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SearchTHIS: Can You Forecast Search?

SearchTHIS: Can You Forecast Search? Kevin Ryan

There’s a long list of things that drive me crazy. Topping the inventory are sentences and phrases that include the word “can’t.” For instance, when I hear things like, “Mr. Ryan we can’t upgrade you for this flight,” or “Kevin, I can’t seem to find your reservation.” Perhaps my personal favorite is, “Kevin we can’t give you a raise this year, but we’d like you to take on more responsibility.”

The most famous “can’t” I hear in pay for placement search is, “We can’t assign a budget to SEM.” That statement is usually followed by the explanation, “because it is impossible to predict search behavior.” Impossible you say? I say, "no estoy comprendo."

For most marketers today, finding the money for SEM isn’t the problem. Site owners know search is important, natural optimization costs can be aptly categorized as predictable, but assigning a final budget figure to paid search becomes a bit difficult. The word “final” might be the problem since search predictions aren’t an exact science. Maybe “flexible” might be a better word but “flexible” doesn’t have to be “painful,” or “impossible.”


At the core of every budget forecast is a list of keywords. At best, choosing and developing keyword lists is an ongoing process. A smart place to start is in site side analytics. Chances are you already know which keywords users enter to find your site with referrer information analysis. That list of keywords is your launching point and from there you can begin to develop your first entry points.

Keyword suggestion tools are the next step in the process. Many pay for placement providers have their own such as Overture and Google, which both offer keyword suggestion tools but you don’t have to stop there.

Probably the most well-known keyword selection tool beyond the provider-based realm is wordtracker and for search beyond the American borders you will find help for international search terms at dWoz.

As you move through this process, remember to include what I call stupid keywords. The most overlooked or misunderstood area of keyword selection is keywords or phrases that show little or no search activity. These phrases include variations of brand or product names, misspellings (though many search engines will suggest alternative words, you shouldn’t rely on them) which may not even appear in keyword suggestion tools. These include “Dodgeball,” Dodge [space] ball,” “Harley Davison,” and “Trao 600.” Even though many of these terms will show little or no search activity, they can and will receive motivated traffic. You know what they say about stupid people and their money -- and I should know.

Once you have keyword sets, you should begin to assign weights to these phrases and place them into categories (final weights will be determined by actual post-click performance.) Next, assign specific landing pages to each keyword and keyword grouping.

During the preliminary weighting process you should be determining the importance of these keywords to help with the initial budgeting process. For example, generic terms might receive a lower weight (higher traffic) or budget assignment than brand or product (lower traffic) specific terms since conversion or desired action rates will be much higher for terms associated with brand or product.

Not so easy

Toolsets for predicting click traffic into keyword sets have gotten a lot better since the GoTo.Com Duck first crossed our path’s back in 1997 but for the most part, search marketers are still guessing. Keyword suggestion tools are good indicators of static search activity, assuming demand in your keyword category is static, but you know what they say about ass-you-me-ing anything.

When developing the initial outlines for keyword cost projections it is important to keep in mind user behavior or the user buying funnel. More generic search terms that often have multiple meanings will show lower click-through rates while brand or product specific keywords will show higher click activity. Use caution with generic, multiple meanings as future post-click performance may indicate that you don’t need them at all.

For example, an auto manufacturer can predict a 2 percent click through rate (CTR) for the phrase “SUV” while the brand specific “Hummer” will show a much higher CTR in the 8 to 12 percent range for that brand. The only remaining “X” factor is the stupid keyword set, but simply assigning a cost of 1 percent of brand term cost to this grouping to account for terms like “Humer” is adequate for budgeting.

Seasonality is a key factor to bear in mind when assessing traffic projections and keyword costs. Search providers and SEM firms will step up to help determine demand activity for keyword sets within your buying cycles so don’t ignore them. Simply viewing last month’s search activity for terms just won’t do it.

Historically painful

Does budgeting in this manner work? Sure it does, though there will always be a margin of error. The process of initial budgeting for keywords is designed simply to provide you with an overall outline for costs and this method is extremely effective for outlining expenditures for initial post-click activity performance testing.

Since performance will define final budget allocations and search providers vary in how listing representation is defined, don’t make the mistake of simply assigning a budget projection based on the search activity and click cost for a single position with one provider. For example, estimating a click cost of $.14 on Overture for a term searched 1,000 times a month and assigning keyword projections will show an incredibly high margin of error since this figure will not account for the Google AdWords user determining listing representation criteria.

In the examples below I have simplified seasonality into high and low activity months. Figures account for the combined estimates from several pay for placement search providers.




