Display Search Retargeting Wish List, Part 1

This article originally ran on ClickZ.com on May 29, 2009.

One of the biggest opportunities in search marketing over the next two years has nothing to do with a SERP), nor is it a text ad. It’s search retargeting. Yet most forms of behavioral targeting available today, particularly those offerings directly available from the search engines, leave a lot of room for improvement. That’s understandable, given the evolution of display-ad targeting and the parallel evolution of search advertising platforms.

Over the years, search engine representatives have asked my team and me if we have an interest in search retargeting. Our answer has always been a resounding yes, particularly given the success of site-based search retargeting (using visitors to an advertiser’s site as the targeting trigger). Some engines have even asked for advice on how to design such a system. That advice has also been freely given.

It’s in everyone’s best interest for the next version of behavioral targeting to be the result of a well thought out product road map. I’m so excited about where behavioral targeting can go that I’ll do my part to toss a few suggestions to the search engines in an open forum. It’s my hope that these suggestions will be combined with those of agencies, advertisers, and technology firms whose input is also gathered by search engine product managers.

Behavioral retargeting of individuals who searched — to show those individuals a relevant ad — is a huge opportunity for all players in the search marketing ecosystem, including the consumers. The content we all love to consume on the Web is almost always paid for either exclusively through advertising revenue or (even in the case of subscription products) subsidized through ad revenue. This means publishers must find ways to charge a reasonable rate for display ad impressions (or text ads, for that matter). Contextual and channel-based advertising are great, but with the addition of behavioral and profile-based targeting, a consumer can see ads even better suited to her interests.

As advertisers and search marketers, we often find ourselves with inventory shortages on certain keywords, particularly when our preference is to combine keyword-level targeting with other options, such as geography or, potentially, demographics. Because it’s rare to sell (or capture leads from) more than 5 to 10 percent of site visitors, we may have an interest in targeting the remaining 90 percent of our search audience with display ads.

Yahoo’s retargeting offering (which I’ll cover in more detail in a future column) allows a search marketer with a current Yahoo account to retarget searchers who have made a prior search on the keywords. However, the initial version of the product doesn’t meet search engine marketers’ expectations as much as it might meet the needs of display media buyers who think in broader targeting terms. If you have graphical banner assets and, in particular, if you or your agency use the Right Media ad exchange, it may make sense to look into the Yahoo product. Yahoo has promised that the current product is only the beginning of an integrated offering that will include a bevy of new features.

Therefore, to help Yahoo, Microsoft, and even Google (which has currently communicated a preference not to release retargeting), I’ve put together the following wish list of all the things I’d like to see in search retargeting as offered by a search engine. Not every item is critical, but many of them will stimulate additional ad spending at higher ROI (define) — which everyone can agree is a good outcome.

  • Have a self-serve version. Allow some advertisers who don’t have a display ad already created to bid on a per-click or even a CPM (define) basis directly within your search interface. Ads shown could be text ads similar to the contextual text-link ads shown now on display sites, but they would instead be targeted behaviorally. If a CPM bid is the model, the entire ad unit should be sold to a single advertiser and used for a text or graphical ad. Advertisers will understand that in a pay-per-click implementation the display ad unit could be shared as it is in contextual environments. One might even envision text-link ad units currently in use purely for contextual advertising to eventually contain a combination of behavioral- and contextual-targeted ads. Search retargeting is a form of search marketing. Treat retargeting of searchers as appropriately in your self-serve interfaces.

I’ll continue this list next week.

Display Search Retargeting Wish List, Part 2

This article originally ran on ClickZ.com on June 5, 2009.

Behavioral targeting offerings, particularly those from search engines, leave a lot of room for improvement. Last time, I started a wish list for the search engines. It continues here.

