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SearchTHIS: The Search Listing Quality Conundrum

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS: The Search Listing Quality Conundrum Kevin M. Ryan
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I hate being right all the time.


Before you dismiss this week’s column as an essay on arrogance, please let me explain. I am not always correct about life decisions and various wireless convergence device purchases, but foregoing a normal life to spend my days analyzing trends in search behavior, search marketing techniques and the millions of interactions for all things “listing” provides me with something of an uncanny ability to identify the ships that will sink when subjected to the slightest ocean breeze, in contrast to the ones that will make it through Hurricane Search.


Last week, the large property and casualty insurance provider GEICO settled a lawsuit with a pay-for-placement search provider for selling their brand name to other advertisers. Also last week, Forbes decided to pull back on serving up paid listings on some editorial pages. These two otherwise small occurrences might just initiate big changes in search.


In any case, don’t say I didn’t warn you, and thanks for sticking around. Here’s the scoop on what’s happening and what you can do to avoid getting sunk in the search marketing perfect storm.


So sue me


Initiating litigation against a search provider is nothing new. Without the slightest memory jog, I can recall the American Blind brand suing Google for allowing others to buy its trademarked terms. Last year in France, Louis Vuitton sued Google and won after competitors purchased brand names. Most of the U.S. law suits relate to brand owners seeking to avoid the inevitable “confusion” experienced when a brand term search occurs and a user is presented with competitor listings.


Confusion? Yes, I am sure that avoiding confusion is the primary concern here.


For the unindoctrinated, here’s how these search and brand name lawsuits typically occur:



  • Brand owner conducts search for self one morning and notices competitors appearing beside their name.

  • Brand owner calls agency and raises holy hell. How dare they do that! Can they do that? Make them stop doing that!

  • Agency then calls search site and suggests the search result is irrelevant and the listings be removed.

  • Desperately trying to avoid laughing in the agency’s face, search provider suggests the listings do not violate any policies so listings can’t be removed.

  • Agency calls client back and proclaims, in disgust, that the publisher won’t remove said listings.

  • Client feels slighted, sends note to legal department.

  • Six months to a year later, it is up to Judge Judy to sort the whole thing out.

Paid search providers make a boat load of cash selling those listings. If I were them, I wouldn’t remove squat unless I absolutely had to, but does that make all search providers evil, malicious, opportunistic profit seekers?


Not necessarily a law breaker


In natural search, there are legal precedents against using competitor names in site code. Therefore, the biggest problem with brand name searches is driven by one of the defining characteristics of paid search. If you want to buy a term, you must have relevant content on your site.


This is not a problem if State Farm Insurance wants to bid on the keywords that contain “state farm.” What if a competing insurance carrier had content relating to a third party’s comparison of insurance carriers? Since State Farm might be mentioned in the context of the study, under the relevancy rule, the competitor could buy the terms “State Farm.” 


There’s no confusion there; the competing insurance provider simply wants to let the world know that a third party has rated them higher than their competing national provider. As long as copy points aren’t misleading users, and the content isn’t violating any laws, that should be allowed, right?


Sue your own affiliates instead


Speaking of misleading users, I really don’t know why more brand marketers in search aren’t just suing their own affiliates. Maybe they are and it isn’t getting much press. If you really want to whine about confusion in paid listings, do a brand search just for fun to see how many affiliates represent themselves in listings as a brand.


While I am on the subject of affiliate marketing, isn’t it slightly contrary to the idea of having affiliates to let them represent themselves as the brands they serve? If an affiliate is simply listing your widget inventory in a catalog format and providing a link back to your shopping engine, then are they really doing anything at all for you? Shouldn’t an affiliate be offering value-based information or a complementary -- rather than a competing -- experience?


I found a great Web site that provides a detailed step-by-step procedure on how to do an Infiniti G35 hardwire install with an iPod. Wouldn’t that site make a great affiliate for Infiniti? There’s a peach of a Web site for a WWII aircraft museum in Chino, CA. Ever been to Chino? Apparently there’s a big prison, this museum, a bunch of farms and not much else. If ever there were a site begging for an affiliate link to a hotel, this was it.