Of course you can have thousands of keywords and hundreds of keyword groupings. Smart search marketing firms (and sometimes providers) will help you determine anticipated click activity for budgeting systems and account positioning as well. A comprehensive format for budgeting will also include components for contextual placements and assignments for keyword expenditures to either cost of sales or marketing.

Slightly less than impossible

And so my friends, we move into the great unknown. The last “can’t” in pay for placement search is the totally unpredictable. Tales of search marketing lore abound relating to product launches sans search along with accounts of perpetual woe as public relations fiascoes occur with accidental breast viewing during family entertainment television shows or clients who get indicted for any one of a hundred celebrity induced crimes that might impact brand endorsements.

The commonly accepted practice for the disintermediation of news results with pay for placement search damage control content in the case of public relations fiascoes or, in the instance of product launches (when they are included at all) is simply assigning an emergency or reserve budget figure to search placements.

You can’t predict the unknown, right? Not without a Ouija board and shiny crystal ball, but it is possible to analyze past activity for similar, uh, problems and opportunities and make intelligent inferences as to possible costs.

Continuing on the SUV theme, this week the world of pick-em up truck and SUV owners on a quest to own the biggest and best truck to compensate for other shortcomings may have delighted in the news that still another completely unnecessary vehicle was being introduced.

For about twice the price of a Hummer H2 one can now purchase an all-wheel drive pick up twice the size of an H2 built on a tractor trailer frame. The big truck company International introduced its model CXT this week with a bang, but how could the company possibly launch a search initiative for this beast?

Past search spike activity for similar launches in this category will undoubtedly provide some intelligence on not only search activity but click costs as well. Actual search data on keywords for other products can show activity from product launch all the way to the comparative stabilization of search activity due to awareness maturity. This discipline of category profiling can be applied to almost any product launch or PR nightmare.

Historical research for past events -- be they fame induced or in the more common example of product launch -- can yield smart guesses, not exact figures. Instances of search unknown can effectively be placed into categories using past search activity data available from search providers just as you would for any other launch and, although it is not perfect, the information gathered is still better than the “duh, we think it cost this much,” answer most search marketers get when seeking budgeting information.

The little search engine budget that can

Pay for placement search budgeting will never be an exact science and there will always be unexplainable spikes in search activity. UFO sightings and scantily clad concert singers aside, applied science and intelligent research will provide a sound launching platform for search budgeting. “Can’t” simply shouldn’t be part of your search engine pay for placement search vocabulary and whining about search’s unpredictable nature just won’t solve the budgeting problem. In the immortal words of Marge Simpson, “Don’t be a crybaby, be a do-baby.”

iMedia columnist 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. Kevin 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. Kevin volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations. Meet Ryan at the Kelsey conference and Ad:Tech, NY.

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This campaign truly realizes the full promise of the in-game advertising medium. Gameplay attributes are assigned to each of the Adidas shoe models that the player chooses from. Corresponding gameplay attributes match the brand attributes of each shoe, delivering product education and virtual sampling. General branding is throughout the game via signage, branded ball, branded apparel and an instant replay sponsorship. An Adidas tournament within the game offers prizing and the opportunity to play in a live soccer game with the Adidas "stars," including David Beckham.

Images of the game

Next: Pontiac in College Hoops 2K7

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The Pontiac-sponsored NCAA Final 4 tournament in College Hoops 2K7 mirrors the actual NCAA tournament, including all of the brackets with team drafting and online play. The top four gamers in the Pontiac Virtual NCAA Final 4 public tournament will win a trip to Atlanta to play the Final 4 match-ups at a live event. In addition, four Pontiac Game Changing Performances -- plays that turn the tide and change the outcome of the game -- will be selected from games played during each round of the virtual tournament.


Next: Power Bar Triple Threat and College Hoops 2K7

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Power Bar's longstanding relationship with 2K has combined the best of in-game and co-marketing opportunities. The program included a national sweepstakes and online leaderboard competition (a combination of online ranking points from both NBA 2K6 and College Hoops 2K6 games) and free unlockable codes available via on the brand's website. In College Hoops 2K7 PowerBar Triple Threat branding was also highly visible, integrated into broadcast sponsorships such as the PowerBar Action Replay, PowerBar Player of the Half as well as branded chairs and stadium signage.



Next: Visa in CSI 3

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OMD was able to incorporate Visa's fraud protection message into the storyline of one of the games' cases. A victim has faked her own death, using her sister's Visa card to fund her getaway. Her plan falls apart when Visa's continuous fraud monitoring service flags activity on the account, making Visa the most important clue in the critical path used to solve the game's mystery. Visa's message lives within the script, giving the player a one-on-one, highly relevant experience with the brand and clearly communicating the security benefits of owning a Visa card.

