After a firm's pre-arranged, daily promotional budget is exhausted, Google takes the firm out of the bidding war for the rest of the day.
Another reason why Google's model is so popular with up-and-comers is because many smaller businesses have learned that highly specific key phrases that tend to bring in more qualified potential customers can often be had for a song, Chase says. For example, the keyword "insurance" is much more expensive than the more specific key phrase "auto insurance Sheboygan."
Search engine detractors
Not surprisingly, paid search does have its detractors. "In my experience, the people I'm getting tend to be poor drivers with poor credit, people who are having a tough time finding anyone to insure them," says Eral Sutton, who uses the Overture paid search program, backed by Yahoo!
"Once in awhile I'll see some profitable results, someone with a half-million-dollar home and a BMW and Cadillac to insure, and that'll pay for the headaches."
Sutton also complains that nearly one-half of the quote forms he receives over the Web are missing the crucial data that's essential to providing a reliable quote. "I find that many people are reluctant to part with their personal data over the Internet. A lot of people don't include their telephone numbers. And many don't know their VIN (vehicle identification number)."
Of course, every firm's online strategy varies. Carriers interested in experimenting with paid search, can benefit from these tips from an insider who specializes in maximizing Google AdWords:
- Create multiple versions of the same ad. One of the beauties of the pay-per-click system is that if your ad is a dud, it probably won't be that costly. People will simply bypass it, and Google won't charge for a link people don't click. Therefore, create a number of versions of the same ad to see what works best, says Andreas Ramos, co-author of "Insider's Guide To Search Engine Optimization."
"Don't worry too much over what goes into the ad," he explains. "Try all sorts of variations and ideas. Try flippant ads, silly ads and flat ads. We've found it works best if you don't think about it."
- Don't advertise outside your desired customer base. Given that Google's presence literally reaches around the globe, insurers should limit the geographical reach of their ads (Google's system prompts advertisers when they first input their ads).
- Develop a Google AdWords "landing page" on your Web site. Once you've hooked a customer, you'll want to close the sale with a landing page that offers a natural and seamless transition from your Google ad to your Web site. Essentially, you want someone to land on a page where they can effortlessly read more about your product, and input their credit card info without making another click, if applicable.
- Make sure your landing page has a "call to action." You'll nail more sales, and/or glean more clients, if you give users specific instructions about what to do once they've been sold on your landing page, Andreas says. Insurers will want to invite users to send an e-mail or call your company on a special, toll-free number, or take similar, decisive action.
- Give your ads time before making changes. "Run the campaign for at least 1,000 impressions," Andreas explains. "You need about that many ad views to draw a meaningful conclusion. Delete the weak ads and create more."
- Don't be afraid to be number two in search engine rankings. While it's an indisputable ego trip to be the top sponsored link for any search on Google, the fact is that status can be very costly. In the Goggle bidding wars that often rage between competitors on any given day, it's better after a certain point to simply cede the top spot to a more brazen bidder, and pocket the substantial savings. After all, Andreas says, "position number two or three are just as visible to the users."
- Take advantage of Google's ad tracking and analysis tools. With just a few clicks and inputs, Google can slice-and-dice the performance of your ads for you so many different ways, you may get dizzy.
Joe Dysart is a writer and Internet business consultant based in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
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