Many paid search sites do not regulate affiliate listings, but at least one, Overture, won’t allow an affiliate to represent itself as the brand they might represent. In my most recent copy of the Overture Advertiser Workbook, the search provider suggests that an affiliate attempting to represent itself as a brand owner will not meet editorial guidelines. If only every search provider would do this -- there would be so much less confusion.


Matchmaker, make me a trademark


Here’s another problem: keyword matching. Matching is a great way to reach out to the universe of searchers; advertisers can ask to appear every time a user’s search includes the word “insurance.” In this manner, insurance company A can appear even when the user does a search for insurance company B, because the query included the word “insurance.”


Often, this brand listing confusion happens inadvertently, as in the advertiser or agency claims to not have known where they were appearing. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a really neat way to abuse a search result and subsequently plead stupidity when caught. Try pleading stupidity the next time you get pulled over for speeding, and please let me know how it works.


Several brands have initiated lawsuits against search sites for allowing competitors to buy branded terms. Some have won, others have lost, but a best practice is to avoid buying competitors’ names by adding them as negatives (removes keywords in question from results), or, on the provider side, to require more strict controls on matching technologies when a brand launches a search.


Why we love Forbes


While on the subject of paid listings, value, and efficiency, my previous prognostication (that placing listings on every inch of otherwise unused site real estate would one day bite us search people on the butt) was right on.


It’s no secret that contextual search listing inventory does not perform quite as well as directive search, but Forbes.com pulling otherwise unnecessary listings off editorial pages is the first example of a big publisher (at least partially) throwing in the towel on contextual search. 


Leaving aside the contextual inventory value proposition and any discussion relating to Forbes content or the motivation for removing the listings, this decision tells a story about the future of search. If there is no value to the user in the presence of contextual listings they will be removed.


Presumably, Forbes wasn’t making all that much money on those listings, so it couldn’t have been too difficult a decision to pull them. The listings simply couldn’t have been doing anyone any good. Add value or be gone. Here endeth the lesson.


I’ll take marketing in Kindergarten for $200, Alex


All things considered, I love your brand. You love your brand. But that doesn’t mean you can keep users from being confused. The general surfing or searching populace will remain confused or befuddled until we make some tweaks in how listings are represented.


Quality, integrity and relevance of search results will help paid search continue on a path of smart growth. Advertisers must consider the impact their paid listings have on users, perhaps before the courts get involved or editors start complaining that once-pristine content pages have started to resemble online flea markets. From what I have seen in the past week, it looks like we are well on the way to creating an effective long-term experience for searchers: court ordered, or user dictated.


About the Author: iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations. In his off-time, Ryan enjoys serving as Vice President at Wahlstrom Interactive.


Meet Ryan at this week's iMedia Agency Summit, December 5-8 and Search Engine Strategies, December 13-16.

This screenshot of about 20 percent of my inbox shows you what your subject lines are up against:



A good subject line anticipates and answers these questions:



  • Who sent the email? Your "from" or sender line works with the subject line to make the message trustworthy. Any doubts about who sent the message or what it's about can doom your email to the trash or mark it as spam.

  • What will I get if I open it? State the offer and what you're asking for or confirming right up front. "Hinty" subject lines ("You've just got to see this!") are total no-nos.

  • Do I want this email, or is it spam? The subject line should clearly show that the message is something valuable, trustworthy, requested, or anticipated.

This all must happen in a confined space, too. You think Twitter's 140-character limit is confining? Subject line writers have to do it in half that space.


That's a lot for a little one-liner in an inbox to bear, but the examples in this article should encourage you that it can be done. If you get stuck, think: "What will persuade my reader to act on this message?"


The good news is that for every subject line afflicted with the blues, there's a sure cure to make it sing a happier tune. Let's take a look at them.