Next: Chrysler in Splinter Cell Double Agent

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Chrysler's 300C not only looks amazing in Splinter Cell Double Agent, it plays an active role in the game. The car actually initiates the start of the game's mission: the 300C is driven by the main character's boss. The empty car with the door open is player's cue that a character is missing. During gameplay, players can set off car alarms to distract the enemy. The 300C was also featured in retail circulars and POP advertising. A tournament co-branded with Best Buy let gamers compete to win the vehicle and cash prizes.


Next: Gatorade in NBA 2K7

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Gatorade was able to take a very successful and unique broadcast sponsorship with Turner and extend that sponsorship to leverage a gaming audience.

In every instance that the game cameras cut to the bench to capture player chatter, Gatorade Around The Cooler Branding appears on screen with sportscaster Craig Sager providing expert commentary. The program was supported with Gatorade coolers and cups on the sidelines and signage.

Next: Conclusion

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The best advice I can give you is to think in terms of the overall program, your relationship with the game content and unique-to-medium opportunities. Be a part of the storyline and use that program to educate consumers and provide them with a meaningful connection to your brand. Go beyond the banner, beyond the 30-second spot, while using signage as a relevant tool to drive reach and add a call-to-action in driving your gaming ROI.

Julie Shumaker is VP of sales for Double Fusion. Read full bio.

How reliable is Twitter search?
Real-time search is imperfect for a number of reasons, so let's count the ways. Twitter Search is limited to Twitter content. While some real-time search engines try to sort Twitter posts by relevance, results are presented chronologically. Some real-time search engines index multiple microblogging sites. Even so, databases remain limited. Today's real-time engines are more like aggregators of social media comments.

Real-time engines have many challenges, including spam, data accuracy, limited databases, and limited ranking algorithms. Whenever you have social networking, the content is subject to spam. But most real-time search engines do not filter out spam; they basically display information by date. So people must use discernment when viewing real-time search information. Accuracy also requires good judgment because people tweeting on the fly can make mistakes. 

Take, for instance, all the rumors surrounding the death of Michael Jackson. Which should you believe? Then there were all the events after the Iranian election. Anybody can post anything, and there's no editorial accuracy check.

Another problem is that information is ranked chronologically without filters. It should be filtered and also ranked by order of importance and relevance. Real-time search is in its infancy and has a long way to go. Buyer beware when using real-time search content.

At Google's 2009 Searchology conference in May, Marissa Mayer stated the most difficult unsolved problems in search were:

  • Finding the most recent information

  • Expressing that you want just one type of result

  • Assessing which results are best

  • Knowing what you're looking for

  • Expressing your searches in keywords

Real-time search is at the top of the list, but it needs to be filtered and made more accurate and reliable.

The marketing benefits of real-time search
How can marketers use real-time search? Twitter and social bookmarking sites let marketers figure out what topics are currently relevant to consumers, and real-time information is valuable because it lets marketers see conversations pertaining to a number of different topics.

The activities and commentary on social media sites provide valuable insight, comments, and opinions about trends, news, events, products, and services (via reviews), and most importantly, needs and desires. Marketers can get the inside story on what consumers want, plan to buy, etc. Searching social networking updates gives marketers clues into user intent, attitudes, behavior, buying patterns, and much more.

You need a social media strategy to mine this information, details of which are beyond the scope of this article. However, here's an oversimplified overview: Start with a social media team with accounts on Twitter and other social media sites to establish a presence. This takes time and a bit of listening before entering any conversations. After establishing trust, the team can search Twitter posts on your topic of interest, dig deeper into relevant posts, and reach out with a tweet or blog comment to possible prospects. Share your product info and leave a link or contact information in case prospects might be interested. Obviously, this has to be done with finesse. Your team is subtly trying to help prospects meet their needs, not giving them a sales pitch.

Marketers can gain a lot of "real-time" insight and value from social interactions on microblogging sites. So when your team identifies a need or an interest, it can enter that particular conversation. It's perfectly OK to send the prospect a tweet telling them to check out your offering when you've been actively participating and saw they expressed a desire for your type of product or service.

Who is close to having it now?
Twitter rules real-time search, hands down, but Facebook has rolled out a new version of Facebook Search that provides real-time search once updates become searchable. Here's a roundup of other real-time search players:

Twitter: Social networking communication and search tool. Look to Twitter for immediate real-time results. This includes all tweets published on Twitter except for a few updates by users who don't release to the public. Twitter got a new homepage last month with the search bar prominently on top. The search box is also available on your profile page under the right sidebar options. Enter any word, city, location, or search operator to find tweets about information of interest.

