ellipsis flag icon-blogicon-check icon-comments icon-email icon-error icon-facebook icon-follow-comment icon-googleicon-hamburger icon-imedia-blog icon-imediaicon-instagramicon-left-arrow icon-linked-in icon-linked icon-linkedin icon-multi-page-view icon-person icon-print icon-right-arrow icon-save icon-searchicon-share-arrow icon-single-page-view icon-tag icon-twitter icon-unfollow icon-upload icon-valid icon-video-play icon-views icon-website icon-youtubelogo-imedia-white logo-imedia logo-mediaWhite review-star thumbs_down thumbs_up

SearchTHIS: Saving Your Search Tail

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS: Saving Your Search Tail Kevin M. Ryan

The advanced keyword buying, bidding and positioning technologies of today are technological marvels. They observe and react to buying behaviors and adjust positions according to Cost Per Order (CPO) requirements, return on advertising spend goals and, at a very basic level, according to budget.

The very notion of managing a keyword-based paid search marketing initiative is exciting. At first glance, it seems easy enough. Upload a bunch of keywords via a publisher-provided interface or a handy dandy one provided by one of the numerous third parties out there, then sit back and watch the fun. Millions of people searching for your goods and services will find them within days, hours or perhaps minutes.

What happens if millions of people aren’t searching for your keywords? How about hundreds? What if only ten people searched for your word? Should you even bother with these words and phrases? What if the decision to include low volume phrases is made for you based on someone else’s poor performance?

Let’s take a look at the front and back end of search activity and see if we can make sense of it all.

Witness, the tail

“Search's Long Tail,” is a phrase made popular in search marketing lore by Danny Sullivan in a March, 2005 post to the Search Engine Watch blog. It has been adopted the marketing world over, as Danny noted, due to a recent article from Wired editor Chris Anderson in October, 2004 called “The Long Tail,” referring to low volume production entertainment, in aggregate, becoming larger than giant monoliths.

The tail, as it were, is merely a chart of searched terms in your keyword-driven marketing program. It is designed to represent the number of searches within a category, or in your case a search initiative, to help make sense of search activity patterns. 

The search tail might be oddly similar to the graphic representation of the search data below from Hitwise, an online competitive intelligence service. High volumes of searches represent the peaks, and the valleys indicate where searchers have lost interest in terms and phrases. Take for example, the latest nudniks to embarrass themselves on television’s "American Idol," below.


Your search marketing tail chart would be a series of bars representing keywords stacked from high to low according to keyword search frequency. The decline from high to low would represent your keyword tail.

There is, of course, another kind of keyword activity phenomenon, like the one we see above with "American Idol" search activity. For our purposes here, let’s call it the search nose. Unlike the search tail, the nose appears in far in advance of the tail. There are few, if any, searches for terms in the nose and these keywords can suddenly appear on the search radar screen due to acts of Hollywood (in the case of "American Idol") or simple seasonal changes in product cycles like Cadbury Cream Eggs every Easter.

Volume issues

While high volume terms seem to get the most publicity and the most bid competition, the back end of search activity often represents highly targeted and (not to mention) inexpensive phrases. They are harder to find than high volume phrases, and search marketers have to dig pretty deep into search behavior to locate phrases that appear less often year round, seasonally or the even more elusive campaign-specific terms.

Another problem with low volume keywords is inherent to the lack of search activity. Since there are far fewer searches, commission-based search engine marketing firms or agencies can be reluctant to seek them out. The upside for marketers in targeting and pricing is clear, but tracking down thousands of keywords and phrases -- which may only comprise five percent or less of search activity -- is tedious and labor intensive. They may also only represent a marginal portion of a search budget.

Worse, search sites really don’t appreciate these little gems. Minimum impression and click rate requirements for keywords may inhibit an advertiser’s ability to secure them. Google’s controversial Smart Keyword Evaluation tool will disable keywords if they don’t meet minimum click requirements. The decision to remove a keyword is made based on accumulated historical clickthough rates for specific or similar terms in the Google keyword lexicon.

