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SearchThis: Search & the Holiday Season

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchThis: Search & the Holiday Season Kevin M. Ryan

We are back, ladies and gentleman (insert: "it’s that time of year” phrase) and we are headed for the retail log jam that is the multi-denominational holiday/ celebration/ time of morning season. Let’s get ready for ChrismaRamaChanaKwanzivus.

Translation: Christmas-Ramadan-Chanukah-Kwanza-Festivus (for the rest of us).

That’s right, folks, it’s time for the big retail cash-in for the holidays, and our focus will once again turn to the big afterthought in advertising: search engine marketing. Over the last few weeks, I have had the distinct pleasure of helping out with holiday search practices (I am even doing a webinar) as we accumulate last year’s data, next year’s hopefuls, and plan for the big seasonal search love-in.

About the money

With the exception of travel, online holiday spending in 2004 was in the neighborhood of 16 billion dollars, according to comScore. This figure was up almost 30 percent from the year previous and exceeded analyst predictions by at least a few percentage points. What will happen this year? I have heard numbers close to twice last year’s 16 billion and higher.

What does that mean for search? For one thing, you can plan on paying a bit more for keywords. While it is generally considered irresponsible to generalize with search pricing data, clients I worked with saw from an 11 to 68 percent increase last year during peak seasons.

Results will vary by category, so keep a close eye on your numbers; search volume overall increases exponentially for brand and generic terms. Hopefully you have back-loaded your budget with historical data and an accommodation for this year’s increase. If you are walking into this season blind, seek out category specific data from 2003 and 2004. This information should be readily available from search sites or search marketing partners.

Shopping engines

The weekly, daily and hourly massaging of feeds has become a mainstay in holiday search planning. While there is no better purchase point for most of you than YourBrand.Com, shopping engines are unavoidable destinations for many holiday gift getters, and they are using search engines to find product there.

Hitwise reported that for the week ending November 20, 2004, the 13 leading shopping sites claimed five percent of all shopping visits and 50 percent of their traffic came from search sites. That complicates your return on advertising spending calculations a bit, doesn’t it?

Tops on the list of shopping destinations this season are Yahoo! Shopping, Froogle, Bizrate/ Shopzilla and Shopping.Com. NexTag and PriceGrabber are not to be ignored for holiday plans either.

While shopping initiatives tend to be a bit slower than sponsored listings (there's a tendency to pull a campaign for non-performance in the category specific world that is paid inclusion) remember these initiatives should be subjected to many of the same testing requirements as sponsored listings. Optimize the feeds before you flush them.

Going tactical with search advertising

The portals are offering some pretty sharp opportunities for advertising this year. Yahoo! is creating a Toy Buzz Index for the holidays that, if nothing else, will provide a good depiction of the latest “hot toy of the season” phenomenon. I have the feeling it’s going to be a console-game Christmas. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 will be released ahead of Sony’s PlayStation 3 or Nintendo’s Revolution, both due out in 2006. 

As always, copy points should be clear and concise. Don’t forget about holiday discounts and shipping dates as the big day draws near. Messaging and content should ebb and flow with calendar-driven trends. Although “holiday” keyword modifiers will be added by searchers, this is no time to abandon low volume or tail tactics with generic messaging.

As search volume goes through the roof in this season, keep a close eye on brand or product specific keywords and prepare yourself for unexpected surges with specific terms and groupings. Desired action rates in purchase behavior will skyrocket in peak times, so if you are using a rules-based system for bid management make sure you compensate for changing ad spend return requirements.

One of the most common errors in search marketing can become an egregious situation for customers in the holiday season: synchronizing keyword selection and product inventory can make or break a holiday initiative. For one thing, it makes no sense to waste budget dollars on products you no longer carry and it genuinely upsets potential buyers when you don’t have what you advertise. They will leave you in the dust, quite possibly never to return.

Don’t forget the SEO

Landing pages are a beautiful thing. Creating holiday-specific content or dressing up existing content for sponsored search initiatives are certainly a no-brainer, but what about those choice, oh-so-trustworthy natural listings?

While experts generally agree that natural listing optimization is an ongoing process that can take several months to see any results, using existing rankings to direct users to appropriate fresh holiday content is certainly a way to capitalize on the efforts you have already invested in search engine optimization. Use graphics and other non-text site assets to create unique calls to action as well.

Of course, it is important to let everyone know how you are doing during the holidays. Announcements and press releases distributed appropriately can benefit your marketing efforts as well as search related initiatives.

Down the chimney

Since I always seem to fall into it, the last-minute market is always a favorite of mine. Last year, consumers were shopping and buying right up to the last, well, minutes of the shopping season. Retailers got better with shorter shipping timelines and in-store pickups, and many opted to let the process of “finding that special something” up to the recipient.

When the traditional buying season ends for many, smart marketers are thinking of gift cards and online gift certificates to increase revenue as the season winds down. According to the Hitwise Holiday 2004 wrap up, on Christmas day users flocked to movie and music sites, among others. While Amazon.com traffic peaked on Dec. 11 and Walmart.com Nov. 25, iTunes jumped from eighty-fifth place in the shopping and classifieds category on December 24 to thirty-seventh place on Dec. 25.

Isn’t it amazing what can happen in a day on the web? I do so love my job.

If you haven’t done so already, have your seasonal search marketing S.W.A.T. team pull together a plan for the calendar-driven consuming public. The media buys have been planned, the hot item inventory and gift giving content has been laid out, and all that’s left is for old Saint Cashola to leave lots of goodies in your shopping cart.

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.
Ryan is chief strategy officer at
Zunch Communications.

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