  • Run your high-end retargeting engine through your ad exchange. I want to bid for retargeted impressions in a manner similar to bidding on search clicks. If I like a particular segment as defined in your ad exchange, I may want to bid significantly more for that segment. Forcing me to bid one price across all keywords and segments isn’t optimal in display retargeting, just as it isn’t in a paid-placement keyword auction. With an exchange, as a search marketer I can take advantage of the data I’ve accumulated to bid aggressively when an impression is valuable to me.
  • Allow for the creation of retargeting-only campaigns. Some marketers will have different keyword lists, different budgets, or even a different agency handling their search retargeting.
  • Provide an API and a GUI. APIs and GUIs should roll out in tandem.
  • When requesting retargeting on an advertiser account, allow for segments to be created at the campaign and perhaps even at the ad group level. I may not want to retarget every searcher that I bid for. Keyword segment control should be as granular as I want it.
  • Let me set recency. I may not be interested in older profiles and segments. Certain product and service categories have a very long sales cycle, while others have a very short one. I’d prefer to be able to set bid boosts by recency. For example, if my base bid on a dynamic CPM basis for a retargeted segment is $10 and I can control bid boosts by recency (days old), I might choose to run at 100 percent of bid for three days, lower the bid to 90 percent for another week, then to 50 percent for the remainder of a month, then to 20 percent. By controlling bid price, I get a fine level of control.
  • Allow me to specify opt in and bid boost by other targeting variables common in display ad environments. For example, geo-targeting or even site category (display ads are commonly targetable based on the category of the site). There may be a multiplicative effect when the context and behavior match. For example, if I’m retargeting real estate searchers and I can do this on real estate sites at the same time, I might be willing to create a campaign and bid more. The concept of dayparting becomes even more interesting because one might want to daypart the searcher based on the time she searched, then either also daypart one’s display or run the retargeted display ads on a non-dayparted basis.
  • Let agencies and clients use their preferred ad server. Search retargeting is being used in conjunction with other media. Be liberal in your acceptance of ad servers, particularly if a test shows a high reconciliation rate on impressions served.
  • Pass me the actual and/or the bidded search term. Because of match types, the bidded and the actual search term for an impression might not match and my segment (ad-group or campaign level) may be too broad to serve the best ad without this info. Some ad servers can accommodate real-time parameter transfers in the ad call. The industry should come up with a standard for passing targeting parameters into an ad call so that we can select vendors that support that standard for ad serving.
  • Let me bid on trademarked search terms. Unlike with a SERP, when using a trademark to trigger a profile segment and serving an ad based on an earlier inquiry, there’s a separation in time that should allow engines to be open to this type of trademark bidding. There’s no chance of consumer confusion. The consumer who searched for information about a BMW 335i on Monday may very well be interested in seeing an ad for Audi or Lexus on Tuesday. To use the example of a staunch trademark rights protector, a consumer searching for Geico on Friday won’t be confused if she sees a Progressive insurance ad a week later. That’s not to say we won’t see litigation relating to trademark-based retargeting, but fair use is an easier case for the lawyers to make, in my opinion. For example, when I buy groceries, the receipt I get often has coupons for competing products. My shopping behavior has long been used to trigger competing advertising.
  • Preserve the power of behavioral targeting for the industry. Finally, the engines should get together (perhaps with other Web publishers) and determine a way to add an industry-standard high-visibility ad overlay or ad frame (that consumers see when a behavioral or retargeted ad of any kind is shown) that links through to a page that explains retargeting and provides the consumers some options on how profile data is used. Emphasis should be on the fact that the data is used anonymously and that no personally identifiable information (PII) is shared with advertisers. The FTC and other international and domestic government agencies and regulatory bodies are itching to address the fact that hardly any consumers read privacy policies and understand how anonymous profiles are used to improve the ads they see. The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s and the Network Advertising Initiative’s measures relating to disclosure are insufficient to ward off government intervention.

I’ve probably forgotten important features and elements that would make behavioral search retargeting products from the search engines even more powerful. But if the engines keep the lines of communication open with industry leaders on the agency, technology, and client side, they’ll get the suggestions they need. However, it’s important to realize that the technology’s power users will have a different preference as to the level of targeting and complexity than low-sophistication marketers. Yahoo made this mistake years ago when it changed its match types to “standard” and “advanced” because some larger dumb agencies and big-spending advertisers asked for reduced complexity. I hope all advertising product managers can learn from that mistake.

I anticipate we’ll see some significant advancements in behavioral targeting on the search marketing front in the next year or two. If you are a marketer, one way you can get your feet wet now is to start retargeting your current search visitors.

Changes to Google’s and Microsoft’s Ad Interfaces

This article originally ran on ClickZ.com on May 22, 2009. While the future developments it covers have now occurred, it still has value for those interested in improvements and refinements recently made to the search engines’ PPC advertising consoles.

In the wonderful world of software (including Web-based software), it’s sometimes difficult to know if one solution is inherently better or if it just seems better due to familiarity and constant use. Such is the case with search engine advertising management consoles.

Many advertising and marketing staffers have voiced a preference for Google’s AdWords interface in the past — so much so that, for better or worse, the other engines have adopted similar interfaces. Reality is, all the Web-based management consoles have gotten where they are through a controlled evolution, not because a full feature set was evaluated and a user experience created to optimally address the needs of different people using the consoles. Like the sub-optimal but ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard, inertia has held back change for the interfaces many marketers use every day.

However, Google recently re-engineered its AdWords interface, making some fairly significant changes and making adoption mandatory over the next months. The change just goes to show how confident Google is that advertisers won’t abandon the platform, even if there will be some challenges for users adapting to the new interface.

After all, few search marketers can survive on Yahoo, Microsoft, and second-tier engines alone. So, join everyone else, suck it up, and start using the new Google AdWords interface now, because, just like an old version of Microsoft Word, the time will come when you won’t even remember why you liked the old version.

With graphs embedded on pages where only tabular data existed before, Google’s new AdWords interface is looking more similar to the Google Analytics interface. In my informal tests, the new interface seems to render more slowly in Internet Explorer and Firefox, both when graphs were included and when they were not. This can be exasperating if you aren’t interested in the data visualization elements but have a task to do.

The new Google interface includes other major changes that take some getting used to.

First, the primary navigation tabs have been updated. You may find it easier to get to some things and more challenging to get to others.

