Search has become so deeply ingrained into the daily behaviour of consumers and marketers that it’s hard to believe Google itself is not even 12 years old. And because search is regarded as an extremely cost-effective marketing channel, it’s no surprise that budgets have held up – and even grown – in the economic downturn.
“There is no change in search’s effectiveness and advantage over other media – it is targeting people who are actively looking for what you are selling,” comments Andreas Pouros, chief operating officer of search specialist Greenlight. “What is changing is that search is becoming more complex and interesting.”
Major brands now manage hundreds of thousands of keywords, spending millions of pounds. “Search makes up the largest share of online ad spend for most brands and it’s set to grow further this year,” comments Marin Software European managing director Ed Stevenson. “Once you’re spending a major portion of your budget on something and it’s impacting sales, you become acutely aware of the need to manage it effectively.”
Standing out in this market is a big challenge – the established method is a balance of paid and natural search. “We generally recommend a blend of pay per click (PPC) and search engine optimisation (SEO),” says Sarah Groves, associate digital director at integrated digital agency Cognition Digital. “PPC visibility is instant and fully trackable, enabling marketers to assess the best-performing keywords and prioritise them for SEO. It takes time and investment.”
All you need to know about search
- What is search engine marketing? The process that aims to get a website listed prominently in search results through search engine optimisation, sponsored search and paid inclusion.
- What is PPC/pay per click? Advertisers bid for placement in the paid search results for search terms that are relevant to their business. The advertiser pays the bid amount only when a consumer clicks on its listing.
- What is SEO/search engine optimisation? The process of optimising a website so it will appear prominently within search engines’ organic – algorithmic, spidered – search results.
- What is click-through? The moment when a user interacts with an advertisement and clicks through to the advertiser’s website.
- What is a landing page/jump page? The page or view to which a user is directed when they click on an active link.
- What is ad ranking? In internet marketing, this is the position of a pay-per-click ad on a search engine results page (SERP).
- What are the progressive approaches in search? Mobile search, social media, universal search, semantic search.
PPC has become tougher over the past couple of years. Price rises have hit hard, particularly in finance and travel, where rates can reach £20 a click. Increased competition and factors such as Google removing trademark protection have driven up PPC costs, in some instances totally changing the way clients use paid search.
However, PPC’s ability to deliver traffic means it remains central to search marketing strategies, especially when used in combination with the fixed-price model of SEO. “PPC should not be ruled out,” says Chris Michael, director of user experience at digital agency Crayon. “When SEO and PPC work together, you can get much higher brand awareness and traffic. The trick with PPC is to optimise landing pages and user journeys, so the traffic you’ve paid for actually converts.”
Meanwhile, the demand for strong natural search performance has typically become a non-negotiable part of marketing strategy. There are many drivers behind the rise in natural search, including the general increase in awareness of search engine marketing as a whole and the appeal of “free traffic” in tough times.
“Search is a fascinating place at the moment,” says I Spy Marketing head of paid search Chris Speed. “Advertisers are becoming smarter about search as a marketing medium and the convergence of social media with paid and natural search has added another dimension.”
Trending topics for social searchers
Search is now bound up with channels of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. As search engines incorporate more real-time data in their results, social media is increasingly relevant.
A Twitter scrolling bar on organic search listings can provide automatic updates that allow searchers to keep up to date with events as they happen, giving brands a new challenge. “One of the things search engines have tried to incorporate is real-time search results,” explains Tom Morphy, a digital consultant working for The Coca-Cola Company. “If a new report is out on sugar levels in soft drinks and someone writes something on Twitter about our brand, we want our Twitter feed to be visible in the results.”
Another growing area for Coca-Cola is video. Content networks are still an effective way to increase brand exposure, at a relatively low cost per click. “We can optimise Coca-Cola’s videos in the YouTube channels, so when people search on the brand they will find something we control,” says Morphy. “If you don’t optimise your web assets, other people’s take on your brand will be more visible.”
Mobile search is growing faster than brands’ investment in it, providing benefits for those who want a relatively unknown channel where consumer behaviour differs. Car hire brand Avis has run mobile campaigns on Google from inception. “The BA strikes and the volcanic ash cloud produced a rapid increase in activity on our mobile campaigns,” says head of direct marketing and ecommerce for Avis Europe Xavier Vallee. “It was a good reminder of the highly contextual nature of mobile search. When a stranded UK mobile user searches in France for availability at the nearest Avis office, we want to deliver the most useful response for that specific situation.”
For marketers, search is arguably on the cusp of real changes. Mobile search is set to become more important, while retargeting, social media, cross-channel tracking and the wave of AdWords features emerging from Google all bring new complexity, as well as new opportunities.
