I came up through the ranks as a search marketer. As a marketer, I still consider myself mostly search oriented (despite my day job as an ad fraud researcher). That’s because search marketing — both paid and organic — epitomizes digital marketing. Think of your own habits for a second. When you see something interesting, including a TV ad, you are likely to go online and “google it” to find more information. When you’re considering buying something, and you’re reminded of that fact by something you read or something you saw, like an ad, you do some more research to inform your own purchase decision. Of course most people don’t spend too much time researching small ticket items like soup and soda. But for big ticket items and more complex ones, like cars and computers, people spend more time researching information online to inform their own purchase.
Search Marketing is 100X More Cost Efficient
Search ads appear when a user types a keyword to look something up. These ads are in fact the holy grail of marketing — the right ad at the right time to the right user. That’s simply because the user told you what they were looking for, when they were looking for it. It is for this reason that search marketing is by far the most effective form of marketing. It is also the most cost efficient. In addition to inventing a better search algorithm, Google’s central innovation was inventing the CPC (cost per click) payment plan. Advertisers didn’t have to pay until they got the click. Of course there were search engines before Google. But decades later we know who “won.”
Unlike display advertising before it, where advertisers paid for every 1,000 times their ad was shown (CPM – cost per “mille”), search advertising was 100X more cost efficient because marketers paid when users took the action to click on the ad. Assuming a 1% click rate — 1 in 100 ad impressions gets a click — advertisers “saved” the costs of the 99% of ads that never got clicked. This new business model, combined with good search results, allowed Google to overtake the incumbent at the time, Yahoo. Google’s dominance in digital marketing has since been solidified and history bears witness as “google it” has become synonymous with the act of finding something online, just like “Fedex it” became synonymous with shipping something.
Search as Research
Despite it being 100X more cost efficient and more effective than other digital tactics like display ads, search marketing is often severely underappreciated, and underused. Too many marketers who shifted ad budgets into digital from other channels simply applied the same TV advertising mentality to buying digital ads. They still think in terms of “reach and frequency” like in TV, so they ask for more ad impressions at lower costs. That’s how they bought TV ads for decades – they had their agency increase reach and frequency and help them negotiate lower costs. They are doing the same in digital. after all, “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail” as the saying goes. But increasing “spray and pray” by buying more display ads is not nearly as efficient as doing search marketing, which gets the right ad to the right person at the right time. And you don’t even need to pay until you get the “performance” – the click.
Beyond cost savings and better effectiveness, “search” also provides insights about what users want and even what they think. I’ve called it “search as research” for years, in the classes I taught and on client work. Search as research is a way to inform marketing, not just to do marketing. A free tool — Google Trends — can be used to find interesting insights about consumers’ needs and habits, and how they search for answers.
Take for example, the public Google search trend chart below for “chocolate covered cherries” and “chocolate covered strawberries.” Yes, the chart is from 2012, but the truth still holds. When do consumers buy chocolate covered strawberries and when do they buy chocolate covered cherries? The repeatable annual search volume pattern shows Valentine’s Day versus Christmas, respectively. These insights, driven by actual search volume, enables a marketer like Godiva to do better demand planning — i.e. make more chocolate covered strawberries for Valentine’s Day as opposed to Christmas, etc.
Share of Search
Beyond the practical example above, search volume trends and insights can be used to improve other areas of marketing too. For example, an ecommerce website dramatically improved their organic search traffic by changing “infant bedding” (the words they chose to describe their product) to “baby bedding” (the words that consumers searched for). It’s important to use the words consumers use while searching rather than the words you choose to use to describe your own product — otherwise, they can’t even find you!
We can also use search volume to study cause and effect. Note the slide below. The first trend chart was the search volume for Purell hand sanitizer. Despite their advertising efforts for years, search volume was flat. But when swine flu and H1N1 hit in 2009, the search volume for purell spiked when consumers searched for it online. If you look closely you can even see that each peak corresponded perfectly in time with search volume for each disease. “Cause and effect” showed that the two viruses drove more search volume for Purell than the millions of dollars they spent on advertising.
