Interpreting the Redundancy Nightmare

There are lots of options for an advertiser to buy into search. First there were syndication providers like Overture and Sprinks and small businesses jumped in with a credit card, a dream, and little else. Later came contextual search marketing because paid search was making everyone so much money.

Today, big brands and big money are driving paid search. Search sites are even dropping their own paid listings on sites, which appear in addition to syndicated paid listings thereby pushing editorial or unpaid listings down or off the page. Searches on top five search sites can show multiple paid results from multiple providers for the same query.

The thought of devaluing search by gratuitously placing paid listings on every inch of otherwise unoccupied site real estate is beginning to take its toll on my sleep patterns. More importantly, advertisers are asking questions like, “If my listing can appear two or three times in a search, which one should I buy?”

Welcome To My Nightmare— Alice Cooper

Initially, this is a question of reach and frequency. As it relates to search, reach is defined as the percentage of total searches viewed and frequency amounts to the number of times a viewer sees the listing. Other issues that must be addressed include the varying cost of entry and the cost of the specific searches utilized. The solution is a bit complicated, but by plugging into top search sites, the argument for partaking in these search site-centric paid programs becomes a bit more cogent.

I have this recurring nightmare in which I am driving down the information superhighway with Bill Gates and Cindy Margolis. Bill is quietly seated in the back seat while Cindy and I enjoy scintillating conversation. Suddenly we come to a screeching halt near an off ramp with three tollbooths. Each tollbooth provides access to the same destination but one costs three bucks, one costs between a buck fifty and twelve dollars (depending upon how many others want to pass through at the same time) and the last is 30 cents.

Thought inspiring dreams aside for the moment, most of Internet search activity resides within the top five search sites. According to data compiled by comScore Networks in June, Google sits at the top of the list with 32% of all searches, Yahoo! has 26%, AOL shows 20%, MSN checks in with 15%, and the Ask Jeeves butler has 3%. The listing relationship between these sites is both the source of and solution to the problem.

In addition to MSN’s own paid listings, an MSN search can provide a user with paid listings from Overture and Looksmart as well. Similarly, an Ask Jeeves query provides internal CPC listings and Google results.

What Dreams May Come— Shakespeare

Search activity redundancy exists with every search site. For example, comScore data shows that of the more than 147 million unique visitors to Yahoo! and Google in July, approximately 23 million visited both sites. Google carries its own paid listings and syndicates AdWordsTM listings to AOL and Ask Jeeves. Yahoo! picks up paid listings from Overture. Since neither AOL or Yahoo! are running CPC listing programs on their own , the score card now reads three down, two to go with 18% of the U.S. search audience remaining.

Back to the nightmare. Using the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Interpreting Dreams, I was able to ascertain the three-dollar toll represents MSN paid-search results, the one fifty to twelve dollar toll represents Overture results (auction-based CPC), and the thirty-cent toll is Looksmart. The attempt to calculate reach in the instance of three advertiser listings appearing in the same search query is a most efficient way to send your media planners to a padded room because the figure represents a theoretically impossible 100-plus percent.

MSN offers a Featured Site program that carries a “Let them eat cake” kind of scenario for paid search with a $50,000 minimum buy. According to MSN, the keyword pricing is based on “competitive activity” in the vein of market value. I am hearing this market value descriptor a bit too much lately. Market value? I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but let’s just call this what it is—the average bid price for keywords on other sites.

The fixed cost-per-click model has its ups and downs. On the upside, bidding on the rubber chicken keyword on an auction- based search site may pit your listing against some nudnik who’s only metric is the click itself. A competing advertiser may burn an entire keyword budget in positioning bids while waiting for the other rubber chicken site to file Chapter 11. “It appears that many advertisers are not conversion-to-cost goal-orientated in the pay-per-click space.” says Jeff Ferguson, owner of the The Gag, a Website that sells among other things, rubber chickens. “I know the margins well and the bid prices paid for some keywords go beyond the ability to generate a return.”

A big buy-in also says, I’ve got a plan as opposed to I’ve got rubber chickens and a credit card. The biggest drawback of the MSN Featured Site plan is that you cannot measure the performance of individual keywords. The best way to formulate a refined keyword list to maximize this investment is testing the performance of keywords on the other sites.

For the time being one can’t forsake Overture paid search in favor of an MSN program simply because the plan includes paid listings on MSN because you will miss out on the Yahoo! audience. LookSmart inclusion listings aside, comScore-compiled data in June indicates that of the nearly 42 million uniques visiting both sites, only 11 million used both Yahoo! and MSN search.

Alhough Ask Jeeves has launched a $6 million magazine and billboard awareness campaign sans butler, the old chap remains as mascot on the site. On the paid listing side, the Ask Jeeves Premier Listings program offers a similar “market value” click buy-in that resides below the Branded Response ad unit, but above Google AdWordsTM listings. The butler requires only a $1,500 per month minimum and also allows individual keyword performance measurement.

“Dream the dreams that have never been dreamt” — David Bower

The goal of most branding initiatives is to reach the target audience at an effective frequency. Many times, an advertiser wants to own search terms on every possible site regardless of any redundancies. Whether the campaign is awareness or ego driven, the truly beautiful part of this otherwise artistically benign form of advertising is its performance-driven origin. In short, you are only paying for the click traffic within each site, so managing multiple search results within the same query will allow the advertiser a greater reach and share of voice.

Beyond branding goals, cost metrics rule the roost. The key element of effectively managing this type of campaign lies in the ability to generate a return regardless of positioning or redundancy. In this instance, multiple placements may make a lot of sense. The advertiser can also use the redundancy to its advantage by placing multiple messaging elements in the same search query.

Something Wicked This Way Comes— Ray Bradbury

At press time, MSN is testing several unique search formats in the UK and plans to continue testing other formats here in the United States. “MSN’s focus is on doing a good job of answering users’ queries”, says Michael Payne, vice president at MSN. There has been quite a bit of conjecturing of late as to the would-be fate of many site pay-per-click and directory partnerships. LookSmart, in its second quarter earnings report, stated that MSN accounts for nearly 64% of its revenues, which is bad news if MSN goes out on its own. A plan like that is just this side of theoretically possible since MSN rival Yahoo! plans to purchase Overture in the very near future. Payne also indicated that while changes in search listing relationships are possible, MSN’s first task is to make the most efficient search possible for users.

As for my nightmare, it always ends with Cindy disappearing and Bill grabbing the wheel insisting we use his “get out of jail free” card to go though the most expensive toll.

About the author: iMedia search 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. Thrice decorated with the directory industry highest honors for excellence and innovation in online marketing, he is currently Director of Market Development at IPG’s Wahlstrom Interactive where he provides guidance in directional online marketing to Wahlstrom’s prestigious list of clients and sister agency brands.