The deciding difference
Faced with a dominant Google, other players are trying new approaches. Microsoft’s search engine Bing, the “decision engine”, will keep Google on its toes, says Duncan Parry, head of paid search at digital media agency Steak. “If Bing can innovate, it can gain market share – and crucially loyalty – for some types of search,” he says. “Consumers want solutions, and if Bing can associate a good experience with its brand, it will gain, just as Google associated its brand with finding what you want on an uncluttered page, at AltaVista’s expense.”
Yahoo!, in its partnership with Microsoft to deliver Bing, is capitalising on a demand for relevant traffic. “Google has huge volume, but this is an alternative that delivers quality traffic with high conversion,” argues Andy Jones, UK head of account management for field sales. “We have listened to advertisers and agencies and made sure we are improving the conversion rate.”
As companies experiment with new interfaces and dimensions to search, Forrester Research analyst Nate Elliott sounds a note of caution about the growing complexity. “Things like mobile search will be important, but marketers must stick to the basics: worry about how to work Google’s online search, bid effectively, optimise your landing page and your conversion funnel.”
IN THE MARKET
10 Suppliers You Need To Know
The agency offers a range of PPC, SEO and social media expertise for clients including British Airways. www.bigmouthmedia.com
Putting both search and social media at the core of its business, icrossing specialises in PPC, SEO services and social media campaigns. www.icrossing.co.uk
Focuses on increasing profits and sales through better visibility and cost efficiency, in paid and natural search results. www.greenlightsearch.com
With clients including Virgin Holidays and eBay, the agency claims to be a pioneer in “3D” or integrated search solutions. www.forward3d.co.uk
Offers the whole range of digital marketing services with strengths in PPC and SEO search models. Clients include Flowers Direct and The Independent. www.latitudegroup.com
Specialist paid search marketing agency Jellyfish works for clients including Skype, Which? and IWOOT (iwantoneofthose.com) www.jellyfish.co.uk
A full service digital agency, specialising in all that is online, uniquedigital’s key clients include Avis, T-mobile, BSkyB and comdirect.
Founded in 1998, Stickyeyes specialises in PPC and SEO and has a strong heritage in search marketing. www.stickyeyes.com
The agency offers expertise in natural search engine optimisation with conversion-driven design and social media to generate more online sales for businesses. www.tamar.com
Steak’s full-service repertoire includes search marketing, display advertising, digital design, social media, affiliate management and mobile marketing. www.steakdigital.co.uk
Source/ New Media Age Marketing Services Guide 2010
- How many searches does the population make? The UK population are the fourth-most prolific ’searchers’ in the world, with over 6.2 billion searches taking place in December 2009.
- How does that measure up against the world total? There are more than 130 billion searches per month worldwide.
- How much does Google dominate? 97% of companies pay to advertise on Google AdWords. Google accounted for 91.2% of UK searches in April 2010; Bing for 7.97%; Yahoo! took 2.45%.
- What proportion of people go shopping online? 80% of internet users are now accessing online retail sites.
- What popular searches are growing? In 2009, searches for “restaurant vouchers” grew by 250% in the UK.
- What are shoppers searching for and why? Over half (51%) of consumers use the internet before making a purchase in shops, researching the best deals available.
- Where are people searching? YouTube is the second-largest search engine globally. It is estimated that there were 17 billion search queries on YouTube in August 2009.
(compiled from ComScore, IAB and Google Insights, econsultancy, Hitwise)
Neil McKay – CEO Lakestar Media
Marketers still want to be found at the top of the search listings; what has changed is how they ensure that happens. A few years ago, marketers focused on organic and paid search. Now, with Google’s Universal Search kicking in, there is a lot more for marketers and agencies to think about; things such as news, product feeds, video and social media.
Organic search visibility has always been what marketers want most. It delivers sustainable, long-term benefits and the highest return on investment. But paid search supports organic and in some sectors it’s essential. For example, if organic search isn’t performing well at a crucial time, you can turn to paid to be at the top of the listings. The other benefit of paid is that you can optimise search creative immediately, which gives you more flexibility to get instant results.
The line between social media and search is becoming blurred. The impact of social media can be seen in real-time search, it also works well when you have promotions or giveaways. But businesses are still finding it difficult to make this a high ROI activity.
It’s the same with mobile search. I think we’ll be waiting a little longer for it to be mobile’s year, but brands such as Yelp enjoy huge success and we see the most potential with similar location-based mobile search apps. Everybody wants to know about mobile because they don’t want to miss out, but the highest ROI for most clients is still focused around paid and organic search campaigns.
In the meantime, I expect spending on search to continue to grow/ people are spending more to get the top converting places in the listings and are reducing their lower converting – often offline spend. Marketers are also becoming more sophisticated, focusing on long-tail keywords where costs are lower and intent is greater.
Google is aiding this with its Search Funnels technology, which enables AdWords users to see beyond the last click in paid search and see all keywords that contributed to a conversion. Click attribution has been around for years, but it is becoming much more important judging by client requirements. Search marketers have very few excuses now, because the tools they need are in place.