Search providers will often disallow keywords for not meeting minimum click requirements. This is a noble and worthy procedure that is designed to keep the search result relevant, but as with any practice designed for the masses, there are always exceptions.

Well-groomed keywords

Google’s tool seems to be a particular nuisance to seasonal marketers or those introducing new products or services. Consider the plight of the March Madness marketer client of Dallas-based Zunch Communications.

In the ZEN-SEM blog, Zunch’s Laura Deerfield profiled a seasonal campaign that didn’t quite make the Smart Keyword cut. “We started off with a test campaign using a core of college basketball and March Madness related terms, and then expanded to specific team and school names as the brackets were announced.”

Zunch’s client was offering an online broadcast to help promote the seasonal event, but they were precluded from using the most relevant keywords. “This was an unusual PPC campaign,” Deerfield continues. ”There was a very narrow window of consumer interest. Traffic was slow on the test campaign … and some of the key terms got disabled. Quickly.”

In the March Madness case, there is simply no search history to make decisions about past performance. Similar stories in restrictive keyword use in campaigns abound. Some relate to new product launches in which terms that are used -- terms which resemble phrases that performed poorly for other advertisers -- are barred.

There is a larger issue at work here. While the idea of keeping results relevant is simple, forcing advertisers to choose terms that worked well for others, thereby increasing bid competition, doesn’t benefit advertisers nearly as much as it helps the search site’s bottom line.

Stunted evolution

For a lot of good reasons, the artistic and scientific endeavor of creating a large scale keyword-driven marketing initiative is complicated. It requires a little massaging of a search site’s editorial policies, creative messaging, and in some cases it seems a crystal ball is in order.

In the end, we want users to begin to speak to search engines in a more educated way. Several research reports on key phrase use have indicated that -- despite a user's desire to interact with the search engine using multiword phrases -- they continue to use one, two or three words in queries.

Relevancy guidelines are critical, but the artificial intelligence in automated keyword removal just isn’t there yet. Clearly if we wish to continue expanding the relationship users have with a search, exceptions must be made, and representatives in day-to-day contact with advertisers have to be educated and empowered to make those decisions.

Additional resources:

SearchTHIS: How Important is the Pole Position?

Visit the Zunch Zen-SEM Blog

Steve Rubel's "The Long Tail of the Blogosphere"

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.

Mr. Ryan is the principal of Kinetic Results, Inc. a New York-based online presence management firm.

Meet Kevin Ryan at the iMedia Summit, May 22 to 25

John Durham, CATALYST S+F

Every morning, I dedicate 30 minutes to reading the trades -- and have been for 25+ years religiously. I must know what people are thinking and reading. I also routinely share articles to a 50-person reading list.

Tal Halpern, Datapop

Remember to always ask "Why?" when you start on a project. It will help you keep in mind the big picture of what you are trying to accomplish, consider the needs of those that are involved, and help you assess if you are approaching it in the best way or not.

Kent Woolson, AdParlor

My best tip for anyone in marketing is preparation. Before picking up the phone when calling a potential client, do some background. What is their work experience? Look up LinkedIn, go to their current company's website and spend some time. Read case studies if available. Find some personal background information on Facebook, but don't get creepy!

Kelly Miller, BrightTag

Professionalism: Every email deserves a response. Too often, in our industry, professional etiquette falls by the wayside. Everyone is inundated with emails while trying to get their daily tasks completed and may decide that some emails do not warrant a response. Any response -- even a note to set timing expectations, a pass to the more appropriate person, or an honest, "I am so sorry but I can't help you" -- goes a long way. Ironically, relationships and professional etiquette is never a focus in this business, however it is the one thing that can take you the furthest.

Jeff Ferguson, Fang Digital Marketing

Work while you're working by firing off a salvo of tasks to your employees, co-workers, and clients first thing in the morning. Then attack the first big thing on your to-do list without checking email again until you're done, while the rest of your team accomplishes their responsibilities.

Rebecca Keen, Cramer-Krasslett

My tip: Have fun at what the day brings you, smile often, laugh a lot, and dance. In the words of Baz Luhrmann ("Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen"), "Do one thing every day that scares you." Life is short. Don't take things too seriously, and be human.

