Unhappy with Your SEM Conversion Rate? You Are Doing It Wrong!


Unhappy with Your SEM Conversion Rate? You Are Doing It Wrong!

[Editorial Notes : We often hear from digital marketing teams that SEM doesn’t work. The question to answer is whether you are even trying SEM the right way? Read this amazing piece by Manoj Kumar, ex-Director of Products at MakeMyTrip (and now an entrepreneur).]

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There is a belief out there that I have heard often – “paid marketing is ultimately ROI negative” to which my answer is – “the medium is indispensable, not point questioning it… question the method”.

I think the big issue with paid online marketing (particularly SEM) is that everyone wants to solve it the complex way. Companies employ expensive tools and optimization algorithms, often at the cost of simple metrics and common sense. In this article, I am going to highlight the impact of missing on the later, using real examples. By the end of this article, I hope to drive home a simple point – that as far as SEM/ paid marketing goes, give common sense a better chance. The fact that you have money deploy and expensive tools to tell you what to do – may be ‘euthanizing your common sense’… read on to stay alert…

SEM through a consumers lens – buying stuff online

Recently I have started playing badminton and after a few months into the game, I wish to upgrade my racquet. It’s an important but not urgent purchase. Given the discounts available online and convenience, I have decided to buy online by default.

I can recall 2-3 e-commerce websites that sell this stuff, however to check for any deals, I began my search on Google.

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The ad copy

Sometimes I wonder, how many of those not from our tribe (remember there are ones who have never heard the term SEM and they are the overwhelming majority) have any clue that these links on top are advertisements?

Ok, my attention immediately goes to the following top 3 advertisements, lets have  a closer look at what they are saying:

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On top is the healthkart advertisement. “40% Off, authentic and branded”, which hits the spot – exactly what I am looking for, and I click. As you read on, you will realize that this is the best ad copy, and healthkart is offering the lowest prices (only matched by flipkart), but this is where I do not buy.. the reason as a lot to do with common sense (not brand!)… read on..

The second ad from top is confusing – it seems to be meant for bulk supply (“Enquire Today”), they are also wasting precious space by mentioning their website name twice.  Nah! no click!

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Third from top is flipkart – it seems like they are using generic copies one could use for any product “Amazing offers. Cash on Delivery”, but this too works, simply because I know flipkart (more on why you should not emulate this though, towards the end of the post).

From my perspective, the ad which does not work here is bajajsports.com ad. Now, your brain probably reasons that babajsports.com doesnt really sound like a ecommerce player – so this was exception, perhaps full time e-commerce guys would not have ad ad copies like this… I mean the ones who have tools…  you may be in for a shock, check the following advertisements ladies and gentlemen, for the search term  “Badminton shuttelcock” (which I was looking to buy with the Badminton).

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The above ad copies are obviously irrelevant. It wouldn’t be surprising if the conversion for these is terrible (yes, I did say terrible ‘conversion’ not just bad ‘click through rate’ or CTR, read on). I wouldn’t be surprised if some heavy duty tool has generated them and no one checked.

Pause… think… and then if you are thinking poor ad copy should have low CTRs not necessarily low conversions, here is the explanation:

When your ad copy is wrong, its a big indication that you are landing people on the unintended page. Now, a lot of people trust Google’s results and click  regardless of your ad copy and then immediately bounce… you can connect the dots to figure out easily why something like this is a conversion disaster.

This clearly demonstrates one simple rule for increasing SEM conversions

Common Sense Rule 1: Read your own advertisements on Google… I mean… read them! OK?

The landing page

With badminton, you need the shuttlecock, I searched

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Clicked on the above and came to the following page, which did not show badminton shuttlecock.

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I left the site after a quick scroll. A wasted click, increased cost and lower conversion for the merchant. Interactions such as mine would be piling up throughout the day [SEM not working!].

Ironically, this website does have a page dedicated to shuttlecocks… I would have explored further had they brought me to the right page

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Again, this is more common than you probably imaging. Consider another example, where I am searching for a particular shoe “nike air max” – I had decided that this is the product I want

Attractive ad- 50% off.. I click..  but Myntra lands me on a Nike shoe page… without the “air max” model (at least not above the fold).

