Why search remains marketers’ favourite channel

Marketers rate search engine optimisation as the best channel for return on investment, but they can’t be complacent as search is constantly changing, most recently through Google’s new algorithm update favouring mobile-optimised sites.

‘Mobilegeddon’ was the rather dramatic term doing the rounds with digital specialists last month as Google launched a major update to its search algorithm, favouring mobile optimised sites in results rankings.

The change, which rolled out on 21 April, has huge implications for all companies that depend on search engine optimisation (SEO) to attract new customers and drive their business. Put simply, sites risk falling sharply down the rankings if they fail to meet Google’s ‘mobile-friendly’ criteria.

It is too early to know the full impact of the algorithm change, but initial research suggests it will have far-reaching consequences for a huge range of brands. A study of a sample of American websites by SEO firm Searchmetrics shortly after the update went live found that sites including Reddit, NBC Sports and Walmart’s corporate website were among those suffering the biggest falls in mobile search visibility, while the Washington Times, Newsweek and HitFix were among the biggest risers.

“With mobile there has been a real lack of investment to date and that needs to change. Hopefully this [algorithm update] will help to spur that”

Peter Fitzgerald, Google

Google has justified the change by noting that a rising proportion of searches are taking place on mobile, with the figure surpassing 50% towards the end of last year. UK country sales director Peter Fitzgerald argues that given the speed of change, brands are struggling to adapt and improve their mobile sites accordingly.

“I remember about 10 years ago, a lot of businesses were struggling to invest in a really strong transactional website,” he says. “Among retailers there was an attitude of ‘I’m not sure if this investment is going to pay off’. With mobile there has [also] been a real lack of investment to date and that needs to change. Hopefully this [algorithm update] will help to spur that.”

Despite the upheaval caused by ‘mobilegeddon’, search remains an essential facet of most digital marketing strategies and a tool upon which marketers rely to drive return on investment (ROI). A report by Econsultancy, published in March, found that marketers regard SEO as the best channel for delivering ROI, while paid search was considered the third most effective behind email marketing.

This preference is largely due to search’s role as a lead generation tool that allows marketers to track the impact of their spend on online traffic and conversions. New research by Google seeks to prove the value of the channel even further by drawing a direct correlation between brands’ investment in pay-per-click (PPC) search marketing and offline, in-store sales.

The company is working with several brands globally on the research, including electronics retailer Dixons Carphone in the UK. Last year Google partnered with the brand to create a ‘ROPO’ (research online, purchase offline) study that involved compiling two years’ worth of the retailer’s sales and media spend data with Google’s own search spend data.

Using this data set, the two companies built a regression analysis statistical model to establish the relationship between the media spend and in-store sales. This found that for every one online sale achieved through paid search, Dixons Carphone achieved three offline sales.

Head of digital marketing Matt Turner says the study is the first time that the retailer has homed in on the relationship between search spend and offline sales in a quantifiable way. He claims the strong ROI highlighted in the report “gives us the justification to spend more in the channel” and “the remit to think about the channel in a different way”.

“It helps us break out of the direct response mindset which is very typical in paid search and the rest of digital for that matter,” Turner continues. “In performance digital, the mindset is often ‘somebody clicks, they go to a website and then they purchase’ – but the impact is much broader than that.

Google’s search algorithim update favours mobile-optimised sites in results rankings and that will have big implications for companies

“It can be a brand medium and an awareness medium and I think the sort of relationship that we’ve pulled out of this study gives a lot more credibility to that view.”

Turner says that as a consequence of the study’s findings, Dixons Carphone is inclined to devote more investment to paid search on mobile in particular. This could include bidding more for localised PPC keywords aimed at people searching for products or deals in a particular location.

“Mobile tends to be more of a research and consideration channel for us than a purchase channel,” he notes. “This ROPO study allows us to invest in the mobile space in a much more significant way than we would have previously because the return on investment that we’re expecting to see isn’t just from people converting on mobile devices – it’s also from people that walk into a store and convert there.”

Despite this justification for more investment in paid search, Dixons Carphone also aims to make organic SEO a more prominent part of its digital marketing mix. Six months ago the company opted to end its PPC spending on its brand name.