What does the next year hold?
Chair of the IPA Search Group and digital media director, Golley Slater
“There is so much more for search agencies to consider now and in the coming months. It is not just about pure search any more – rather it is about content, reputation management and social media. Search is more likely to be integrated in future.
“Attribution models for search marketing will become a hot topic over the next year. We will also be looking closely at the Yahoo!/Microsoft deal and the moves that Facebook is making with its entrance into the pay-per-click field and the opening of its application programming interface.”
Senior product manager, Bing UK
“In the past 12 months, search has taken a leap forward from its role as a blue-link web directory, to become a more multimedia-integrated service connecting consumers with what they want, when and how they want it.
“Technological advances and the population’s growing internet sophistication are influencing the future of search. Several themes are emerging this year that have been incorporated into some of the search engines, including real-time, semantic, visual or spatial searching.
“Although the plethora of “search buzzwords” can seem very confusing, at Bing we simplify this into three pillars/ firstly, improved results based on searcher’s intent; secondly, a more engaging, visual experience; and thirdly, helping searchers accomplish key tasks. The challenge is to interpret meaning from one to three keywords and deliver a search experience exceeding user expectations.
“As this becomes more predictable over time, we will also see new ways to engage consumers through search engine marketing and optimisation. We expect the fast pace of innovation to continue, so watch this space.”
Head of search, Carat
“Search marketers face three distinct challenges, from both Google’s drive for relevancy and from the Yahoo!/Bing partnership. Firstly full development of integrated information sets, such as the blending of images, video and real-time news by Google, and Bing’s drive to give users what they are looking for, such as the contact phone number in the results page may reduce click-through rates on paid adverts and natural search results.
“Aggregated data sets will become an everyday part of search campaigns to improve understanding of return on investment beyond keyword buys, including behavioural and demographic data. Yahoo!’s introduction of such data gives us a flavour of where this is going.”
Industry leader, Google UK
“In online retail there are four key themes we think will shape developments in search in 2011.
The first is mobile. The rate at which consumers are adopting smartphones and internet-enabled devices is growing exponentially, and we anticipate that 2011 will continue to be about large-scale consumer adoption of these devices. As more consumers engage with m-commerce, the challenge for content providers will be to increase and improve their mobile media offerings.
“Social will be another powerful trend. A good example is the retailer Best Buy, which has embraced a full complement of social networking/ forums, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Social will play an increasing role over the next 12 months. Whether that is in businesses looking to connect directly with their customers, or consumers seeking a more personalised experience in searches that reflect user interaction and contributions.
“International and “always-on” are the two other trends we feel will help shape search for 2011. Ensuring that you are ’always-on’ or fully discoverable online, and able to bring your assets to an international audience are going to be more significant in ecommerce. The low price of the pound is likely to make the prospect of international sales from the UK attractive in a wider, global market.”
Head of industry programmes, IAB
“The internet is suddenly a mainstay of mobiles and a far richer experience on computers, driving radical search evolution both in its use and for marketing. The likes of images, videos, maps and ecommerce in search results – known as Universal Search – are becoming as important, if not more so, than plain text links. Search is also accommodating rapidly updated and more disposable social media content. It’s increasingly obvious that social media has thrown the spotlight back onto search engine optimisation this year as marketers try to utilise online communities to maximise cost efficiencies. Advertisers also need to understand how social properties like Facebook and Twitter are search engines too, all forcing search agencies to become ’social media specialists’, which is luckily a natural fit.”
Head of traffic, LOVEFiLM.com
“To date, the steps taken to integrate real-time/social search by the likes of Bing and Google have been pretty poor. Simply presenting people with a list of what the last three random strangers have tweeted about Product X doesn’t really help people find what they are looking for. To fix this, I expect to see search engines continuing to experiment with how they integrate social and search – they’ve clearly got their work cut out trying to get the balance between recency and relevancy right.
“The coming year is also sure to see search engines and social networks rolling out further and smarter personalisation of search results.”
Top tips you need to know
- Remember the core values of search. Relevancy is key. If you cannot create a relevant user journey from query to conversion, you are wasting money.
- Understand your customer. If you can understand their behaviour patterns, you can predict how and when they will search.
- Invest in quality landing pages. These will rank in natural search results. If your PPC ads link to them, they will also increase your conversion rates.
- Make sure your search campaigns reflect the seasonality of search behaviour. For example, people search online for summer clothes most in May.
- Use the tools available. Site links, ad scheduling and geotargeting should be the bread and butter of a campaign in order to target the right people and attract relevant traffic to the site.
- Make the most of video. Content networks such as YouTube are still an effective way to increase brand exposure, at a relatively low cost per click.
- Create as much good, unique content on your pages as possible. This is one of the key contributors to better rankings in the search engines.