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Again, the irony is that Myntra does have air max shoes (see below), and a page dedicated to them

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How much easier would it have been for me had they landed me on this page!

One thought process here on merchants part could be to show the entire Nike range… we got it all.. you can refine, however, as a customer, this is what I am thinking: I am telling google exactly what I want and it is responding to my query so when I land on the merchant site, I expect it to be showing exactly what I typed… never mind the fact what their ad copy says something more generic..

Now, if in response to my specific query for air max, you show me other stuff.. to me it means to me that you do not have air max, and my urge is to go back to Google, not search your website. Makes sense?

Common Sense Rule no 2: “search your own website for narrowest matching page before linking to a generic landing, every time!”

You probably have a specific page! do not avoid the hard work and land people on generic pages

People (the ones who matter, especially in India) think Google top results are best matches to their queries. When they do not find what they are looking for immediately, especially when you advertize on top, you disappoint them! no one likes disappointment.

Product page

Your potential customer clicked on your advertisement, found the landing page meaningful and decided to explore your website further.

Congratulations on crossing the first hurdle!

Continuing with the badminton purchase saga, after a bit of playing around, it became evident that healthkart is offering the lowest price.  Below is the price on healthkart.com, and the following picture shows prices from various sites on junglee.com… I almost bought from them… wel almost…

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So, I go on healthkart.com and read the product description specifically to double check light the racquet was… here is the page


As you can see, I had to read an essay, with repeated information. Many of you will easily recognize that this description is probably generated targeting certain specific keywords for SEO….however,  it was a big effort to read for me.. still I didn’t leave the website

 Notice under features and benefits, it is stated that shaft and frame are both Graphite (lightweight).. and the weight is about right… I would have bought from them had I not used their “compare products” feature (‘cool feature, eh!’) Why? notice the below screen shot carefully


They say in this feature that the badminton is made of steel! (p.s. image below) contradicting what has been written earlier. Back to Google – it was almost a subconscious decision for me… (why take a chance? even free return is a hassle)

 This type of stuff is more common than you can imagine (and probably happening under your watch as well), here is someone selling a 25.5 kilogram racquet:


One knows that a Badminton cannot weigh 25.5 kg! This is clearly a mistake – the cost is gradual erosion of the trust on the brand.

 Can you imagine a conversation analyzing conversions of the above … “this keyword gets a lot of traffic but does not convert” (beyond your control, blame it on the environment)…”people are searching online but not buying, we are not in that stage”… “what is our competition doing, undercutting?”.. “who else is advertising” … “why are people dropping in the funnel… tech you are the suspect”.. and on and on… bright minds will be satisfied with discussion like this, all encompassing, touching every aspect… except that…

some puny mind may say, lets read what we have written… and may be it does not make sense, and probable retort is “we all agree on importance of content – what’s new?” – common sense euthanized! 🙁 lost opportunity!

To put this in perspective, look at the amazon page for the same product, and see how effortlessly it tells what matters upfront:


Common sense rule no 3: You never know to which word on your page sticks in customer mind… so make sure that everything written makes sense.. everything!

Address your product description to a person (not masses). Have the various personas you have created in mind when you write the product details (covered in my previous post). What information do they want? what will motivate them? what will impress them? do not “tease” customers with incorrect information, they will mind it!

A bit more about the product page..

Have you ever tried paying bill online on Vodafone website… here is my experience from a few months ago…

I reached the below page after Googling “vodafone bill payment India”, I wanted to pay my bill.


I expected to see a prominently placed button to pay the bill. None to be found. There is a Quick bill pay header with a “Find out how” button… (why not pay now button, which I can click and pay?)


The above is the page that comes up after clicking on “Find out how”. Now what? By pure chance I figure out that the “Make payment now!” (that I have highlighted in red box) is actually a link. OMG! lucky me, because there is not even a slightest hint that call to action is hidden here.


The above is the page that finally comes up! It defies logic as to why this page is not directly linked to a noticeable button labeled “Pay your bill here” on the landing page?