1. Personalization run amok
Bungled personalization happens when people think the mail-merge function in their email list software will fool recipients into thinking a garden-variety commercial email is actually a personal message from a good friend.


If you don't require people to supply a first name, you end up with a subject line looking like this: "Hey, %namehere%, Special Deals Just for You!"


An easy fix might be to require at least a first name from everyone who registers for your email. However, personalization abuse occurs at a higher level, too.


At least three times a week, a school uniform supplier sends me emails like these: "New for Judy!" or "Don't wait, Judy!"


Judy is my mother, who placed a gift order for my sons and gave them my email address for updates. The list software merged the records and grafted my mom's name onto my email address. Women are supposed to become more like their mothers as they age, but this is too much.


The cure: Add a name field to your opt-in registration form for people who are signing up for email as part of a transaction.


The caveat: You might end up with a lot of "Mickey Mouses" on your list from subscribers who want to preserve their anonymity. Instead of relying on a name, write meaningful subject lines that speak to their interests instead of slapping a name on another boring subject line.

2. No "oomph" to the urgency
"Half Off Waxing and Tinting" said the subject line on a message from a salon/spa I like. Looked great! What it didn't tell me was that the offer was good until noon that day. By the time I opened the email, the offer was long gone.


The cure: State a time limit in your subject line if your offer has one. Just including your call-to-action should induce subscribers to act fast, even if your offer doesn't have an end point.


A fix: "Today Only: 50% Off Waxing and Tinting."


3. Call-to-action is MIA
The subject line said, "Most likely to... " To what? No clue. Even after I opened it, I still didn't know, because the sender put all the information inside one large image.


Turns out it's a new product category that sounds kind of fun. But, I'd have to be a rabid fan of the upscale handbag manufacturer that sent the email to want to find out more.


Another subject line said "Expiration Notice." Was it for something that had expired or was about to? No, I just had to update a credit-card number.


The cure: Always tell the reader what you want him or her to do. The call-to-action doesn't have to be "Buy Now." It's the hook that will persuade the reader to act: an incentive, an urgency reminder, a price, a store opening.


A fix: "Expiration Notice: Update Your Credit Card" tells me what I need to do.

4. Call-to-action amputation
This subject line has a lot going for it, but it makes one life-threatening error: "Kraft lunch ideas that don't break the bank. 6 meal ideas, $1 each."


Brand name? Check. Value proposition? Check. Call-to-action: Could end up lost if the subject line gets cut off in the inbox.


At 67 characters long, this subject line is at the outer edge of most default subject-line fields. The call-to-action (the $1 price tag) could disappear if the field cuts off the character count at 50.


And what's with the periods? At this length, each character counts.


The cure: Sacrifice some cleverness and save the call to action. Assume most inboxes will cut off subject lines at 60 to 70 characters. Make sure your critical information appears in that space.


Some email inboxes will reveal the cut-off characters if you mouse over them or allow users to extend the subject-line field. Don't count on subscribers to do either.


A fix: "From Kraft: $1 thrifty meal ideas." Result: 33 characters. The call-to-action is still at the end, but it's less likely to get chopped off.


Here's a good real-life example: "The Four-Bite Rule and other great weight loss tips."


In nine words and 51 spaces, you get a specific detail ("The Four-Bite Rule") and know there's more inside ("and other great weight loss tips").
 
5. "Same-old, same-old" syndrome
Is just seeing your company or brand name in the subject line enough to get your readers to open your message? Probably not, especially if they see the same subject line day after day. And don't they see your company in the From field?


When you publish daily, a standing headline might cut a few minutes off your work schedule, but it doesn't give readers a reason to look further.


"E! News Now September 22, 2009." That's a pretty bland headline for an email that's usually bursting with Hollywood gossip.


The cure: Use your top story or best offer to create the subject line. The inbox itself will provide the numbers.


A fix: "E! News Online: Fashion Police, Live from the Emmys 2009." Now I know there's something good, snarky, and timely to read.