Collecta: Monitors the update streams of news sites, popular blogs, and social media, providing results in almost real time. Some results are not real-time search because results from blogs and news sites have to be written, posted, and crawled first. However, you can filter to get only microblogging results by checking "Updates Twitter, Jaiku, and Identica."

CrowdEye: Real-time social search for microblogging tweets on Twitter. Scans through tweets, retweets, twitter links, etc. to find popular Twitter articles posted on various topics.

FriendFeed: Can be used for real-time search because people use it to gather their information into a single feed and link their blog, YouTube account, StumbleUpon, Digg submissions, etc. It's searchable, and you can also post updates similar to tweets.

Jaiku: This is Google's entry into social networking and microblogging, but the site hasn't take off. Service is maintained by volunteer Google engineers in their spare time.

OneRiot: Crawls the links people share on Twitter, Digg, and other social sharing services and indexes the content in seconds. The end result allows users to find the freshest, most socially relevant content in real time. 

Plurk: Social real-time conversation search, which differs from general search in a couple of ways: (1) Plurk offers almost instantaneous feedback and reaction from real people on issues and events, (2) focuses more on human interconnectedness and subjective inquiry.

Scoopler: Aggregates and organizes content shared on the internet as it happens (breaking news, photos, videos, hot links). Constantly indexes live updates from services like Twitter, Flickr, Digg, Delicious, etc. Relevant results updated in real time.

Topsy: Listens to conversations on the living social web, including Twitter, blogs, Flickr, Digg, Yelp, and Identica. People use these communities to share reviews, opinions, messages, comments, and discussions about topics, and Topsy indexes what people are talking about. You can find the most popular links being shared through microblogging.

Twazzup: Searches Twitter and serves algorithmically generated results such as Featured Tweets, Top Trendmakers, Contributors, etc., by tweets, by retweets, by name, and by date.

Tweetfind: Twitter directory that sorts Twitter posts by relevancy.

TweetMeme: Aggregates all the popular links on Twitter, determining which are the most popular. Categorizes these links into categories and subcategories, making it easy to filter and find what you need.

Twingly: Blog search engine that indexes posts from Twitter, Jaiku, Identica, etc. for spam-free social search.

Twittorati: From Technorati blog search, this service mines Technorati's top bloggers and blogs to provide top tweeted links based on authority.


Will Google mop the floor in real-time search?
Maybe not this time; Google is in catch-up mode. To serve fresher results, Google launched a new "search options" feature on its main search page in May. Enter your query and click on "Search Options." This brings up a screen where you can filter your search by results (videos, forums, reviews), by time (recent, past 24 hours, past week, past year), by description (images from the page, more text), and by view (related searches, wonder wheel, timeline). These options are shown below for a query on "real time search engines."


When you start filtering, some of the options go away, depending on the selected filters. Below are the results filtered by reviews from the past year, sorted by date, and displaying standard results. Note that the "standard" view options disappeared because of selected filters. If you included All results/Any time, you might get more options. 

Real-time search provides real-time information, adding to search relevance. Twitter leads the pack, but there are many other contenders in the running. Real-time search gives you freshness and speed, while general search provides reliability and authority. Nevertheless, Google and other general search engines will likely enter the fray.

Real-time search engines have many challenges. Most of them do not filter out spam, so users must use discernment. Ranking algorithms are weak as most real-time services display information chronologically. It would be nice if information were filtered and ranked by importance and relevance. Anyone can post anything on the fly without checking facts, so accuracy is a problem. Lastly, its databases are limited to Twitter posts and other social media content. Real-time search is in its infancy and has a long way to go. Despite all the challenges, it is valuable for consumers and marketers alike and could, as Marissa Mayer remarked, "ultimately reinvent search."

Claudia Bruemmer is a freelance writer-editor and internet marketing consultant.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Q: Can you put up more posts that will go viral?

Why it's annoying: First off, you should stop using a word if you don't know its definition. Volumes have been written about the term "viral" and the varying degrees of annoyance that it sparks in marketing circles. But it's still commonly bantered about haphazardly as though everyone in the room will instantly know what's being discussed.

When this question comes up, the first discussion to have is regarding what exactly the person means by "go viral." Surely the person is asking whether the social media team can produce content that will be shared. But to what degree? Is the asker expecting the next Harlem Shake? Or would the person just like to see a YouTube video get a few hundred views rather than a dozen? Set some expectations.

