Search THIS: The Search Match Game

“…a considerable number of humans, probably a growing proportion, are irrelevant, both as consumers and producers…”
--From End of Millennium by Manuel Castells

The problem with search is that you need people to enter search terms. The other problem with a search engine is that Homo erectus search habits have yet to be reconciled with the algorithmic and paid model architectures. The horrible truth in SEM for an advertiser is that each user defines the advertiser’s world.

Only 12 percent of searches are three or more words, according to a Mondosoft study published in eMarketer’s July 2003 Online Advertising Tactics report. Consider the plight of poor Kelvin Consumer, who just wants to find a warm tropical vacation spot to get out of the cold this winter. Search experience has taught Kelvin that he must use monosyllabic cave man talk to communicate with a search engine.

Enter Broad Match, Exact Match, Phrase Match and Match Driver (the last one sounds like it could be the title of a Kevin Smith film). Search results syncing tools used by Google and Overture enhance paid listing results, allowing advertisers to reach a greater audience. They also offer all but the most obscure searches some type of relevant results. Efficiently using match is a bit tricky. When utilized correctly, match can lead to a more effective experience for searchers and advertisers while providing linguistic credibility to an industry in dire need.  

Enter, the Match Game

Humble Kelvin Consumer isn’t just looking for a flight and a bed. His dimly lit girlfriend, Loraphine, is convinced the passing years have killed any level of romance in their relationship. To rekindle the fire, she wants a “Romantic Getaway.” The “Vacation” which includes some type of “Homey Experience” that’s “Bed and Breakfasty” which offers a “Full-Service Atmosphere” offered by “Big Hotels” and is “Affordable” without being “Norman Batesy.” Some of those “Fun Toys” and “Underground Activities” Loraphine can’t live without might be nice as well.

Kelvin enters seven different combinations of the above terms into his search box and is offered some nasty choices—and not just the ones that are right up Loraphine’s alley (note to fact checkers; go ahead, make my day.)

Eight-thousand-pound search buffaloes Overture and Google are at the forefront of matching. Both have programs with distinctive characteristics that must be carefully understood before beginning to expand or limit keyword lists.

Overture categorizes matching in three ways and offers an online tutorial. Standard, phrase and broad match options allow an advertiser to categorize listings in an add-on format. Standard match is the default program that includes common misspellings. Common is the operative word here, so don’t take misspellings for granted. Phrase and broad match add-ons will allow the advertiser to pick up listings that may include more keywords specific to your audience. Both are based on a simple keyword mapping architecture. With Overture’s interface, adding match options is simply a click away.

Google offers four different types of matching options and also offers an easy to use, plain English tutorial in the AdWords site area. In practice, the matching options are not as easy to implement as the Overture program by virtue of the fact that you will find yourself adding symbols (brackets and quotes) around words to define matching criteria. If you are not careful you could get a lot more (or less) than you bargained for.

Both providers offer the advertiser an option to exclude (referred to as negative terms) certain keywords within a program. There are lots of reasons for not including search terms in an initiative. One example, and the most overused in mainstream press, involves the current Paris Hilton situation online. A six-month chart of the explosive growth of searches for this term looks like an early WorldCom Internet audience increase prediction graph. An advertiser including the brand name for the purposes of filling rooms in France is going to have a tough time competing with links supporting one of the most popular personalities in American culture today.

The real power of excluding keywords is found in separating the “lookers” from the “doers.” By limiting specific terms that may offer click traffic but do not perform from a conversion or desired action perspective, you enable the highest level of targeting and performance management.

How Much Is This Going to Cost Me?

The white whale of paid search marketing is the blank-check budgeting phenomenon. The much talked about, but not often seen, form of advertising in search is based upon the premise of meeting every search demand with dollars. Much to my dismay, I haven’t seen a lot of this.

More smart marketers every day are viewing their search program as an integrated piece of the online marketing pie. That is to say, search, paid or otherwise, performs a valuable function for an online marketing initiative but is, in fact, not the end all be all, therefore undeserving of the blank check privilege.

Preparations for keyword matching are most often accomplished by working closely with the site vendor or your SEM firm. At this point, there is no magic formula for projecting ad-spend for matching. Number of searches for terms and anticipated click-through rates are still the status quo (Google has a traffic estimator), but the providers will have the best understanding of the delicate intricacies involved in projected spending. As with any new program, I recommend setting aside an initial test budget and closely monitoring conversion rates with site side metrics or your favorite third-party serving company.

Write Right. Right?

The least popular but most important subject matter in SEM is writing good copy. Any SEM analyst or editor worth her salt will tell you copy points and messaging are more important than ever when attempting to make money with matching. The most important aspect of this process would be getting those keywords into your description and message body, particularly with Overture since the keyword match mapping system is designed to “pick up” keywords contained in messaging elements.

Sure, people still use pro-wrestler speak when addressing a search engine, but I am off in a daydream about one day being able to talk to a search engine the same way I chat it up with my American Express concierge. Keyphrase one: “Find me a 1-hour photo processing location that won’t ask a lot questions about my vacation photos.” Keyphrase two: “Find me a place to buy an MP3 player that will not be antiquated in six months.”

These queries may seem a bit implausible, but match technologies may pick up your listing if you sell bleeding edge MP3 players or offer film development. Unfortunately, you may also draw a listing from someone trying to sell you a vacation or an informational on how to interrogate a terrorist suspect while incarcerated in Cuba.

One word of caution: relevancy is key and while these technologies may offer a bit of success, they are in a constant of refinement. In other words, I’ve noticed that editors take a closer look at match listings. To their credit, and for everyone’s benefit, search providers strictly enforce minimum click-through rates. With Google your listing position is predicated upon response rates (relevancy) in addition to dollars invested.

How Relevant Is a Match?

I’ve gotten a lot of emails complaining that match technology is just another neat way for search providers to make some money. I prefer to look at it another way. Given the latitude your average surfer offers a search site in terms of language use, matching offers users a much more efficient experience with more performance-prone results.

If Loraphine’s vacation request is the tip of the iceberg, I am willing to bet Kelvin faces more issues in a day than can be found in the entire self-help section at Barnes and Noble. His search problem is one of semantics in reconnaissance, i.e., how a search site understands (or misunderstands) his intentions and finds them. Kelvin, like many humans, isn’t treating the condition; he is attempting to address symptoms. If more users begin to communicate with search engines on a higher level, the industry will be forced to advance beyond the basics.

Of course, what Kelvin will probably end up doing is sitting at the computer on one of those “find your soul mate” Web sites searching for romance shopping cart style, thereby negating any level of serendipity from what we romantics have come to know as falling in love. That, however, is another rant entirely.

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. 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. Kevin is also appalled by the audacious notion of online romance.