For example, the Reports and Analytics tabs have been combined into a “Reporting” tab, along with Website Optimizer (which isn’t really a reporting tool to me, but hey, Google had to decide where to put it and the only other option was “Tools.”) Ironically, if you select that option, your navigation changes back to classic (perhaps only if you’ve never turned on Website Optimizer). This is clearly still a work in progress.

On the positive side, the new navigational changes make it possible to drill into keywords at the campaign level (not just at the AdGroup level). Plus, instead of the breadcrumb navigation at the top, there’s a nice left rail sidebar allowing for easy jumping between campaigns and into specific AdGroups. This should be a time-saver, but the slow load offsets the utility of this feature, particularly on slower Internet connections. (I tested it on a slower connection and found a further reduction in speed).

The required graphs can be customized to include two simultaneous metrics. For example, you can select and compare clicks, impressions, CTR, average CPC, cost, and average position. Because you’re stuck with a graph, you might as well customize it to your preference.

At the campaign and AdGroup level, a Settings tab makes it easier to get at these settings. However, the campaign-level roll-ups feature is my favorite, because, while it’s often best to have a lot of highly tuned AdGroups to keep Quality Score high (the idea is to tune the creative to the keywords), having to drill into every AdGroup separately was a real annoyance.

This is solved with roll-ups. According to Google’s documentation of this feature: “Clicking the Keywords, Networks, or Ads tabs will display all the keywords, placements, or ads at the level you’ve selected. This makes it easy to sort or filter by key metrics across ad groups and focus on specific high- or low-performing items.”

Microsoft has also been changing its adCenter interface over time, and such changes often coincide with the addition of new feature sets. The recently released “Microsoft adCenter Spring 2009 Upgrade” comprises a combination of changes driven by new features and better organization of existing functionality.

According to Microsoft: “You can now take advantage of the newest adCenter features and enjoy more control over targeting, bidding, and ad distribution, and other elements of campaign management.” Many of the new changes in Microsoft’s adCenter are designed to make it easier for those marketers who prefer to experiment with content-driven media to add and better control contextually-targeted media.

Taking the time to learn all the new interfaces isn’t just a good idea; it’s mandatory. Set aside some time, take your least important campaign, and use it as an experiment for testing some of the new features.

Bridging the SEM Knowledge Gap

This article was originally published on ClickZ.com on May 15, 2009. In a way, it’s more current today than it was when I wrote it, because the changes in the search ecosystem have continued to accelerate at a rapid rate and these shifts will happen with increasing frequency in the future.

ew industries change as quickly and dramatically as the digital marketing industry. Within online marketing, the SEM space undergoes significant changes on a month-to-month basis. This dynamic change and the simultaneous changes in best practices make it challenging for all search professionals to stay current. Hands-on pros have the toughest job, because the interfaces they use within the search engines themselves and within their chosen campaign management solutions will often change simultaneously.

The gap between one’s knowledge and current best practices can have a material impact on campaign performance. Search engines often roll out changes to targeting or other control levers that empower both the proactive elimination of low-profit clicks and the capture of high-profit clicks. Failure to understand and deploy some of these targeting options and campaign refinements results in a poorly optimized campaign.

Perhaps the most exasperating thing for managers of firms where search marketing is a critical part of the online media mix is that looking at campaign performance reports doesn’t tell them anything about the knowledge or skill level of their team members (or, for that matter, their SEM agency). As long as management (which might be you) are presented with snazzy positive reports, there’s no way of knowing what the opportunity cost is of not having best practices in play.

Campaign performance is impacted not only by the actions of a search manager but also by the advertiser bidding algorithm (if bid automation is used), changes in quality score (regardless of whether this is visible in the search engine interface), changes in searcher behavior (perhaps due to a macroeconomic change, like reduced disposable income or a drop in consumer confidence, both of which might impact conversion rates, lead quality, or shopping cart size), and of course the competitive ecosystem. The competitive ecosystem is more than just the bidding actions and reactions of all your competitors but also the changes they make to ad creative pricing or changes to their Quality Score.

Unfortunately, some factors that SEM managers must take into account are opaque, meaning we can only see the results of the above-mentioned factors on our own campaigns. Knowing the signs to look for in a campaign and in a competitors’ campaign is a bit of an art and a science. That’s why communication among SEM peers and ongoing learning and advancement programs are so important.

The challenges of keeping up are different, depending on the role of the search marketing professional. In some SEM and interactive agencies, there are both structured and unstructured forms of training and information sharing. The advantage of larger agency groups is that a best practice learned by one individual or team can be communicated and deployed to others.

For in-house SEM professionals who don’t have the benefit of a community of peers with whom to interact in-person on a day-to-day basis, the following means will to some extent replace the knowledge transfer that occurs in person:

  • Attend conferences that focus on hands-on training, and attend sessions where both tactics and strategy are discussed if you need strategic guidance as well.
  • Take online training that has been kept up to date. I’m biased toward the SEMPO institute as a member of SEMPO’s board of directors, but you have other options as well.
  • Listen to recent Webinars taught by those in the industry whose opinions you value.
  • Invite conversations with search engine support staff (although engine staff aren’t uniformly trained and of the same caliber, there are some who are great resources not only because they are trained by their fellow staff but also because they learn from their clients, becoming a conduit for information).
  • Read columns written by those in the industry whom you believe are in a position to learn not only from their own activities but from some of the above sources.
  • If possible, manage more than one campaign. Campaigns with different success objectives operating in different industry sectors will have different data and competitors, allowing for learning within a completely different ecosystem.