The second discussion to have is around the nature of viral sharing. Years ago, social media managers might simply tell someone, "You can't predict viral sharing." But over the years, we've made a lot of progress in this area. (Just Google "how to predict viral sharing" and watch the articles pour in.) There are factors that help enhance the shareability of content. And some people claim they can measure that. But few will deny that there is still plenty of lightning in a bottle happening when something truly "goes viral" -- things no one foresaw and can't replicate.

Furthermore, while some viral phenomena happen all on their own, many that happen -- especially on the brand marketing side -- are a result of very strategic content seeding and media buys. Putting a little money behind a favored piece of content can produce exceptional results. But usually the people who ask, "Can you make it go viral?" have something a little more organic in mind, in which case you're facing an uphill battle.

The better question to ask: What types of posts can we put up that people are going to want to share? And what can we do to increase the likelihood that people will find that content?

Q: Social media -- that's free, right?

Why it's annoying: Believe it or not, this assumption still gets thrown out there. I know I'm not the first to palm my face over it, but it must be included in the context of this article given its continued prevalence.

First, the response: No. It's not free. Facebook and Twitter might not charge you to set up an account. But that's about where the freebies end. Social media takes time, and time is -- everybody together now -- money. Advertising and sponsorships in social media cost money. Proper social analytics tools cost money.

When this question was first routinely asked, it was often mere ignorance talking. But these days, when social media managers hear it, it's hard not to take downright offense. "Is it free?" they think. "Well, this is how I make my living, so no. It's not free. (In fact, you're paying me, so why are you even asking that??)" Social media has value. And thus, it carries a price tag.

The better question to ask: What kind of investment will it take to have the social media presence we want? And where are the costs?

Q: Can't we have the intern do that? (Worse: Can't we have my nephew do that?)

Why it's annoying: This is another oldie but goodie. And today, it's even more prevalent than the question around the cost -- or assumed lack thereof -- of social media. But it comes from the same place -- a perceived lack of sophistication required when managing a brand in social media.

Young professionals -- those right out of college -- did grow up with "this social media thing," yes. So they get it better than anyone else, right? Wrong. That's like assuming that because a person grew up watching TV that they can write, produce, and edit an amazing commercial right out of the gate. It obviously doesn't work like that.

Social media marketing takes time, training, and a level of savvy and maturity that often isn't present in the most junior of employees. As such, social media departments must be structured according to levels of seniority, and responsibilities must be metered out based on who has a proven track record in proper execution. Yes, your intern might rock a social media gig right out of the gate. Great! Give that person a promotion and more responsibility. But don't just give the keys to your social media program over to the first young person you find and hope all goes well. (It won't.)

The better question to ask: What is the proper way to structure our social media team and divvy up responsibilities?

Q: Can you create us an account on [insert latest social media darling]?

Why it's annoying: The annoyance related to this question is one of nuance, but it's an important one regardless. The short answer to this question is almost always, "Yes." But the reason it makes your social team crazy is the underlying assumption -- the idea that every brand must be on the latest social media platform. Or, more importantly, that the social media team has the resources to be on every platform.

That said, depending on your brand, it might very well make a lot of sense to explore the new platform in question. But be sure to approach the issue with your team as a conversation rather than a mandate. There's no point in diving into a new social sphere if you're going to have to half-ass it. And spreading your social resources too thin could set you back when it comes to other platforms where your brand already has a strong presence.

The better questions to ask: Should our brand be on [insert latest social media darling]? If so, what do we need to do to make that happen?

Q: Can you get us more Facebook fans/Twitter followers?

Why it's annoying: As with the previous question, this one requires a little qualifying. Because, frankly, every social media manager should expect to hear this question. And they need to be prepared to answer it. And, if they can't increase followers to some extent, they're probably not going to have a job for very long.

But, that said, there are plenty of ways that social media managers can artificially inflate follower numbers when backed into a corner -- but they aren't necessarily going to get your brand any closer to its goals.

This question -- often repeated in broken-record fashion -- can become quite irritating when asked by a colleague who thinks the only measure of social media success is in followers. For one, not all brands can garner Starbucks-level social followings. And most of them shouldn't. A lot of brands are niche, local, or both. As such, their follower levels should reflect that. And regardless, the size of a brand's social following doesn't mean a thing if that audience isn't engaged. So there are better questions to be asking.
The better questions to ask: How can we get more loyal Facebook fans/Twitter followers? And how can we drive more engagement with them?

Drew Hubbard is a social media strategist and owner of LA Foodie.

On Twitter? Follow Hubbard at @LAFoodie. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Group of business people holding a question mark" image via Shutterstock.

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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