The Game of Contextual Paid Search

The power of paid search in an undemanding, “Look what else I found” package conjures joyous images similar to the day I experienced what has to be every red-blooded American kid’s dream-- throwing out the first ball in a big league game with none other than the world champion Anaheim Angels.

Search, paid or otherwise, is causing advertiser and agency eye-bleeds of late with a transmogrification of biblical proportions. Big changes at Yahoo!, and announcements from Overture and other big players are sending the world of search into a tizzy, making every day for the online marketer a new and interesting dare. Dropping napalm on this inferno is a contextual component to paid search.

On the surface, contextual paid search seems easy enough to comprehend, but advertiser questions are rolling in. “What is contextual paid search?” “Should we be buying our way in here too?” And most succinctly, “Isn’t search inherently contextual, so what’s the difference?

Once again, homage to Jim Collin’s Stockdale Paradox. “Don’t be afraid to dream about future, but remember to live in the present”. Contextual search promises big things down the road, a few players have already taken the field (Sprinks, Google), at least one remains in the bullpen (Overture) and, as baseball season is in full swing, we proceed.


Contextual searches work in the same way any other content-relevant ads work. Users are served advertisements closely relating to the information they happen to be viewing. In a utopian paid search society we find a site where a mommy is reading about the latest treatments for diaper rash and said mommy is served a banner, listing, or pop-over/under/up for a revolutionary rash-free diaper. At press time, this example represents a small portion of contextual results.

Much of what we are referring to as “contextual”, at least for the short term, are simply listings placed on a destination site tied to a search. These search offerings are largely based on complicated algorithms that make predictive modeling search plans look like an order by number trip to the fast food drive through. I’ll spare you the techno-babble and suggest you think of it this way: Instead of just selecting keywords/phrases said phrases are cross-referenced with relevant categories. Good search results providers will most likely produce good matching systems for contextually relevant models.

Exercise cautious enthusiasm when moving into contextual search. The content or destination site search for information on longevity of light bulbs may or may not help you sell more lampshades. For this reason, click-to- (insert your success criteria) rates should be scrutinized heavily as you make your way out onto the field.

Play Ball!

It’s hard to avoid a Google bias when you consider this is a company that has allowed an automatic upgrade for some AdWords advertisers into the Premium Listings program when this inventory is unoccupied. If you are a Google AdWordsTM advertiser, you are probably already in contextual search. Google includes new and existing AdWords advertisers in the Content Targeted Advertising program using the same technology used for search. Google explains this program simply as an expansion of the AdWords program and clearly makes a distinction between syndication sites like AOL and Ask Jeeves and content sites like Weather Underground and Knight Ridder Digital. The latter is good news for advertisers who (at the risk of creating a new buzz phrase) will benefit from contextual local paid search results marketing since Knight Ridder Digital reaches audiences with their network of geographically relevant news and information sites. Google allows you an opt-out option, and championing the cause of search results integrity via a jury of behavioral response, the company maintains a minimum click-through requirement.

Walk-In Run

There is no need to search for reasons to partake Sprinks PPC programs. Sprinks behavioral responses are consistently strong and often less costly when compared to its larger brethren. In addition to KeywordSprinksTM, which appears on About.Com (the parent company) Excite, and Search.Com, Sprinks serves up links in e-mail with DirectSprinksTM and contextual results with ContentSprinksTM. Sprinks differentiates the contextual program with less stringent guidelines for keyword or phrase relevancy since this program may not produce an exact match. Sprinks contextual listings appear on some choice Web real estate like Forbes.Com and iVillage.Com.

Both Google and Sprinks have very helpful FAQ areas and I highly recommend visiting them in order to achieve a delicate understanding of their unique attributes.

Infield Fly

Overture is said to be still working out the details of its contextual search program. In the mean-time, Gator is back in the news and has signed a deal with Overture for pop-up contextual ads. This, of course, means Gator users have the benefit of viewing multiple paid search results simultaneously via some type of popping instrument. The more the merrier, right? Behavioral performance criteria may preclude the need to address redundancy and clutter issues. Creating confusion for consumers through forced multiple search screens could have dire consequences. The last time consumers’ were faced with a paid search dilemma we heard from the FTC and Ralph Nader.

Generally speaking, consumer opinion on pop anything is made clear with ISPs’ offerings of various blockers as major selling points. Though Gator must be downloaded, I can only offer the advice of my esteemed colleagues from the American Association of Advertising in its definition of pop-up boxes-- they should be used with caution, because users find them annoying. Given the amount of activity with Overture of late, attempting to speculate as to the delivery model would be exhausting, which means its time to stand up and take a breather.

Seventh Inning Stretch

Not to be overlooked, and long before Google, Sprinks, and other providers went contextual, there was Business.Com, which has built its model around relevant search in the B-2-B space. Its programs serve up PPC search listings on smart sites like FastCompany.Com, (parent) and Businessweek.Com.

I spoke with Jake Winebaum, CEO of Business.Com recently and I asked him about the difficulties facing search providers as they move toward genuine contextual models. "As search is defined within true portals, users have a task in mind when they visit a site like Google. They go there to search, to find results for very specific queries, and to immediately connect to the relevant site or page. The problem with contextual links is that it is an attempt to place an action-orientated listing into a destination page. The user mindset is quite different when the person is using a destination site versus a portal or search engine. He or she is much less likely to be willing to click off that destination site to an external link. I have no doubt search results’ providers will try to create more relevant models in the foreseeable future, predicated upon advertiser demand."

Well said, but in the mean time we can only monitor responses, analyze content to the best of our ability, and hope for a miracle.

Walk-Off Home Run

An analysis of client click rates across consumer and B-2-B sectors reveal CTRs on syndicated search sites soaring into the 20% range in both contextual paid search and traditional paid search. Ubiquitous brand associated searches can run even higher in both areas.

While there are clearly a few wrinkles in the uniform yet to be ironed out, in the immutable words of Humphrey Bogart, “A hot dog at the ball park is better than steak at the Ritz.”