The 10 laws of search

Search spending is projected to exceed 10 billion a year within the next few years, continuing the trend as one of the most successful go-to online marketing channels. Because search attracts such advertising investment, and because millions of people use it every day, search is at the heart of the online marketing industry, and ought to be a part of any serious marketing strategy. Therefore, there ought to be a serious inquiry into the science of it and its role in the greater context of marketing.

Based on my experience managing search campaigns over my professional career, I've developed a list of 10 overall rules that should always be taken into consideration as search campaigns are planned, launched, optimized and tested:

1) For search-only campaigns, volume is finite; traffic cannot be created nor destroyed
Demand for a service cannot be created in search if the demand is not already there. Other marketing channels including display and offline marketing are necessary to drive awareness, with search assisting to capture the new demand. Similarity, demand cannot be destroyed through search vis-à-vis protests or attempts to discredit another brand.

The takeaway: Search, being an active medium, requires the users to already be aware of, have an interest in, or desire for, a product or service. Thus, search is not the best venue for completely new verticals or very niche verticals that drive very little demand, but it should always be used to help capture awareness driven by other marketing channels. Note that I am talking about new verticals, not new innovations for an existing vertical that has demand. Nor do I mean search does not help create brand awareness (see Yes, Virginia, you can brand with search).

As traffic cannot be spontaneously created (at least not in large enough volume to justify cost), nor can it be destroyed by attempts to discredit brands, it always fails in the long term, for the same reasons why awareness that was not already there cannot be created.

2) In order to capture conversions -- that is sales or leads -- another competitor must lose conversions.
The takeaway: Be aware of competitors' movements and changes in their messaging, and predict their tactics -- such as day parting -- and move against them. Also, be wary of the barriers to entry; the lower the costs, the more precarious your position.

3) All verticals mature; barriers for new entrants will be high and the cost to compete can be prohibitive, especially for smaller clients or those with poor brand awareness.
The takeaway: Verticals like online dating and travel have matured, leaving a few major players with dominate positions in the space. The same thing will happen to all major verticals. Although it is difficult to penetrate mature verticals, it's nowhere near impossible; it just takes a different strategic approach to slowly capture share or to create a niche.

4) Costs will always rise; testing will separate the players from the pretenders.
The takeaway: Test, test, test! Test keywords, creative, landing pages and a combination of all three. The higher the conversion rate, the higher the cost we can afford to pay.

5) The brand name will always be under attack from other brands for mind share.
The takeaway: Protect your brand by bidding on it, and keep messaging consistent with your other marketing channels.

6) Human intelligence will always be central to the success of any campaign.
The takeaway: As advanced as some tools are these days, they are no match for one highly trained search marketer. Humans can anticipate, react and understand a dynamic marketplace much better than any program. We can see nuance in data to find opportunities that even the most advanced bid optimization A.I. can't even begin to see. I would take a small team of search marketers over any tool on any day of the week and win. 

7) Search enhances other marketing channels and vice versa.
The takeaway: We all know the famous Atlas and Yahoo! studies that show search lifts display by a whopping 400 percent and display lifts search another almost 20 percent, but it works with other forms, too. For our clients, we've seen how run-of-TV advertising has increased traffic to our keywords, and we've seen what email marketing can do for conversions.

Search does not exist in a vacuum; outside forces affect it and search has its own force to the outside world. Search can be very strong by itself, but can be even better as a robust part of a greater marketing mix.

8) Not all traffic is created equal; it is about quality not quantity. Get the quality right and the quantity will come.
The takeaway: The volume is there, it's about getting the most qualified traffic. This means taking the time to carefully select the keywords discovered in research that properly convey the intent of the user, then further qualifying them by using filters such as negatives, and finally, having targeted creative and sending users to relevant landing pages. By getting the best quality traffic possible, it enables us to afford higher positions so that we can gain even more quality traffic, and gaining much more volume in the process than if we try to get volume first.

9) Search is an active medium.
The takeaway: I know I've mentioned this many times but it bears repeating: It is the users who drive this industry, not the other way around. We tailor our marketing programs to them.

10) The user comes first. Always.
In future articles I will address each law in greater depth and its relation to the big picture from the perspective of the client, the agency, marketing in general, and most importantly, the individual.

David Singh is manager, search practice lead at Underscore Marketing. Read full bio.

 

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