Given the volume of changes and information occurring, the challenge for many is prioritizing which tactics, techniques, and best practices should be learned and implemented given a limited amount of time. For example, a campaign with a high diversity of different landing pages and keyword clusters (e.g., a retail campaign with many product and category landing pages) will require a different approach from a campaign where the majority of search volume is concentrated in a small set of keywords.

Similarly, a campaign for which localization will improve results dramatically will require a different prioritization of tasks than a campaign for which creative and landing page messaging is the same nationwide, even if geo-bidding is used to pump up position in high-value geographies.

You’ll never be able to perfectly bridge the SEM knowledge gap, and we all need to keep learning and improving every day. But by acknowledging gaps in your knowledge you can make a concerted effort to stay current and lead the pack.

Credit For “The Last Click” and Attribution

This article originally ran on ClickZ.com on May 8, 2009. But it remains highly current, given the debate about last click attribution which continues to rage in the online marketing industry.

At Penton’s Annual Conference for Catalog and Multichannel Merchants, a key focus — as one might expect — was on direct response metrics for catalog merchants. After making a presentation during the panel, “Achieving And Measuring Search Marketing ROI In Paid Search,” I was pleasantly surprised to learn the audience was interested in understanding the bigger picture in PPC search, not just the final touch point before the sale.

If you’ve been toying with the idea of employing a full-scale online and offline media mix model, online media engagement mapping, or simply de-duping the true last touch point (reconciling your tracking sources to determine which one really saw or touched the customer last), you need to determine what your reason is for engaging in the research and getting access to the data. Having the true last touch point allows you to better manage payouts to “performance marketing” vendors.”

The holy grail of advertising and marketing is a media mix model allowing the marketer to both understand the marginal impact of every media opportunity before the media dollars are allocated as well as to empower the marketer or agency to make media allocation decisions easily. Large marketers have done econometric marketing models in an attempt to best manage media dollars. Because search behavior is stimulated by offline media (both yours and your competition’s), you can build interesting models by including factors other than your own media (assuming you can get at this data).

In a time of shrinking marketing budgets, it’s imperative that every marketing dollar is spent as wisely as possible. It’s always been easier to track online media — especially the last touch point prior to online conversion — than other media.

Let’s assume that your organization, like most, has its online team operating in a silo and generally not getting credit for store sales or even inbound calls. In this instance, media allocation decisions may be being made by entirely different teams, making a full econometric or media mix model an unlikely event due both to internal structure and cost of such a model (generally they are well into the six-figure range if all the data that should go into the model is going into the model).

Under this scenario, the online marketing team is left to make media allocation decisions within online media, including only search, display, video, audio, mobile, and perhaps a new digitally delivered ad format, but probably not things like digital billboards or TiVo advertising. With the advent of retargeting display ad solutions and networks, some of which are willing to work on a performance basis, it becomes important to define exactly what, when, and why you’re willing to pay a particular media vendor running retargeted media.

This need to define the last click touch point alone has resulted in a need within reporting dashboards for a de-dupe report, which is less about attribution for the purposes of holistic media mix modeling and more about knowing how big of a check to write each performance media partner and when to hold back payments based on your agreed-upon definition of the last-click. Some contracts I’ve heard about even charge marketers (perhaps you).

In some cases, you may need to rethink your existing contracts because many of these contracts rely on a siloed data collection system and insist on rewarding a media click source regardless of whether this source was, in fact, the most proximal to the order. For example, online affiliate networks often define a payout requirement based on a post-click cookie being within a certain time period regardless of what happened during the duration of that cookie.

So how many times are you paying a full affiliate commission through Commission Junction, LinkShare, or the Google Affiliate network, a media commission to one or more vendors working on a “performance basis,” and attributing the click to the PPC search campaign in order to make a bidding decision about a specific keyword? No idea? You aren’t alone.

Even though only one click can be the last touch point, this may not relieve you of the legal obligation to pay more than one vendor. If your PPC search campaign was the last touch point but you’re paying others as well, you may be tempted to reduce your PPC budget or attribution.

Think about what happens then: you no longer have the top position that may have been instrumental in getting the sale. Cut payouts to vendors (or media opportunities) earlier in the buy funnel and you risk eliminating an important stimulus to the eventual search (the final search perhaps).

For every change you make to a contract, payout scheme, or media mix, there are repercussions. Use your de-dupe reports carefully, because there may be unintended consequences to some of the changes you’d like to make.

Analyzing the Google Content Network

This article was originally published on ClickZ.com on May 1, 2009. It remains current and relevant, given that Google continues to dominate online advertising, and many marketers continue to be baffled by the prospect of maximizing efficiencies on the Google Content Network.

