As we are constantly being reminded, the internet has revolutionised our places of work, how we shop and how we consume our media. Whether we want to find the answer to an obscure question, information on a prospective holiday destination or the price of a product, the Net is an easy way to access information.
And more often than not, our first port of call is a search engine. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), 80% of internet users key in a company name in a search engine even if we know the URL of that company. Think about it – you do it too.
Those who don’t remember a URL search the brand, while many are just lazy and go straight to a search engine. It’s about ease. It’s the consumers’ first stop. The traffic goes through the search engine.
There can be little doubt about the impact of search or the role it plays in the digital marketing mix. The IAB Online Adspend Study, in partnership with Pricewaterhouse Coopers, shows that paid-for search took 57.8% of the £2bn online adspend in 2006 – and that it grew by 52%in the second half of the year.
There has been much activity in the search arena. While Google dominates the UK market with about an 80% share, it is facing increased competition: Microsoft has launched its AdCenter paid-for platform, and Yahoo!’s Panama debut is imminent.
Meanwhile, in this year’s NMA Marketing Services Guide, The Search Works topped the search agency rankings, posting a turnover of £50m – a massive 150% rise on the previous year. Search is big business and all brands know they have to be in on the act.
Of course search is not just about “sponsored” or “paid-for” links – there are the natural or organic listings that are displayed on the left side and bulk of the screen. And as IAB chief executive Guy Philipson says/ “Pay-per-click (PPC) and natural search are two very different sciences. And it’s important to be doing well in both.”
Paid-for – PPC – advertising is cost-effective and although around 85% of searchers use natural listings, brands cannot afford to ignore paid-for search links. For instance, if a consumer has decided to buy a new MP3 player and done research, he or she already knows the preferred brand. Thus it is essential that you get your brand in the top three of sponsored links, especially if you are a rival.
Therefore, on searches for an iPod, say, ideally Sony and its Walkman brand needs to have a visible presence in sponsored links.
However, many marketers still struggle to get the most from paid and organic search. So how do brands cross the divide between the two disciplines? Chris Salmanpour, search strategy manager for Microsoft UK, says: “We always tell advertisers that PPC and natural listings complement each other. They have the control – and two lists are always better than one.”
Pete Ballard at user experience agency Foolproof says: “Search optimisation is so important. No one searches beyond the first page. You’ve got to be there and fourth or fifth place on Google…”
And he warns: “Only a third of search terms are specific. Their position is inflated by others as the more people that click on the link, the more relevant it’s considered.”
Green Cathedral managing director Paul O’Donoghue says: “You have to educate marketers – and their agencies – on how to use natural search to drive PPC. Also, understand what people are looking for when they search. You can have huge influence on PPC by looking at what people are searching for and the terms that influence an action in natural search.”
But he cautions: “It’s important not to be paying for the same terms that are driving natural search. Marketers need to stop using PPC as a quick fix. They must understand consumers’ search actions online.”
Jonathan Brech, managing director of Internet Search Management, aims to bring next generation internet search technology to the profession by setting up a professional level of understanding and monitoring. He believes that too many clients are confused about the data they are given, while too many planning agencies do not pay enough attention to paid and natural working in tandem.
“There is often the situation where paid-for is farmed out to a specialist agency, yet natural is conducted in house (or vice-versa) and there is little communication between the two teams. It’s vital that marketers pay as much attention to natural rankings as paid search. It’s the practical issue of banging heads together, and sharing learning and insight.”
Matt Mills, director of Unite Search Marketing, the Equi Media Group, says: “Many big media agencies handle PPC yet farm out organic search marketing. As a result there is no synergy. Problems also occur as strategies overlap. Some terms are more efficient in search than paid-for but this is not identifiedas there is no communication.”
Both Mills and Brech argue that getting the most out of paid and organic search is about balance – the balance of insight and using data to identify the efficiency of longer-term organic strategies versus shorter-term paid activity within the context of client needs.