6. Funky punctuation
News flash! Using "Free" in the subject line will not get you blocked automatically at major ISPs. However, disguising it with funky punctuation could, if you commit other email sins (broken code, DNS doubtfulness, giant images, etc.).


Even if you're not trying to fool the spam filters, using punctuation in ways the language never intended could also bring out the junk-mail hook.


Savvy emailers have learned this. Amateurs haven't. You might be a niche or local retailer, but you don't have to look like one.


Some cringe-worthy examples:


"F*reed Shipping Today Only on All Cat Toys"
"F-R-E-E Health and Beauty Tips For You"
"Vegas is Calling!!!!!!"


Use punctuation sparingly in subject lines. It confuses more often than it clarifies.


"R&R Sale -- Fares start at $29*" (I read fine print to understand an offer, not a subject line.)


The cure: Is it free? Just say it. But use it strategically, not just to goose a blah offer. "Free" has a major impact -- unless everybody else in the inbox is using it too.


A fix: "Today Only: All Cat Toys Ship Free" (34 characters)


7. Cryptic subjects
Translation, please:


"NEW: Samsung 23" LCD $199... Sony 40" 1080p HDTV $749...Core 2 Duo Laptop w/ HD Graphics $579 & More New Deals"


Now, I know I said subject lines have to say a lot in a few characters, but you shouldn't have to know geek speak to understand what's going on. And enough with the ellipses!


The cure: Focus on a key deal or two in your subject line and include more detail.


A fix: "New Deals: Samsung 23" LCD Monitor $199 plus Sony 40" HDTV $749 and more!" The "and more" could get cut off, but it won't detract from your other offers.


Conclusion: What brings on the blahs?
Bland subject lines happen when you don't know what will make your readers leap into action. Testing, as you do on offers (I hope!), will help you learn this.


Test your subject lines before you send, using two versions of your subject line and a simple A/B split test. Take a sample of your mailing list, divide it into "Part A" and "Part B," and send one version of your subject line to each sublist. See which subject line drew more opens or clicks.


Wendy Roth is the senior manager of training services for Lyris Technologies.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

There must be consistency


It starts with quality expert content, but the other piece of the puzzle is to consistently be engaging and communicating with your audience. Often, when companies or individuals begin the content strategy process, they either overdo it and burn out or contribute sporadically.


Hint: Start small. Try contributing once or twice a month at the start to build credibility and create a platform of authority.


Reach your niche -- not for the stars


It's very easy to think that you belong in Ad Age, Forbes, or The Wall Street Journal from day one, but you need to understand the difference between gaining credibility and actually reaching your market segment. Both can be accomplished through thought leadership, but the most organic process to obtain both starts with reaching niche audiences and leveraging yourself up from there.


Hint: Contribute to niche publications that have engaged your target market. This will give you an opportunity to interact with your ideal clients before you move your way up to authority publications, where you'll speak to a more global audience.

Earn it


Everyone has heard the saying, "Success doesn't happen overnight." This popular -- and very true -- statement perfectly describes how thought leadership is currently working and can work for agency leaders if they do it right. By publishing consistent, high-quality content in niche publications and building expertise, you can earn your way into conversations as a thought leader.


Hint: Do it the right way -- people know the difference between true thought leaders who earned their positions and those who cheated the system. Don't hurt your company's image in your rush to become known.


Communicate "real world" problems


At the end of the day, the platform and influence you create have the ability to help people. Don't waste your time -- or anyone else's -- writing content that you think might go viral. Instead, spend time sharing your true expertise, experiences, and insights so you better position yourself and your company as experts.


Hint: Be conscious of what's going to engage -- lists or eye-grabbing, disruptive content -- but don't sacrifice quality for a sexy factor. You want to produce content that will endure.


The benefits of gaining influence online are becoming more substantial every day, not just for agency leaders, but for their companies as well. Even if you're already considered an expert -- or think you are one -- the process of growing your platform and influence never ends. Invest time and resources in online thought leadership, and you'll see a lasting difference in how your company is viewed.



Ryan O'Connell is vice president at Influence & Co.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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