The Google Content Network (GCN) can work for advertisers, though not nearly as well as a recent Google publication would have you believe. It takes a lot of work for most advertisers to get the GCN to deliver the measured ROI that marketers have been accustomed to in their search campaigns. It’s particularly challenging for online retailers to demonstrate the same ROI from content/contextual advertising they see from their search campaigns every day.

Google recently released a white paper, “CPA Performance Trends on the Google Content Network.” If you were to read the paper, you might be convinced that the GCN was a performance powerhouse for nearly every advertiser. In reality, the study’s methodology demonstrates that the GCN indeed performed well for some CPA advertisers.

However, most online retailers are not managing campaigns to a CPA, but to a return on advertising spending (ROAS) or some flavor of ROI (immediate return or long-term lifetime customer value). Many, if not most, CPA-focused advertisers, on the other hand, want to generate leads or registrations.

The two consumer behaviors — purchase and registration — are quite different and represent two distinct stages of the buying cycle. Purchasers are clearly at the end of the purchase cycle and have made up their minds. However, while some registrants may be very close to the final purchase decision, most are still evaluating alternatives.

The Google white paper looks at more than 25,000 global accounts running both search and content (AdWords and AdSense). Half (51.6 percent) of the accounts had a CPA equal to or lower than their search network CPA. (Of course, this means that nearly half had CPAs that were worse.)

Even if you manage to a CPA instead of an ROI or ROAS, don’t get too excited about revving up your AdSense campaigns in a bid to be one of the lucky 50 percent who have managed to get their accounts to hit their CPA goals. There are several things you should consider:

  • Selection bias. If advertisers can hit their CPAs, they’re more likely to keep running AdSense (keep content targeting turned on). Conversely, advertisers unable to hit their CPA targets would be expected to either settle for a lower CPA or turn off AdSense altogether. So, the advertisers from which Google collected data were less likely to be ones for whom AdSense didn’t work. In addition, Google used only advertisers that were tracking with the engine’s free conversion tracking tool (it’s not stated, but I assume it’s the AdWords tracking code, not the Google Analytics one). This is likely a selection bias because those advertisers using Google tracking may not be representative of the overall advertiser base.
  • Nonstandard campaign settings. Those advertisers meeting their CPA goals tended to use either Google’s Conversion Optimizer or site exclusion. Both of these settings improve the click relevance and conversion rate when properly deployed.
  • Smart Pricing and lower CPCs. In addition to finding that content clicks were priced on average 28 percent less than search clicks, lower click prices mean you can reach your CPA target at a lower conversion rate. It’s unclear whether the reduction in click prices reported in the research was the result of advertisers bidding separately (and lower) for content clicks or of Google’s Smart Pricing algorithm contributing the majority of the average reduction in CPC. Smart Pricing is designed to normalize the advertiser’s cost to make up for the lower likelihood of conversion to lead or sale.

My team and I have gotten AdSense to work for many lead-gen (CPA) clients, and even some e-commerce clients. In addition to site exclusion, we have found other techniques that help bring the CPA or ROI into compliance on the content side of the campaign:

  • Campaign structure. Set up content-only campaigns and consider trying different ad creative, as surfers and searchers may not respond to the same messaging. Optimize landing pages for search and content.
  • Use of site/placement targeting. Instead of simply excluding poorly performing sites (which show up in reporting only if they are large enough to have a statistically valid block of bad clicks), isolate good performers and potentially run campaigns against those exclusively.
  • Day-parting. Measure the conversion rate on content clicks separately, and use either the Google settings or an API driven solution to ensure that you aren’t overpaying for clicks based on the predicted conversion and ROI/CPA.
  • Geo-segmentation. As with search, some geographies may over- or underperform.

Many of the best practices in getting content to “work” in Google hold true for Yahoo, Microsoft, and the second-tier contextual players. Don’t count content out of a direct-response lead-generation media plan or even an e-commerce plan, but also don’t believe all the positive hype. Of course, if branding is also an objective, content advertising makes even more sense because your message get lots of “free” exposure, and you only pay for the clicks.

View From the Trenches: Search-Style Media Convergence

Although this article ran on ClickZ.com on April 24, 2009 and discusses a trade show that happened many months ago, it remains current because purveyers of media continue to liken their approaches to those of search, which remains a foundational online marketing modality.

The eMarketing Association’s EM9 conference and ad:tech took place in San Francisco this week, each offering different programs and attracting different audiences. After speaking at EM9 and attending ad:tech, I observed common themes involving future of digital marketing and PPC  search.

First, it was interesting to see how many newer media vendors were drawing parallels to search marketing, particularly paid search. PPC search and its demonstrated power and precision for advertisers has set the bar for online media, particularly the segment where performance must be demonstrated by some form of direct response metrics.

For example, contextual targeting players are positioning themselves as “search.” Behavioral display networks are comparing their results to search and often hawking retargeting, which I can attest works well if executed correctly. Affiliate marketing companies are including search as a “core” competency in marketing materials.

