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What the Heck is Contextual Search?

Kevin M. Ryan
What the Heck is Contextual Search? Kevin M. Ryan

Content search, directive search, contextual search and destination search are all names of a specialized type of search engine advertising that is often misunderstood. It's hard to believe that marketers still ask me to clarify the difference between Google's AdWords and AdSense platforms, but they do.

It shouldn't be surprising -- in an industry that has grown from mere hundreds of millions to billions in a few short years -- that one or two areas are still shades of grey for search marketers.

There are plenty of other really good questions floating around about contextual search that need answering. What's the difference between content and directive search? Who's making money in the space? What pitfalls should one avoid?

Contextual drivers, or $1.2 billion
Google calls it AdSense. Yahoo calls it ContentMatch. Hundreds of other specialized vertical and niche search providers call it contextual search. Simply put, the difference between content search and standard sponsored or directive search listings lies in where the ads appear.

Contextual search listings appear on content sites instead of Search Results Pages (SERPS). Advertisers bid on keyword costs

Google's recent earnings reports provide a broad understanding of how a search provider can make money with contextual search. Google reported $3.21 billion in total revenue for the quarter ended December 31, 2006. AdSense generated $1.2 billion, or 37 percent, of total revenue, and AdSense revenues were up 50 percent over the previous year.

Yahoo is sharpening its content network sword; Google's AdSense is bringing in strong revenue, and MSN recently announced plans to serve content ads in its network. So far I don't see the problem. There has to be a bit more to the story.

How do you boggle with Google?
The desire to balance search advertiser's need for quality ad placements with the publisher's desire to generate revenue has been the subject of much debate in the search category since the notion of contextual text ads on destination sites was introduced.

Advertisers wanted transparency in selecting sites to advertise on, while publishers wanted to protect their content partners' need for confidentiality. Can a publisher guarantee that no listings would appear near or around inappropriate content? Not exactly, but both Yahoo and Google have solid procedures for keeping that sort of thing from happening.

On the publisher side of the equation, the need for keeping competitors from buying listings on their sites is accomplished by identifying specific domains and keeping them out. Of course, this does not prevent the truly deviant competitors from launching new URLs, but thankfully those are few and far between. Still, diligence is important on the publisher side because the ultimate responsibility for preventing mishaps of this type lies with them.

Go ahead: make your search
When content search was first introduced, pages were analyzed using simple keyword scan technologies, and text listings were haphazardly placed on pages. Today, top search providers use an aggressive combination of scanning technologies and human evaluation to execute targeted campaigns. Smaller niche search providers have abandoned keyword scan all together.

DespiteĀ  advances in targeting capabilities in the last year or two, the biggest benefit of contextual search still lies in the ability to reach a far greater audience than can be reached with directive search. That is to say, one is not limited by the number of searches a user conducts for specific keywords.

Much in the same way publishers or content owners can keep competitors out, advertisers can restrict or remove specific sites from contextual search programs by identifying the domain, but they can't simply pick and choose.

Advertiser's may remove sites for competitive reasons but the most common reason for restricting a content program rests with poor performance. Since an advertiser has less creative freedom in a contextual search program, closely scrutinizing performance and traffic sources is critical.

So if a site is sending you garbage, stop the bleeding.

Obstacles and opportunities
Content or destination site search advertising is not all peaches and cream. There are a few quid pro quos that both publishers and advertisers face when jumping into the expanded search advertising inventory game.

The classic urban legend of the Jack Daniels ad appearing near an editorial on drunk driving or the Samsonite luggage advertisement positioned near a photo of floating luggage from an airline disaster are all but gone.

Click fraud analysts are quick to point out that content search is the biggest perpetrator of bogus traffic, but as long as you have the click fraud detection devices in place -- along with a little common sense -- fraudulent traffic should not be a problem.

The biggest barrier to entry for many advertisers is the lack of response, or shall we say the different type of response that advertisers see from content search as compared to directive search. The user's mindset is simply different, and click-to-desired-action rates are significantly lower. Advertisers have to adjust expectation levels accordingly.

Then again, that's easier said than done.

Kevin M. Ryan is chief executive officer at Kinetic Results. Read full bio.


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