The digital path to purchase

As new research shows mobile devices and social media becoming more dominant in search strategies, it is critical that marketers have the budgets to keep up to date with developments in search technology.

road

The tentacles of social networks and mobile platforms are continuing to infiltrate more and more areas of marketing and according to new research done by Marketing Week, marketers believe they are now becoming priorities for their search strategies too.

The attention devoted to social media and mobile devices – two areas that would barely have been associated with search marketing five years ago – show the growing importance of understanding the different journeys that consumers take towards making purchases.

Asked which websites they consider important for search, marketers put Facebook second, with 38 per cent of respondents mentioning the social network. Only Google garners more responses, with 99 per cent of the 307 marketers who answered the survey citing it as important. Other search engines rank far below, with Bing and Yahoo! on 27 and 23 per cent respectively.

Continued integration

One marketing manager from a professional services company says in answer to the survey: “The continued integration of search and social has to have an effect. Which social networks have the greatest influence remains to be seen. I think it will depend on their willingness to co-operate with each other, or more specifically with Google and Microsoft – but mainly Google.”

What aspects of search marketing do you believe are most effective for delivering ROI
What aspects of search marketing do you believe are most effective for delivering ROI – see topright for a clickable version

At present, content shared on social networks probably does not rank as highly as it naturally would in search results, since some search engines are restricted from crawling certain social sites.

For example, an exclusive partnership means that Microsoft’s search engine Bing – and Yahoo!, whose search results it powers – can crawl more content on Facebook than Google can.

One survey respondent, a digital marketing manager at a large car manufacturer, says “accessing Facebook content” will be the most important factor in that company’s search marketing strategy in the coming year. Another, a marketing director at a publishing company, says the department will be forced to respond to “changing search habits, as more people use social networks as their primary search platform”.

Twitter data has also been used in the past to provide real-time search results, but it has since turned off its data ‘firehose’, which gave search engines access to tweets as they were posted.

Shared content

Marketers appear to sense that social media sharing could push certain content higher in search results, however, as shared content receives more links and page views.

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Which search engines do you consider to b important for search marketing – see top right for a clickable person

But even though Google has artificially raised the search rankings of content shared on its own Google+ social network through its ‘search plus your world’ initiative, Google+ is still given little credence in search marketing. It ranks as only the fourth most important social network, according to Marketing Week’s survey respondents. Only 37 per cent cite it as influential, compared with 74 per cent for Facebook, 70 per cent for Twitter and 39 per cent for LinkedIn.

Marketers also put mobile optimisation high on their list of search priorities, with 36 per cent saying it is among the most effective search-related activities for delivering return on investment. That makes it the third-most valued search marketing technique on a varied list. Only organic search engine optimisation (SEO) and paid search ads, which are the two most basic and established elements of search marketing, are considered effective by a greater number of marketers.

Indeed, one survey respondent from a media agency suggests that “search for mobile and having a mobile optimised web page” will be the most important factors influencing search marketing strategies over the next year. That person predicts: “The most common way of going online by 2014 will be from mobile.”

Mobile-optimisation

table
What is search marketing effective at doing in general – see top right for a clickable version
Key

The implications of consumers’ changing browsing habits are that the possible journeys towards both online and offline purchases are many and varied. The search terms that consumers use and the content they reach through search are both being increasingly influenced by social media sharing.

Meanwhile, mobile search is introducing more elements of time-sensitivity and location targeting as people use it to fulfil an immediate need. More websites are becoming mobile-optimised in response to the growth of mobile browser use.

As a digital agency director states, “multidevice, multichannel attribution” is becoming increasingly important, suggesting that companies need to understand how sales can be attributed to the awareness and interest generated over several different contact points that customers have with a brand. This could move the industry away from ‘last-click’ attribution, where each sale is credited to the last link clicked by the customer, which takes them to the website where they make the purchase.

Yet marketers also acknowledge that search through desktop search engine websites still provides the majority of web traffic. While that remains the case, brands will continue to be sensitive to any small changes in longer-established search disciplines, such as search advertising and SEO. Such changes are frequent, thanks to the constant evolution of search algorithms and search ad formats. Google’s pending replacement of shopping search results with product ads is one upcoming example.

Search budgets

It is no surprise that marketers keep close tabs on refinements in search engine technology, since half say that search is very important to the competitiveness of their business, and 87 per cent say it is at least somewhat important. Only 8 per cent say it is not very or not at all important and the other 5 per cent are neutral or don’t know.

table
Which social networks have the biggest influence on search marketing through sharing of content – see top right for a clickable version

Moreover, three-quarters of the survey’s respondents say that the search budgets they work with have increased in the past year. As a result, it appears brands are devoting increasing resources to understanding the intricacies of search marketing. Another reason for this could be that companies that don’t invest as much as their competitors in keeping up to date with search technology can quickly fall down the search engine ranking pages.

pie chart

As a marketing manager for a DIY company puts it: “The more competitors do it, the less effective it is for us.”

