Searching for the right image

Search marketing is about more than just pay-per-click, it can be used to provide valuable insights into customers’ perceptions of a business, and can help develop a brand identity. By Martin Croft.

Search marketing has become a vital component in the marketing mix, and marketers must wake up to the fact that if they are not spending money on search marketing, then they will be losing internet traffic and sales to their rivals.

Search has become a hugely important part of direct marketing: it has brought down the cost of acquiring leads and sales to levels where even the smallest of companies can afford to run a cost-effective campaign. And it offers the added bonus that response rates can be tracked far more accurately than with offline media.

According to Guy Phillipson, chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau, UK marketers spent an estimated £1.1bn on search marketing in 2006. That just covers pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, where marketers bid for keywords so Web users get directed to their sites first. It does not include search optimisation, a complex discipline that combines science and art to make sites easy to find on the Web.

Marketers who have been using search are realising that it is not just a direct-response mechanism. They are increasingly exploring its value as a branding tool, too.

The search experience
But if marketers are to exploit the brand building possibilities of search marketing to their fullest, then they must try to understand as much as possible how their customers use search, and what actions they are likely to take as a result of search results. Furthermore, they have to try to understand how the search experience affects how consumers view their brands.

At the simplest level, they have to realise that if they have no online spend, they are allowing their rivals to do what they like.

They also need to understand that the rise of blogging and shopping comparison sites (complete with consumer-generated comment and reviews of products and services) has opened up a whole new area of searching.

Joel Davis is head of European and Asia Pacific marketing at online recruitment site eFinancialcareers.com. He says/ “Unlike a website where the brand tries to control the user journey, search is much more user defined. Understanding how and why users find sites will help brands develop more user-centric site designs.”

Grant Whiteside, technical director of search agency Ambergreen, says: “How brands are perceived in response to a search query is critical to the overall reputation of that brand both in an offline and online environment. The internet has created a medium where media messages and reputation are no longer entirely within the control of the brand owners or the agency appointed in charge.”

Delivering promises
Jonathan Lines of DBD Media argues: “Brand building through search is very effective. The consumer is looking for a ‘brand promise’. They are saying: ‘I want a cheap holiday, a high quality stereo…’ They are looking for a brand that can deliver against a desire they already have.”

Once marketers have explored the different ways that consumers are using their brand names, trademarks and sector-relevant terms in searching generally, experts say that they also need to look more closely at the search terms that the people who arrived at their websites used to get there.

Lucy Stafford, media director at independent media agency Tri-Direct, says: “It is important to discover the keywords people associate with your brands which you may not have considered.”

Tri-Direct advises clients to include a search facility on their sites – not just because it makes the site easier to use for visitors but because it allows marketers to capture data on the keywords that site visitors are using.

Learn the language
Stafford says: “We’d always recommend an onsite search facility because Web analytics tools can help you understand the kind of search terms people may be trying to look for as a result of your marketing activity but which may not be the brand terms you had in mind – this will reveal any discord and you can adjust your communications accordingly.”

Stafford adds: “Various tools – Web analytics for one – can be used to help understand how people reach your site from search, and the keywords they use. Search engines also provide tools to allow you to assess the number of times certain keywords are searched for over a given time period. They will help advertisers to build trend reports of the brand terms and their impact over time. Analysing this data in light of the creative messages also helps us gain some insight into which PPC message works best for certain types of keyword.” In other words, “are certain branded keywords more effective when users are shown an offer-led PPC message, and if so what does this say about the target market that has responded to that particular brand term?”Analysing the entire user journey, and not just the actual •search•part of it, will also help marketers adapt their keyword buying strategy – particularly important now the major search engines are able to offer demographic information and even the ability to buy keywords in half-hour chunks. That means marketers can target their PPC buys around the showing of a relevant television ad or programme, for example, and then track response rates and conversions.

Research the search
Conrad Bennett, technical services director of Web analytics company WebTrends, believes that interpreting data about what users search for and what they do online is a key activity. For example, he says, some clients may concentrate their spend on optimising their websites for natural search when in fact they would be better advised to spend on buying keywords.

Furthermore, clients who think that site visitors get there by typing in the URL are in for a rude awakening. Bennett says: “People don’t tend to remember URLs. They will have a couple of guesses at what they think it should be, then they will resort to Google.”

Knowing whether people searched for a site or if they arrived direct (probably via a bookmark) is important, Bennett says, because different types of visitors will behave in different ways once at the site.

Andy Bellinger of content management provider RedDot Solutions argues/ “It is not enough for companies to simply provide all visitors with generic information on their website. Customers are much more savvy, and they know exactly what it is they are after – if they can’t find it, they are most likely to leave your site for something more accessible.”

Stimulating action
Successful use of search marketing does not stop with getting someone to visit a website: it must also include efforts to ensure they stay there as long as possible, and to convert the visit into an action (a sale, a request for a brochure, signing up to an e-mail newsletter or providing personal details).

Matthew Tod, chief executive of e-commerce optimisation consultancy Logan Tod & Co observes: “What is the point in being the top result in a Google search if websites aren’t friendly to users once they get there?”Research conducted by Logan Tod recently found that 60% of websites are effectively being dismissed by visitors as time-wasters: on average, these sites will lose more than 20% of visitors after they have looked at just one page – one of the sites surveyed was losing 47% of visitors immediately.

Tod says that marketers must study consumer behaviour beyond the initial click. He also advises measuring the behaviour of specific groups of searchers. Finally, Tod says, marketers need to be implementing and testing effective landing pages to engage visitors with the site from the start.

Janak Mistry, general manager at online marketing consultancy NetBooster, says that marketers have to ask themselves a number of simple questions: “Once [searchers] click on a search listing and visit the brand’s website, does the information presented to them meet their expectations? Is the website easy to use, reliable and genuine? For the user, when undertaking searches it’s all about the experience and consistency of the results: of course, if the offer matches their expectations and it comes from a trusted brand, they are going to buy.”

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