10 Search Marketing Lessons From The Kentucky Derby

Saturday was the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby, and my first time at Churchill Downs. When I wasn’t horsing around with my friends at the track, I was seeking inspiration for my Search Insider column. Lo and behold, I found it somewhere on the infield amid 40 tons of trash.

Here are 10 search marketing lessons from the greatest two minutes in sports:

1. It takes a village. Everyone has a hand in getting a horse ready to race. The jockey, the trainer, the breeder -- they’re all accountable for success. And when a horse wins, everyone on the team deserves acknowledgement. The same goes for SEM. Make sure everyone who touches your program is properly recognized, from campaign managers on the front lines to IT staff in the back office.



2. The right conditions make all the difference. There are so many variables in play during a race, including many you can’t control, such as the weather. The same goes for SEM. You have everything from algos to competitors constantly changing and throwing wrenches in your program. The best “bet” is always to expect the unexpected and prepare for all potential outcomes.

3. When in doubt, hedge your bet. Speaking of preparing for all potential outcomes, many folks prefer to spread their money around when betting the ponies. Rather than load up on one horse, they pick a few to place or show and have a chance of winning something in case of an upset. Ditto for SEM. Make sure you create and optimize multiple forms of content so that you have a chance of showing up on SERPs in the event your ads cap out or your top organic listing takes a hit.

4.  The numbers don’t lie. There’s a reason certain horses have better odds to win: because they’re better horses. Resist the temptation to go with your gut when it comes to keyword optimization. Study the reports, understand the trends, and heed the opinions of experts. Sure, every now and then a long tail -- er, longshot -- may pay off, but the favorites are your surest path to victory.

5. Avoid black hats. One of the classic customs of the Derby is to don ridiculously colorful headwear. Spectators avoid plain caps at all costs. So, too, is it wise to avoid black hats in the SEO world, as the penalties are much harsher than mere ridicule.

6.  Don’t overpay. Another over-the-top Derby tradition is the $1,000 mint julep. Sure, it comes with a gold-plated cup -- but you can get the same “results” from an $8 julep sold by vendors.  The same goes for SEM. With PPC, make sure you’re only paying what each keyword is worth to you in terms of total contribution to campaign goals. And with SEO, don’t spend crazy money on firms that woo you with flashy reporting dashboards. Focus on results.  

7. Pace yourself. Whether you’re perched atop a horse or bellied up to the bar, it’s good advice to mind your pace and don’t come out of the gate too fast. Take the same approach with paid search. Don’t set budget caps that have you blowing chunks (of cash) early in the day.

8. Position matters. It can be very difficult for a horse starting on the outside of the track to move in to the rail and take the lead. In SEM, position is also key to success. Ensuring you’re in the right spot at all times is key to success. Usually, the closer you are to #1, the better.

9. Technology can help. I’m not sure how people watched horse races live before parks had monitors and scoreboards. Heck, I can barely remember what it was like before smartphones. I do recall lots of time spent reading through printed programs and tip sheets, though. As for the Derby itself, I can’t imagine watching the race at Churchill Downs without the Big Board. When it comes to SEM, I can’t fathom managing paid search bids or monitoring SEO performance without advanced technology platforms. The days of manual keyword expansion and bidding seem like the Dark Ages. I remember plugging in keywords one at a time into the Overture keyword tool to see what competitors were paying. Sure, the transparency was nice, but it was a painful process.

10. Google is everywhere. The Big G couldn’t have bought a better Derby sponsorship than having the winning horse named after its browser and OS!

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