Nearly 100 percent of the trade-show exhibitors had a message on their booth or within their collateral relating to performance marketing. I was hard pressed to find any branding messages among the exhibitors. Yet, interestingly, the ad:tech sessions seemed slightly more branding or holistic marketing-focused. In comparison to prior years, however, branding-oriented messaging in session titles and content were far less apparent. Perhaps it’s the economy and the focus on measurability that has shifted both the content at conferences and on the exhibit hall floor.

Media exchanges (regardless of how you define them) continue to be hot. As media publishers find it difficult to sell online inventory at premium prices to brand advertisers with few or no measureable objectives, this inventory is increasingly finding its way into exchanges, where it is often used to retarget searchers or existing site visitors. This is a great for search marketers and advertisers because it opens up additional highly-targeted touch points.

Iggy Fanalo, CEO of AdBrite, talked about how algorithmic targeting beats a media buyer every time and how exchange or open systems allowing advertisers to bid for impressions will result in a more efficient marketplace. In one form or another, executives from several technology providers and platforms spun this same message. Each is executing a bit differently and decisions about who to integrate with for direct search are similar to those made by agencies and SEM providers with respect to the need to make decisions on the display side using integration at the API level.

In a departure from the traditional approach to building or announcing exchanges (which typically cater to large direct-response advertisers), ReachLocal launched an exchange (they call it an “Xchange”) specifically targeted to local advertisers, who are not traditionally big spenders in such exchanges. In a similarly unusual move, ReachLocal’s exchange allows publishers to specify the ad inventory options available to local advertisers even within specific categories of such advertisers. It will be an interesting experiment, because the comprehension of online marketing among local advertisers has been far less developed than it has been among typical big-spending advertisers.

SMX was co-located within ad:tech, which finally added a much-needed focus on search missing from earlier ad:tech events. But the SMX track, because it was primarily focused on the fundamentals and general trends in search, was not, in my view, comprehensive enough given the high percentage of search spending compared to spending within the overall online media mix. Furthermore, session topics stretched the boundaries of what would ordinarily be considered search marketing, including topics such as mobile and video.

At the eMarketing Association EM9 conference, Jeff Glueck, former chief marketing officer of Travelocity, shared a bunch of data supporting his contention that he is a “direct response brander.” In particular, he explained how he justified his offline media spending by building econometric models to understand the impact that offline and online media have on sales. He lamented that so few CMOs of large marketing operations measure online advertising meticulously while virtually ignoring the efficiency and effectiveness (or lack thereof) of offline media. He drew parallels between niche magazines and online sites that are very narrowly focused and how, among offline media, the most successful media were magazines. Similarly, Jeff espoused a desire to find similar highly relevant contextual placements within online marketing.

He also covered retargeting, including competitor retargeting and the importance of understanding baselines when measuring the lift to any marketing campaign. Having spoken to him in the past about search engine marketing, I know he’s a strong advocate of every micro-segment of a search campaign proving itself independently, as well as applying attribution models within search.

Search is clearly the foundation for many forms of online marketing because this unique touch point both creates and harvests demand created by other media and marketing efforts.

New Research: Paid Search Builds Branding

This article originally ran on ClickZ.com on April 17, 2009. It remains current, however, because the research cited within remains the best single study of the synergistic brand-building benefits possible with PPC search advertising.

Additional research has been released that should erase one more layer of doubt about whether paid search can play a role in branding. Turns out that search lifts brand metrics, particularly when paired with other media. Better yet, post-click lift in search metrics is off the charts, perhaps finally validating my branding effectiveness index (BEI) hypothesis from 2002 that site engagement post-PPC (define) search click would be a great success metric.

In this time of tight ad budgets all around, it’s interesting to see just how many people in the online marketing ecosystem are thinking deeply about branding. One might think that there would be renewed focus on very easily defined, easy to justify hyper-measurable direct-response metrics.

At Re:think 2009, the 55th annual convention of the Advertising Research Foundation, Angela O’Connell, head of cross media research at Google Europe, and Lucas Hulsebos, media research director at MetrixLab, presented research validating what many of us have postulated for years: search can build brand lift. In particular, dramatic brand lift occurs after the click. I doubt that U.S. and European customers behave differently with regard to search and brand lift, but even if they do, the results are so positive that it would require a different species to invalidate the research.

In addition to simply measuring brand lift of search in a vacuum (as many earlier research studies did), the research looked at media interaction effects in order to determine lift in brand metrics as consumers were exposed to advertising in a variety of media.

If brand lift was found as a result of the search component, the study focused on two additional questions:

  • How effective is it compared to other offline media?
  • How efficient is it compared to other offline media?

In addition, the Google/MetrixLab research was designed to answer the bigger picture questions of: “Which media are most effective and efficient in a multi-media campaign?” and “What is the (additional) impact of search in this media mix?” Together, these objectives also allowed the study to evaluate the cost effectiveness of all media in the campaign, both individually and in combination, which is the holy grail of cross-media research because it looks at the marginal additive impact of each media type to the overall media mix.