Adam Kleinberg, Traction

My daily habit is pretty simple, actually. I try to sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee, open up my schedule, and make a list of the things I need to accomplish that day. It's so easy to get pulled into a whirlwind. You often feel like the course of your day is determined by a bunch of meetings people threw onto your calendar that don't align with your priorities. Well guess what? It's your time! I sit down for a few minutes of calm, assess what my day looks like, make sure it aligns with my priorities (not someone else's), and make space if I need to. I make sure I have enough time budgeted to do the things that I really need to do -- and feel less stressed and more productive throughout my day.

Kraig Smith, PReturn

Close the loop…with yourself. We should all think critically about how to improve results by developing the habit of auditing our own performance and setting goals at least annually and quarterly. For those of you nodding in agreement, ask yourselves the million-dollar follow up question: "Do you set deadlines and other tactical concerns aside to complete the circular process?" Last year's goals and the progress made against them should influence goals for the new year, but we don't always prioritize closing that loop with ourselves.

Mark Naples, WIT Strategy

I try to read something outside of our trade pub echo chamber before I make any decisions on behalf of clients. Feels like I need to start my real brain before I start my industry brain, you know?

Tracy Northcutt, Microsoft

Allow yourself to be inspired by marketing. When I was a toddler, I would be watching the latest episode of "Sesame Street" and would immediately drop everything I was doing when a commercial came on. When I was eight years old, I memorized the entire "Lee Press On Nails" commercial and would parrot it back to anyone who would listen and be impressed with my pitch. (I still know it by heart.) I have always been enthralled by advertisements, and to this day, watching infomercials on a late Saturday night is one of my favorite pastimes.

Start paying attention to marketing campaigns that are targeting you, and constantly think of how you may be able to leverage bits of pieces for your own marketing initiatives. Like a child, allow yourself to again be open and inspired by marketing. Who knows? These seemingly bothersome and inconvenient messages just might spark your next big idea!

Brad Hawk, Leapfrog Online

Attack the day by starting early. As difficult as it can be sometimes, it helps me to focus on the big picture and what lies ahead. So much of digital marketing happens in real-time now, and it keeps me ahead of clients, ahead of new challenges, ready to position our team for success.

Sara Rennich, Kelly, Scott, Madison

I make it a habit to continually build open communication with our vendors, especially with platform-based technology partners. Many times I find they hold back criticism, due to a "client is always right" mentality. However, by expressing the desire for feedback and continually asking for ways to improve, I receive strategic ideas and tips for my campaigns.

Aaron Goldman, Kenshoo

My motto is "Never go to bed with an angry inbox." I always make sure I've read all my emails before I shut my eyes at night. I don't always respond to everything, but I mark things for follow-up as needed. As a marketer, you never know where your next big opportunity is going to come from, and I've found that, many times, it's sitting right there in your inbox and can't wait until tomorrow.

Peter Cornell, Yahoo

Every day, pick an ad or other intentional media engagement by a brand (tweet, FB story, etc.) that doesn't make much sense to you and ask others what they think is going on. Don't constrain these conversations just to the marketing people in your life -- often times talking to folks outside of the marketing world will yield the most interesting insights.

My daily habit

Finally, I'd like to share my own best tip: Clean out your inbox. My goal every day is to clear my inbox. If I need to respond, then I do. If I need to schedule a meeting, then I do. If I need to address this item later (such as read a white paper or go through notes), I set up a meeting on my calendar with myself and do it at that time. By the time I leave the office, the only items left in my inbox are ones in which I'm waiting for a response. When I get in the next day, I check my inbox and follow up on any emails from the day before.

Yes, it's hard to do, but I've found that work can pile up like a landslide if you don't go on the offensive. It's a constant battle, but your colleagues and partners will appreciate the responsiveness and you won't get bogged down.

Josh Dreller is director of marketing research at Kenshoo.

On Twitter? Follow Dreller at @mediatechguy. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Business man with four arms," image via Shutterstock.


to leave comments.