Search advertising (aka keyword advertising) is one of the hottest trends in marketing today, and no wonder--paying only for ads that potential customers click on is an advertiser's dream come true.

Your search advertising campaign's effectiveness, however, depends to a large degree on how effectively you plan, create and maintain it. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your campaign:

1. Know your business. The point of a search advertising campaign is precision: reaching the right users at the right time. And the first step toward achieving this is to know your business. What products and services are you selling? What's your precise market niche? What selling strengths do you want to play toward? Do your homework up front so your campaign planning will be as effective as possible.

As an example, let's assume you're running a gourmet coffee website, http://www.frothing-latte-bean.com, on which you sell a range of coffee products, from beans to machines. Your target market is devoted coffee lovers everywhere, and you want to focus on your great products and easy ordering options.

2. Identify your goals and organize around them. Once you have a clear sense of your business, stay focused on it as you establish the goals for your ad campaign. Then, as you set up your search ads, structure each campaign based on a simple, overarching goal--for instance, getting people who want to buy great coffee products to visit your site so you sell more coffee beans online. In some cases, you can use the same structure for your campaigns as you do for your website. If your site is already grouped into categories, for example, your job is almost done. Mapping your structure on paper first will produce an easy-to-use template.

Now that you've set your campaigns and related goals, you can create logical groupings within each campaign called "ad groups." Ad groups are made up of keywords and ads (and we'll go into this more later). Since you've chosen one goal per campaign, each ad group within a campaign should be helping you met those goals.

3. Choose the right keywords. Choosing keywords is both an art and a science. Start by brainstorming a list that's as wide as possible. There are a variety of online resources that can assist you in brainstorming. Using them, you simply enter a few basic ideas, such as gourmet coffee, French roast and coffee beans, and you'll get back dozens of potential keywords and phrases (two- and three-word phrases usually work best as keywords).

Once you have a good list, you'll want to sort it (many advertisers put them into a spreadsheet to make sorting them easier). Start by selecting a "match type" for each keyword. A broad match means any user who searches on "coffee" or "bean" in any combination will see your ads; more precisely targeted matches--such as a phrase match or an exact match--will deliver fewer ad views but perhaps better targeted ones. You can even choose negative match keywords to eliminate searched phrases you don't want your ad to appear on, such as "cheap" or "free."

Finally, you should refine your list by cutting irrelevant keywords that don't really relate to your business, and then organize the remaining keywords into themed groups. For instance, you might want to place keywords relating to whole-bean coffee in one ad group and those relating to ground coffee in another one.

4. Write ads that get people clicking. Now that you've set up your keywords and grouped them in ad groups, your next step is to write the ads that users will see in their search results when they search on those keywords. You have three lines with which to grab that potential customer's attention. Here are a few tips for getting it right:

  • Get to the point quickly.
  • Include your keywords in your headline.
  • Write copy that encourages users to click through to your site.

Here's a sample ad for our gourmet coffee site:

Gourmet Coffee Beans

Order fair-trade, French roast,

decaf coffee beans. Free shipping.

www.frothing-latte-bean.com

This ad tells people what you offer (gourmet coffee beans) and why they should buy it (fair-trade, French roast, free shipping). It also tells them what to do when they click through (order beans).

5. Target the right users. Who are you trying to reach? Once you know your potential customers' key demographics, you can target individual campaigns by language and region. For instance, some keyword advertising programs allow you to reach potential customers in more than 40 languages--you could consider setting up a campaign for each language you target for easier tracking--and you can also target on a regional, city or customized level, such as a 20-mile radius around your business.

These locally targeted campaigns should have general keywords such as "coffee beans" or "shade-grown coffee." Even if you can offer products or services only to people within a very specific geographic area, you can set up a country-targeted campaign in parallel that's full of location-specific keywords such as "Seattle coffee" or "New York coffee basket." These broader campaigns can help you get more qualified clicks.