Even after giving respondents a four-day gap between exposure to search and completing the survey to see the long-term effect of the medium, there was still a great deal of lift from the search component, particularly when there was click-through and engagement with the marketer’s site.

Campaign Awareness

Top of Mind Awareness

Brand Values

The results in lift are significant and, because PPC search marketers pay only for the click, the lift in branding due to the sponsored link is free. The huge branding metric lift as a result of visits is powerful and should be taken into account when the overall campaign objectives include branding.

The study also defined effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness combined the branding effect, multiplied by reach; efficiency was effectiveness divided by the spend for that media. By dividing by spending, the efficiency number was normalized to reflect the efficiency per exposed person, regardless of the size of the media buy.

Efficiency Equals Effectiveness/Budget

Search indexes at 1,049 vs. TV’s 100. Sure, you reach fewer people with search, but when you reach consumers and they click through, you’ve very efficiently raised their brand perceptions. The study stated that: “Search is 10x more efficient than TV and 3.5x more efficient than radio in raising Top of Mind Awareness.”

So, brand marketers listen up. Search and the resulting engagement on your site is definitely raising your brand in the minds of consumers. No one is advocating that TV and radio be abandoned, but failing to adequately support a media campaign with search leaves all those clicks and all the resulting top of mind awareness to your competition.

In a related piece of research, the recent Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) State of the Market Survey for the first time found that more advertisers selected “increase/enhance brand awareness” as a top objective of their paid search campaigns than the objective of selling directly online. Of course, brand impact was listed next-to-last when it came time to actually measure the results of PPC search and SEMPO survey respondents were asked: “What metrics do you track/measure/generally pay attention to gauge the success of Search Engine Marketing programs?”

If you’re looking for a reason to increase your search budget, it might be time to take yet another shot at convincing the brand stewards at your company that search plays an important role in lifting brand metrics and building a brand.

What’s the State of Your Paid Search Campaign?

This article was originally published on ClickZ.com on April 10, 2009. But it remains as current today as the day I wrote it, because the need to keep one’s PPC search campaigns organized is constant.

If your paid search campaigns are in a state of disarray, then the profit levels on your paid search spending are clearly not all they could be.

I got thinking about the state of most search marketers’ campaigns while reviewing the latest Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) State of the Market Survey.

Google Ad Campaigns

When new clients come on board every year, I expect the campaigns my team and I will see will be more “together” than those in prior years. Interestingly, the opposite has occurred. Accounts within Google are usually the most disorganized because they’ve evolved over the years.

Every time a new idea comes along with regard to products and their associated keywords, a new campaign or Google Ad Group gets glued onto an existing account. Then someone decides to try new ad creative or landing pages. Staff turnover occurs and, unless the agency or in-house team has a knowledge-transfer process in use, often no one has a good idea of what’s running and whether it’s optimal.

It’s amazing how much performance enhancement can come from a campaign reorganization and tuning. The economy may be in bad shape, but that’s no reason why your search campaign should be.

Search engines prefer certain structures from a “quality score” relevance perspective. Also, a logical account structure provides a team, and even a campaign management technology, with a strong foundation around which to improve bidding and creative strategies.

Nearly every paid search marketer starts cleaning up, organizing, tuning, and optimizing their Google AdWords campaign, and I certainly can’t argue with that. Google represents the biggest opportunity for volume of leads and sales, assuming you can find ways to afford the positions you need to deliver volume profitably. If you don’t know where to start, my 300+ prior ClickZ columns can certainly provide a basis for some ideas.

Yahoo, Microsoft adCenter Campaigns

When you finish reorganizing, tuning, and optimizing your Google account, Yahoo and Microsoft are logical next steps. Both engines have made it easier to import Google accounts into their systems.

I hope Yahoo moves to a consistent form of match type similar to Google and Microsoft, and abandons its Standard/Advanced match types. This would put Yahoo in line with the de facto industry standard and also make transportability of campaigns much easier.

Most importantly, advertisers would have more confidence that the import of campaign data had been appropriately mapped. The current system requires a lot of manual checking to determine if the most appropriate match types are selected after an import.

Microsoft adCenter probably deserves a second look or, for many of you, a first look. While Microsoft continues to lag as the number-three player with respect to both its own traffic and a syndication network that an adCenter account covers, it’s still large enough to be a worthy addition to nearly any size search marketing effort for a variety of reasons. AdCenter imports Google accounts fairly smoothly, and its traffic quality is great, in part because it lacks a dispersed syndication network.

It’s amazing how many campaigns, even those spending more than $100,000 a month on Google, either aren’t running on Yahoo (not as frequent) or Microsoft’s adCenter platform.

That’s why when I was looking for a special offer to bundle in with my latest book, “The Truth About Pay-Per-Click Search Advertising,” I decided to take Microsoft up on its generous offer to bundle in $200 in adCenter advertising credits for new U.S. adCenter advertisers. I figured my readers would be more likely not to have an adCenter account than any other mainstream engine. If you don’t have an adCenter account, I’ve given you the perfect excuse to open one now.