We can even see what consumers were interested in, concerned about, and looking for online. The slide below shows consumer interest, expressed as related search terms for the word “advair,” the name of a pharmaceutical drug. Consumers were looking for generic alternatives, dosage information, side effects, and coupons. You can even see competitive terms — like “spiriva” — or what consumers think are alternatives.
When consumers type keywords, we can even tell who they are and create audience segments from those insights. I trained medical writers to systematically do keyword research before they started creating content; so the content would be more optimized for each audience they were writing for. For example, physicians would search highly technical terms, medical keywords like “orexin receptor agonist” while nurses would search for things that they needed to know, like “dosage” or “how to administer.” Consumers, however, would just type in layperson’s words like “sleep drug.” Again, this emphasizes the importance of knowing “what terms they search for” over what you think you should call your product or how you would like to say things, as a marketer. Note that this flies in the face of what ad agencies have been selling advertisers for decades — “storytelling.” I’ve sat in enough agonizing meetings where advertising creatives, “Don Drapers,” agonized over what words to use to describe the brand. The agony could have been resolved in one second, if they just looked up what words consumers used to search for the brand. It’s more important to use the words consumers choose, rather than the words you choose to use. Say that 10 times fast.
Finally, we can even assess the performance of marketing campaigns — that’s right, not just digital campaigns but all marketing and advertising across all channels. Remember above where we said a consumer goes online to search for more information after they get inspired by something they read or an ad they saw. If they saw a TV ad and went online to google the drug name, we can see it. The chart below shows you exactly when a pharma drug named Nucynta started their advertising efforts (the rise in the red line in early 2009). For more mature products with competitors we study “share of search” and the relative changes in search volume compared to a competitor’s keywords, when ads are put “in market.” If the share of search went up, that means the advertising and marketing in all channels, not just in digital channels, was working. Conversely, if share of search didn’t change, we’d have to figure out why.
Stop Wasting Money, Start Doing Better Marketing
In addition to the awesome insights that “search” can provide, and the awesomeness of only having to pay when you get the click, here are a few more awesome practices that marketers should be aware of to save themselves money, and to make more money using search correctly. For new brands and products, when organic search has not kicked in yet, use paid search. That means that while you are waiting for your keywords to rank in organic search (show up higher in the list of organic search results), you need to do paid search marketing on those same keywords. But once your organic keywords rise up and your content appears on the first page of Google’s natural search results, you can reduce your paid search spending.
Be sure to invest in creating content, because every dollar you spend on content will pay lasting benefits; while every dollar you spend in paid ads is gone the moment after the ad is shown. If your content is well-optimized with search keywords, it will help countless potential customers in the future who are looking for the same information, searching with the same keywords. Further, if you already “rank” on the first page of Google search results for your own branded keywords, don’t waste money “buying your own brand keywords.” So many of the largest marketers are wasting millions of dollars paying for their own brand terms when consumers would have already clicked the first organic search result anyway.
In nearly 100% of these wasteful cases, misinformed agencies mislead clients into paying for their own branded keywords unnecessarily. These keywords get the largest volume, by far, and click rates are the most awesome, by far. Uh, that’s because consumers already typed the branded term and would have clicked on the top organic result anyway. It is entirely a waste of money to pay to place a search ad right above it. Consumers would have clicked the no-cost organic search result anyway. But agencies love for you to pay for your own branded term because it’s by far the highest volume keywords and click through rates are much higher too, which they use to make themselves look better – AT YOUR EXPENSE.
If you took nothing else away from reading this article – none of the search as research, share of search, understanding what consumers need, think, or look for — at the very least, turn off that wasted spending on paying for your own branded keywords in paid search marketing. Those millions of dollars drop straight to the bottom line, and voila! you have more money to pay for Christmas bonuses.