6. Track your results. So your campaign has been live for a week. Are you spending your money wisely? Measuring your results will tell you which keywords bring you the most customers, which ads bring in the most business and, ultimately, how much return you're getting on your investment (ROI). Then you can adjust your campaign settings based on those results.

Be sure to select a keyword advertising program that provides a tracking tool and analytics platform that will help you understand which keywords and ads drive your conversions. Conversion tracking reports that review overall campaign performance and results can mean the difference between acceptable and stellar long-term results. For instance, you should figure out whether all the clicks you get on coffee makers are actually turning into sales. If not, you might try to reshuffle your budget and bids. You should also monitor whether an ad is overly click-enticing--this might eat through your ad budget quicker than you'd like--or whether the promotion you mention is too hard to find on your destination page.

Stay alert for creative ways to track offline conversions as well. Your keyword campaigns are just a piece in your overall sales puzzle; even purchases or signups that happen offline, such as by phone or at your place of business, might have been driven by your website and your keyword advertising program. The best way to measure your offline results is by tracking customers to a conversion, such as with a coupon or an order form, or simply by asking customers how they found you.

7. Control your spend. Keeping regular tabs on your account statistics means knowing which ads and keywords bring you results, not bidding more than you can afford to spend, and always focusing on relevance, that is, never letting yourself pay for keywords and ad text that aren't goal-focused and producing results. Here are some quick tips for controlling your keyword campaign spending:

  • Set your limits. Don't bid more than you can afford. If you find you're not getting the results you expected, scale back your campaign by figuring out which ads and keywords are bringing results and deleting the others.
  • Focus on relevance. Build your campaigns slowly. Spend time handpicking your keywords and writing your ads. When your keywords and ad text are more relevant, you're likely to pay less than you bid, so creating highly relevant campaigns is the most cost-effective way to manage your budget.
  • Grow from what works. Once you know what works, you can start to build more campaigns and ad groups. Watch your account statistics and tweak your targeting settings, keyword list and ad text to test different results. Use the conversion tracking methods we discussed earlier to find your top performers.

8. Test, test, test. Search advertising means never resting on your laurels. Take a moment to review what you've set up, one campaign at a time. Are your keywords logically grouped into ad groups? Does the campaign help you achieve a goal? Does your budget match your goals? Successful advertisers are constantly revising their campaigns, just as searchers are constantly searching for different things. To flourish in this ever-changing environment, you should continue to test and refine your keywords and ads, build on ones that work and delete others that don't. You'll want to check results, such as clicks and conversions, for ad text messaging, keywords, match types, budgets, cost per clicks and web addresses, and then hone your campaigns accordingly.

9. Stay relevant. Don't just change your campaign based on test results; also stay responsive to product, seasonal, industry and competitor changes. For example, don't miss sales opportunities during and after the holiday shopping season. Prepare for the increased traffic to your ads, and make sure your budget doesn't run out before you reach all the customers you want. Update your ad text as well; when people search to buy "coffee machines" or "coffee bean gift boxes," be sure your ads mention benefits like "avoid the crowds" and promotions like "last-minute delivery," "free gift wrapping" or "delivered to your home or office."

10. Utilize all the available features. Many programs provide "help center" resources that are easily available online and up to date in order to help you learn everything you need to know to boost your campaign performance. These help centers provide tools and features that help you:

  • Choose content websites to show your ads on.
  • Let your cost-per-click bids be automatically adjusted based on your budget.
  • See what searches your ads are appearing on.
  • Draw a customized geographic region whose users you want to reach.
  • Show image ads.

Don't forget that your search advertising campaign's success depends to a large degree on how effectively you plan, create and maintain it. You're not paying for a billboard on the side of the highway--you're investing in a tool that can reach your potential customers when and where they're ready to buy.

Sheryl Sandberg is Google's vice president of global online sales & operations. In this role, Sheryl's responsible for overseeing online sales of Google's advertising and publishing products.