Better still, why not land traffic that comes for bill payment here?

This scheme of things must be generating thousands of calls to/from Vodafone customer care, costing millions.

I have something to say about the nomenclature “Quick Bill Pay ”. Is there another way on Vodafone where people can pay bills, that is not quick “click here if you want to pay bill using the long method”? Why will anyone opt for that?

 So if the goal of the ad campaign  was to have people pay their bills online… you know where it is failing and the intelligent conversation may still be about “In India, people need to be chased with phone calls… online payment habit will take years to materialize”.. but you know better now

Common Sense Rule number 4: You know your website, customer does not! Hold up that signboard right till the end ( i.e. make call to actions obvious)

Your customer should not lose the trail within your website.


Image by Gagan Malik

Check out

The list of main tasks in a checkout funnel is rather short and standard – take address, may be use a discount code, modify quantities and make payment.

There are so many good examples to emulate in this area (really good ones), however, websites often get this wrong, paying dearly in terms of low conversion.

Below is a checkout page that is nicely done


You can easy to modify quantities, apply discounts coupons, select payment method. The total amount payable is neatly highlighted. There is a nice feedback when discount is applied.

Now, consider the following sub optimal experience:

(this is somewhat old screen shot, healthkart.com has since relased a new version, but it serves the purpose of illustration)

img12Where is the shopping cart?… get me a flashlight… ahh… hidden in the top right hand corner. In the whole page, one could surely find more prominent space for the shopping cart. Contrast this with the Amazon UI.


You get an option to checkout right after adding an item in the cart. The cart link on top right hand corner is large and visible. The impact, is phenomenally different

Secondly never, ever mandate your customers to register (this is specially for the ones just starting out)… like the below example.. this is a dead end


Common Sense Rule no 5: Remove everything “nice” from the checkout process (I mean everything, that makes your internal people go “niiice” – cross sell, up sell, fancy animation, registration etc)

the only things that should remain is something without which its impossible to buy what is already in your cart..

Summing it up

The above stuff is generally called called basics… “basics”, the term itself may be confusing you about the importance. We should call it “foundation” instead. Getting it right is the only way to stay at top in the long run

This whole thing reminds me of the apple in my fruit basket that – I know its healthy, I always want to eat it, but… the time is never right and need is never urgent! you know you should be reading your own advertisements.. nah!.. apple… not at the moment

 Before I conclude I wish to add that the expensive tools are not a fault by themselves, they have to be used right. Getting access to expensive tools is no substitute for general observation and common sense. If treated as such, you may end up wrongly believing that paid marketing as a medium is for poor conversions. This belief can cost you big time in terms of growth and market share!!

Some final thoughts:

1. Young ones out there (I mean companies), be very wary of emulating bad practices from big boys, they can get away with it, you cannot –  as Bryan Eisenberg (online marketing guru) says “brand buys you forgiveness”, fledgling brand will be evaluated lot more strictly than big boys. So never think, amazon/flipkart/snapdeal are getting away doing the same!

2. I have stressed a lot on content – which will take resources to perfect (I can almost guarantee that it will take more money, time and people than you have set aside)- so we have a problem at hand… only so much more money available for content..  so I would like you to think this way:

How much money is spent in bringing to people your website? and how much of it is spent in making sure that they have a good experience once they are in? take some of the former and allocate to the later! it’s just common sense.. otherwise you are certainly spreading the word about you.. and it is not a good one.

3. I have worked for hotels, there they always said – “customer is always right” and everyone believed… the “e” types (e-commerce) however love to reason everything.. why can the customer not use site search? why do people think the top ad on Google has some sort of Google verification stamp  etc…. so my friends, here is the hotel rule restated for you

“I am the consumer. Thou shalt not reason with me!, only observe me and change yourself” ..


[Image credit: PrettyKateMachine]

[About the author: Manoj Kumar has spent better half of last decade at Makemytrip.com, handling product management/ revenues and technology for some of MMT’s critical lines of businesses. Most recently he held the position of Director – Product Management at MMT. He is now an entrepreneur, working to launch his first mobile based product.]

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