This resulted in a “huge saving”, Turner says, and did not adversely affect the brand’s search ranking thanks to its size and status in the marketplace and the lack of competitive bidding on the brand name from other parties. Instead the company has devoted more resources to SEO, including its content generation and social media strategy.

According to Turner, this organic search strategy enabled Dixons Carphone to appear in the top three Google search rankings for the new Samsung Galaxy S6 phone in the month leading up to its launch last month. “It’s down to having a good outreach programme – which means good blogger outreach, good communication and integration with our PR team and definitely spending a lot more time in the content space, both on our Lowdown site, which is the content space for the brand, and in the social space,” he says.

Carpet retailer Carpetright is similarly seeking to save money in its search marketing strategy by carefully balancing paid search against SEO. The company uses Forecaster, a performance marketing platform from agency Summit, which uses a wide mix of data – including media spend, sales, promotions and even weather data – to determine when it should invest in particular keywords.

“We can set a limit to say ‘this is how much we want to spend’ if we want to and it will go away and optimise that and spend the money on the keywords that give us most ROI,” claims Simon Holder, digital director at Carpetright.

“So we can say we want to over-index in laminate flooring and build awareness about our laminate flooring [products] and it will work out the best way to get the ROI from the pay-per-click.”

On the SEO side, Carpetright aims to encourage more user-generated content as a means of boosting its ranking across core keywords. This includes embedding Twitter feeds within its website and linking through to customer reviews of its products and services on Trustpilot.

“We are spending a lot of time generating content, both on the site and through our social channels,” confirms Holder. “One reason is that it helps to improve our brand perception and gets customers engaging with us in an emotional way. The other big reason is the SEO benefits that drive people to our site.”

Recent research by online advertising platform Marin Software claims that campaigns that integrate search and social are more effective at driving ROI than search tactics deployed in isolation. It states, for example, that search and social campaigns achieve 26% more revenue per click than search-only campaigns and that advertisers enjoy 68% higher revenue per conversion from joint campaigns.

Matt Lewis, head of digital marketing at Marin client Carwow, a car buying website, agrees that social media has become an increasingly important factor in recent years. He adds, though, that getting the search strategy right is still the most important component of achieving sale conversions.

“Paid search remains an incredibly significant channel, especially for the mature automotive industry,” notes Lewis. “For example, while we see the benefits of spend on social media at the start of a customer’s buying process, the ROI of paid search is apparent more quickly and often leads to the all-important final purchase.”

Why do you marketers frequently rate search as one of the best channels for achieving a strong ROI?

The core advantage of working in search hasn’t changed; every search provides a clear declaration of consumer intent. When somebody does a search, they’re saying ‘I want information about this topic or brand’. There are few other channels available that show customer intent to such a degree. With all the contextual and audience data available to brands, we’re getting better at understanding that intent.

Given that marketing campaigns are becoming increasingly multi-channel and integrated, is it getting harder to show ROI from search?

In the early days of search marketing, businesses could spend huge sums and take a loose approach to ROI as search was less competitive. Fifteen years later, the search space has become more crowded and businesses are more dependent. The stakes have gone up and if you aren’t using the right tools and data effectively, you can’t compete. With a strong multi-channel and cross-platform view of the customer conversion path, ROI is not only easier to demonstrate but incremental ROI can be understood as contribution to the overall mix. We’re at a stage where we’re having discussions with businesses to define their through-the-line strategy.

Should mobile play a more vital role in how marketers think about their search strategies? How can brands optimise their search marketing for mobile?

People are searching more than ever and much of that growth is on mobile devices. Emerging use cases like showrooming, multi-screen viewing and perpetual connectivity mean we’re not just addressing the growth of mobile but the much larger issue of how customer behaviour is changing. Understanding your audience is essential in search. When we won best mobile campaign at the European Search Awards with Addison Lee, it involved combining a hyper-local paid search campaign with real-time customer data in order to optimise the search investment throughout the customer journey. This led to more effective mobile search results as well as informing their app strategy. Google’s algorithm change last month was another wake-up call for the industry about the importance of having a clear mobile strategy. By using data to create the right content strategy for the right audience, brands can improve not just their search performance, but all aspects of their marketing.

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