SEMPO State of the Market Survey

The SEMPO survey responses provide evidence that we’re in the midst of an evolution of the boundaries of what marketers consider to be “search marketing.” Clearly, some purists never considered keyword-targeted contextual advertising to be search, but most marketers do.

Similarly, there’s a high level of interest and desire for mobile search, video search, and retargeting of searchers using display media and behavioral targeting. Some of those options might not have been considered to be search marketing in the past.

Social media advertising and initiatives are also often included in search marketing for the purposes of budgeting and vendor selection. If the definition of “search” is broadening, the industry will grow within the old-school areas and in entirely new directions.

Also, if you haven’t gone to the bigger conferences such as Search Engine Strategies (where I speak frequently) due to the time or travel cost commitments required, you may want to consider attending the Online Marketing Summit Whistle Stop Tour hosted by ClickZ. I’ll be speaking at most of the East Coast and some Midwest events, and giving away copies of my new book to those who participate in my sessions by asking questions.

The Quandaries of Local Search and Vertical Directories

This article originally ran on ClickZ.com on April 3, 2009. Its lessons for PPC search advertisers remain current and timely, however, because online business directories and locally-oriented web services continue to grow in importance, posing new opportunites and challenges for marketers.

In paid search, many local marketers and niche businesses have a difficult decision. Nearly every major industry sector has one or more vertical directories, vertical search engines, or “vortals” (vertical portals). Often, those vertical directories/vortals buy paid search listings, and some may also have a reasonably high organic position for the same or similar keywords.

If you’re a local or niche marketer, the decision boils down to the following courses of action (which aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive):

  • Buy a directory listing based on whatever ad revenue model the directory uses in order to get either the visibility within the directory or clicks from the directory to your site. Buy paid search listings and compete with both your competitors and the vertical directory, selectively buying the clicks most valuable to you.
  • Engage in SEO for the terms of interest, competing for position with both your direct competition and the vertical directory.
  • Decide the glut of competition is escalating the price and reducing the ROI so dramatically that alternate media options will have a higher predicted ROI.

Why do vertical portals exist? A primary driver is a supply-demand skew between spots in the organic and paid search results and the number of businesses within a major metropolitan region looking to advertise.

When making a decision on the above choices, look at the following data: the competitive landscape, how the directory charges, the demonstrated value of the directory clicks or impression compared to the clicks you can buy directly, and perhaps other value the directory provides beyond clicks to your site. Each vertical directory has its own business model and way of charging you for a listing, profile page, or participation.

The typical vertical directory pricing models include:

  • Annual membership: Memberships may be tiered and include à la carte features that may be in the list below or may be highly specific to the industry sector being covered.
  • Cost per click: Some directories charge on a CPC basis. If you’re considering participating in one of these directories, consider the source of its traffic because you’re paying for clicks originating from somewhere else and ending up at a directory. If the directory gets its traffic from organic placement on the big three search engine databases (that power far more search engines through syndication deals), then the clicks you get as a directory customer are essentially delayed clicks from organic engine placements. If the directory buys many of its clicks from questionable sources, then those clicks are mixed in with your paid directory clicks. If the directory ranks high for your most coveted keywords in the organic listings, then one can make a compelling case for the clicks because they’re essentially delayed clicks from organic positions you’d find hard to replicate.
  • Sponsorships by region or specialty: Banner or text link sponsorships are sold on a fixed-fee basis.
  • Banner advertising: Targeted on a run-of-site basis or based on registrant/visitor behavior.
  • Cost per lead: Some directories ask their visitors for information match those leads with advertisers. The biggest challenge for this business model happens when the leads are non-exclusive, meaning that many of your competitors also receive the same leads at the same time.

To understand how these business models come together, let’s pick an example from the legal field, a highly competitive sector with many vertical portals. A recent search for “New York Lawyer” in Google, Yahoo, and MSN turned up the following directories in the paid and organic results.

  • LawyersinNewYork.com: This directory sells a landing page banner program for $900 annually, plus a $199 listing. However, no specific guarantees and the search engine used is a Google CSE (Customized Search Engine) deployment. So, you’d need good SEO on top of paying to be included in their CSE result.
  • Lawyers.com: Run by LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier, Lawyers.com is an example of when a powerhouse within an industry decides to build and run the industry online directory. This type of scenario has positives and negatives. The positives are the resources that the parent group can bring to bear. The downside is that your competitors are far more likely to be participating here than in a directory with fewer marketing and sales resources.
  • FindLaw.com: This directory has a diversity of packages and nearly all are sponsorship or fixed-fee based as far as I can tell from reading the descriptions. It seems to have adopted a yellow-pages style model of having something that appeals to everyone at many price points.
  • LegalMatch.com: As its name suggests, this directory allows the consumer or business to fill out a form and then participating lawyers get the leads to follow up on. As with most lead-gen directories, a combination of lead quality and level of competitiveness combine with the price per lead to determine whether participation is warranted.

Similar directory models exist in a wide diversity of industries. The easy thing is finding the directories. A simple search in the top search engines for your profession’s keywords will reveal all your options. Often these directories can be used in conjunction with a highly targeted and profit-centric PPC campaign to enhance visibility for your business.