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Pay-per-click advertising

Paying for search engine prominence puts you in control

If you build it, they will come" was the advice offered by Kevin Costner in the movie 'Field of Dreams'. But if that's as far as your strategy for promoting your web site goes, you could be in for a nasty shock.

There are a lot of websites out there, and prospective customers won't just stumble across yours - you need to show them the way. Fighting your way to the top of the search engine rankings can be tricky, technical and time-consuming. But these days, you can buy your way to the top.

Keyword or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is popular with advertisers (in four years, it has moved from the research lab to taking three times as much money as the cinema ad industry), and is much less unpopular with ordinary web users than traditional 'banner' adverts. They look much like classified newspaper ads, with a brief attention-grabbing headline in bold, and a couple of lines following below.

The clever part is the way they are placed alongside relevant web material - putting the right adverts in front of people who are genuinely interested in what you have to offer.

How PPC works

Advertisers choose keywords or phrases which describe their offer and create an advert which will appear when users search for those words or phrases. They also specify the price they are willing to pay each time someone clicks on their ad - hence the name 'pay-per-click'.

If nobody clicks on the advert, you pay nothing. If they do click, you pay up to your nominated amount. Now, this presents an obvious benefit: unlike advertising in a newspaper, if you don't get any interested clickers, you don't pay.

In common with a newspaper, however, different PPC services reach different audiences. Microsoft's adCenter, for example, feeds ads into the MSN Search system, which not only reaches a large proportion of web users from a wide demographic base, but also allows targeting by location, age, gender and even time of day. Using tools to narrow your target, you stand a greater chance of reaching the customers you want, filtering out the unwanted clicks which just cost money. That adds up to a better return on your advertising budget.

Become a keyword guru

When choosing the keywords to bid on, you need to think like a buyer, not like a seller. What are the search terms that potential customers might use to find you?

To help you, most keyword bidding systems publish details of precisely how many people searched for any given term (and variations thereof) in the last month or so. Even then you have a choice - to spend big on the most popular terms, or to mop up lots of cheaper but less popular queries.

Advertisers like PPC because it gives them hands-on control of their marketing. Sign up, and your adverts will start appearing within seconds. Prices start from as little as 1p per click, rising to several pounds for the most popular keywords. But unlike TV advertising, for example, you can start with a small investment first to test the market. You can run as many ads as you can be bothered to write, to see which ones generate the best response.

Five more PPC tips

Carefully examine what your bid gets you. Some search engines don't list strictly in bid order. Some even use previous click-popularity as a guide which favours high-click ads - great for the search engine, but not helpful for newcomers trying to join the system.

Find out what support your PPC provider will offer. Microsoft's adCenter, for example provide support to small businesses by phone seven days a week, for when you need help with a campaign.

Start small and measure constantly. By running several small campaigns side by side, you'll soon find out which search terms and which descriptions of your services yield the best response.

Every search engine placement program is only as good as the customers it reaches. Find out from each search engine whether its customers match your audience - you'll be amazed at the differences.

When you have the time, do have a look at your PPC results. Weekly is the norm, but if you have more time, daily is even better! With adCenter you can view and analyse results instantly, seeing what type of people and what time they are clicking on your ads. All in all, it helps you understand which keywords or campaigns are working best for you and where your budget could be working harder.

What next?

adCenter lets you target, refine and measure your campaign like no other advertising tool. Find out about PPC and adCenter here.

There are ways to build your website to improve your ranking in 'natural' (non-paid) search results - but it's tricky. Here's what you need to know about search engine optimisation.


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