Data, both say, is key. Brech points out: “Affiliates are very good at using data and identifying key words and the opportunities to drive click-through that brands have missed in their paid-search strategies. Many of them are ahead of brands – even pure play [online-only] brands. But you can’t manage what you can’t measure. You have to identify key words and match the data across the paid and natural disciplines.”
He continues: “The skills, though, are very different. You need a set of metrics and framework to understand the opportunities. There’s a lot of paid search going through digital media agencies but they need to be paying more attention to what happens in natural search to optimise the two.”
Mills maintains that PPC is often less efficient but essential – and should not be conducted in isolation. He adds: “The combined effect of the two disciplines is often missed. Research is key. Gather data on consumer behaviour and match keyword strategies to that behaviour.”
He believes that being reactive and evolving is crucial. You have to update your key words constantly and tweak content to ensure you are in the magic triangle at the top of both paid and natural listings.
He advises: “If you’re running an ad campaign, ensure that you have altered your key words to match the creative. For instance, people might type in Hoover but are actually searching vacuum cleaners in general. There has to be more human insight and planning in search, just as there is in more traditional media. Do search agencies have planning directors? Why not? And can we compete effectively without that function?”
Search is constantly evolving and Mills suggests that matching dwell time with key words could soon become a measure marketers need to be looking at.
“Consumers’ behaviour patterns are different when they are researching compared to when they are buying,” he says. “We need to measure which words generate longer dwell time. The majority are not and as a result are losing business.”
Brech concludes that “metrics and data are key to achieving bestsearch strategy” but that too much data is skewed. He says: “You need to track consumers’ journeys and the key words that kicked them off, and cross-reference these with other data, such as with Hitwise, ad agencies and ISPs.
“Too many people throw money at search, with few conversion metrics driving their strategy.”
Success hinges on clever use of key words
Ken McGaffin is chief marketing officer of Wordtracker, which has been working on tracking the key words that work most effectively in search. Here is his advice on how to marry the two search disciplines.
Organic search is difficult and unpredictable, and it can take months before any significant results appear.
Paid search, on the other hand, is easy, predictable and starts producing results immediately.
So it is hardly surprising that traditional marketers are naturally drawn to paid search. The model of paying only when someone clicks on your ad not only makes sense but is also a welcome change from the world where “we know 50% of our advertising is wasted – we just don’t know which 50%”.
The impressive statistics on traffic and conversions available from paid search means that marketers can at last know which 50% is squandered and adjust their campaigns accordingly.
But the comfort accountability in paid search can mask a significant opportunity – getting to grips with the much more difficult world of organic search. Savvy online marketers realise that these two types of search complement each other and as a result are making greater returns on investment by exploiting the synergies between them.
Both search strategies depend on choosing the best key words – the words people use when they search. And clever use of key words is the key to success.
There are two important dynamics. With paid search you decide how much you want to bid on a particular key word and you compete for placement with your competitors who bid on the same key words. (A typical paid campaign will start with a large volume of key words. Test how effective they are at attracting traffic, then test a variety of creative treatments to see how effective they are at converting that traffic.)
With organic search the approach is different. You’ll want to start with key words that you know are popular because the optimisation process is complex. You have to create content around the key words that you choose and optimise your copy.
It can be a time-consuming and expensive business. Your content then needs to be indexed by the search engines and only after a number of weeks can you expect to receive the results.
Successful paid key words should be incorporated into organic search campaigns. That means you should create optimised Web content for those key words. That has the potential to rank well on organic search and reduce your paid search costs on those particular key words. Furthermore, people trust organic results about twice as much as paid results, so your conversion rates should increase as well.
You may also find that some key words attract a lot of traffic but convert poorly. This might mean that people using those words are still doing research and have not yet taken a purchase decision.
While these key words may not give a good return on paid search, they may well attract organic traffic that can be supplied with more content to help them along the sales process. Key words drawn from successful organic campaigns can suggest specific niches and opportunities that paid search tools might have overlooked.
The information gleaned from poring over organic search data is great for brainstorming, expanding existing PPC campaigns and revitalising flagging campaigns that are not delivering results.