But one chief marketing officer in the technology sector suggests that, even with investment going up, it is becoming harder to understand how to optimise a website to account for changes to search algorithms.

“I believe search will develop through services like Google’s content network to become increasingly context-based, moving away from direct search terms. I also think Google will make SEO more complicated and obscure. This will lead to organic search decreasing, and companies having to use more paid search advertising to keep the same level of traffic to their website.”

For all the ongoing changes in search marketing, marketers don’t appear to believe its purpose has changed much. By far its greatest advantage is its ability to increase traffic to a website, marketers say, with 70 per cent stating that it is very effective at doing this. No more than half of the survey respondents say search marketing is as effective at achieving any other objective, although around 90 per cent say it is at least somewhat effective at increasing sales and brand awareness, and at supporting other marketing activities.

Yet marketers believe search marketing remains relatively weak at improving brand perception and customer experience. Only 21 per cent say it is very effective at the former and 16 per cent at the latter, although around two-thirds say it is at least somewhat effective at both. As marketers put more of their efforts into comprehending the new digital journeys of consumers, these are areas that they might need to give more attention.

About this survey

This research was carried out in August 2012 among readers of Marketing Week and visitors to our website, MarketingWeek.co.uk.

Of the respondents, 29 per cent work in an organisation with more than 1,000 employees, 25 per cent work for organisations with between 101 and 500 employees, while 25 per cent work in companies with between one and 50 employees.

Marketers from a variety of sectors responded to this survey – 9 per cent are from financial companies, 9 per cent are from media companies and 7 per cent from travel and leisure companies.

All results have been rounded up or down to the nearest full percentage point. Not all tables add up to 100, as more than one answer may be given.

How important is search to your competitiveness?

Very important 50%

Somewhat important 37%

Not very important 5%

Not at all important 3%

Neutral/don’t know 5%

Key findings

Facebook is considered the second-most influential website for search, named as important by 38 per cent of marketers. Google is top on 99 per cent.

After organic search and paid search advertising, mobile-optimised search is named as the third-most effective search marketing technique, with 36 per cent saying it delivers return on investment.

Google+ is only considered the fourth-most important social network for search marketing, with 37 per cent of marketers saying it is influential. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all rank higher.

Search marketing is considered most useful for increasing web traffic, with 70 per cent saying it is very effective. It is less good at improving customer experience or brand perception, but a majority still say it is at least somewhat effective.

Sponsored viewpoint

Chris from Kenshoo
kenshoo

Chris Ward
Managing director EMEA
Kenshoo

Though a mature channel, search marketing is growing at an incredible pace. According to a study by eMarketer, search marketing still receives the highest ad spend of all online channels. This year, in the UK alone, search spend is expected to increase by 10 per cent from 2011.

At Kenshoo we have seen clients growing their paid search ad spend by 12 per cent over the first six months of 2012. These figures demonstrate that more brands are generating results from search marketing and are endeavouring to capture more return on their investment.

As search is evolving, it’s becoming more complicated and competitive. There’s a real thirst for knowledge as marketers look for the best bidding methodology, a deeper understanding of the customer’s path to conversion, or the most effective attribution model to apply.

For marketers, it can be difficult to keep abreast of emerging paid search formats, such as product listing ads (PLAs) for Google Shopping, Bing Local and Google’s ‘call extensions’, as well as advanced bid optimisation algorithms for Google, Yahoo, Bing, Baidu and Yahoo! Japan.

While it’s important to stay on top of the latest innovations, it’s also critical that these emerging ad formats are managed in a bespoke manner, as they have different nuances when it comes to consumer targeting, bid management, cross-channel attribution and campaign optimisation.

Technology solves many of these complexities. Let’s take a brand selling thousands of products. For them, a search marketing campaign could have hundreds of thousands, even millions, of keywords active at any one time. Managing these at scale and making sure the proper inventory is advertised can be near impossible if managed manually. However, an advanced technology platform can automate the creation, reporting, management and bid optimisation processes, freeing up more time for marketers to invest in strategy.

Furthermore, sophisticated technology can also enable integration with third-party data sources relating to search engine optimisation, social media and display advertising. This allows for tracking and analysis of a customer’s path to purchase, and overall optimisation of how that journey is made. For example, Accor Hotels increased search revenue by 82 per cent using Kenshoo’s attribution model to gain better insights into the performance of the channel.

Moving forward, technology will continue to evolve at breakneck speed and empower search marketers to be smarter and faster and, most importantly, continue to generate strong results.

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