SearchTHIS: Requiem for Direct Metrics

I suppose if one complains long enough, frequently enough or loud enough, one is bound to be heard. I have been more than a little bit worried -- and vocal -- about the fate of search listing placements since we all fell in love with immediate gratification, because we did the same with graphic ads and look how great that turned out. Only after years of recovery do we now expect more than an immediate response from graphic ad units.

Or maybe I am just a skeptic. I look at everything with a dark eye for two reasons. One, someone has to, and two, there is a certain freedom in having no expectations, ever. In every aspect of my life I am prepared for the worst. For instance, I know that when I fly, the connecting gate will always be miles from my arriving gate and I will have 10 minutes to get there. After waiting in line for 20 minutes at Starbucks, I know in front of me will be a jackass who has no idea what she wants when confronted by the barista. On my wireless phone, I know the call will be dropped just as the runway model is about to offer her number.

Last week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) introduced new search marketing research, focused on adding a layer of value to response metrics. A pre-emptive move, if you will, to what some predict will be the next level of fall-out with search. Users will stop clicking on paid ads just as they have with banners -- and having a brand metric around in the event of such a disaster might just save the day.

I have to admit, when I was first introduced to this study I thought it was crap, (actually I used another word), but after digging into the data, I found yet another reason to maintain the "no expectation" motif, a pleasant surprise is so much more pleasant when one starts with no expectations.

The half decaf no-whip venti mocha

The primary goal of this year’s IAB search research extravaganza is actually pretty simple. Beyond click or a reasonable facsimile of direct response (e.g. view-through), what benefit does a search listing provide a brand? We call this "brand impact," a phrase which seemingly has no place in search marketing, the most artistically benign form of advertising ever conceived.

Beyond the initial brand thought process, the IAB sought to uncover a few more gems. In its limited format, the research intends to show the effectiveness of new products in search, and the relationship brand and product would have together. The initiative also sought to compare the effectiveness of ego driven positioning in search listings, or put another way, does it matter if I am in position one or five. Within several industry segments with brands you know and brands you might not search listings were put to the test. If you think these goals seem a bit lofty for a live audience search study, I’d have to say you are on to something.

The controlled autonomy runway modeling scheme

There is no live audience. Well, not really anyway. The study was completed in what researchers call a non-live controlled cell. Raise your hand if the research portion of your formal education received about as much attention and exuberance as an airline flight safety demonstration.

So, the lions weren’t observed interacting with the gazelles in the Serengeti, they were watched in the Bronx Zoo. The question is, will the lions (searchers) react differently to the gazelle (ad formats) in the zoo?

The non-live controlled cell in this case would seem to be a better fit logistically than the experimental cell. The research is really only measuring brand recognition/recall based on type of exposure (ad banner/ search position/ etc.), which is not a result that relies on action/decision making processes. It is really just an exposure situation, and though context of exposure would certainly influence how the reaction or information is processed, I think you can make fairly reliable generalizations from it. For example, when a billboard is viewed within in the context of navigating a traffic snarl, the subject would be less likely to be affected by it than if billboard concepts were seen in a focus group environment.

Whether the subject is likely to remember said billboard if exposed to it can be assessed by the focus group example, then generalized in such a way to control for time exposed or other contributing factors. We aren’t talking billboards and traffic jams, lions and gazelles, or under-caffeinated commuters on the way to an espresso-based high, we are talking about Internet ads, and brand metrics have to be considered.

The search-brand gate connection continuum

Since mock-ups of search sites were used, biases presented by Google or Yahoo! loyalists were left behind in favor of an unbiased representation of search listings. More than 10,000 census-consistent demographic profiled people responded to the lab test via email solicitation provided by Survey Sampling International.

Search and brand relationships were offered via paid search listings in directive results and contextual listing placements. Key measurement parameters were consistent with popular brand metrics: unaided brand awareness, aided ad awareness, familiarity, and brand image associations. Respondents were shown one of 48 mock-up pages across several key industries. The IAB recruited some pretty significant brands for the study within health (Claritin), auto (Ford F-150), beverage (Gatorade), electronics (HP Cameras), retail (Macy’s) and finance (ING).

Multiple ad formats were shown on a variety of different types of destination page mock-ups. Content listings were shown on "cluttered" content pages with multiple ad units such as skyscrapers and leader boards while search listings were shown in a cleaner listing page. Every group’s measurement criteria was compared with a control group and only changes that appeared significantly different from the control group were noted.

Men are from beer ads, women are from Prada

The search study had several key findings that may serve to help transcend the boundaries of direct metrics in search. First, it was found that higher placements (1st position compared with 5th position) had a significant impact on brand awareness and recall. Of course it did -- how many studies have we seen that show better response rates for higher placements. Now, we can safely say everything is better when higher placement if achieved or purchased. Contextual listings were also found to have an effect on brand, but we see the true impact of search listing placement in unaided awareness responses.

Also significant in the study were gender based response biases. Female respondents showed a significantly higher recall rate for brands while men favored ad unit messaging -- something to keep in mind when targeting by gender.

And on fourth day, he said, let there be drugs, money and department stores

And search branding performed better for Claritin, ING and Macy’s. Before I get into this, can we all just agree that brands aren’t built by advertising? Gracias. Quality products, services and experiences build brands, but how we integrate those builders can help control brand interpretation and perception.

Control, the illusion perpetuated by infantile egomaniacs (e.g. the people who book my travel) is personified in paid search listings because messaging can be turned on and off frequently to accommodate brand interpretation needs. Though certain categories do better with paid, it is important to remember that regardless of the industry, paid listings inherently provide a level of control over brand perception. Again, top bids are important.

Oddly enough, though paid ads are clearly labeled, few respondents viewed paid ads as advertising. Respondents did not view paid ads as such, or at least they did not recall viewing "advertisements" for brands when asked. Purveyors of natural search optimization services seem to enjoy labeling paid search ads evil but these responses tell a happier, more informational story and therein lies one of the biggest advantages of paid search.

What about those unpaid listings?

This study shattered several myths in search: paid ads are ignored by users, no one clicks on paid listings because they are viewed as "ads" and you can’t impact brand awareness with simple text listings. With these achievements, I still have at least one or two unanswered questions.

At last, my gripe. I truly love research studies sponsored by company "X" which, oddly enough might help sell more company "X" product. Much in the same way drug studies funded by company "Y" often help sell more of the company’s latest pharmaceutical endeavor. This study was funded in part by the butler (Ask Jeeves), the Googler, the Overturator and, of course the black lab (Lycos) -- all purveyors of paid search.

Of course, the study was overseen by Nielsen//NetRatings which, protected the integrity of the information presented, but I am left asking the eternally disturbing question once again. What impact do natural or organic listings have in this mixture, and how can they effect brand perception, awareness and response?

My answer was both predictable and understandable in that the IAB’s focus is on helping advance the online medium in profitable areas. "Profitable" means paid advertising and while optimization providers continue to cash in natural search augmentation efforts, we still have yet to see how natural listings work with their paid positioning brethren in a truly unbiased study because search engines don’t view the unpaid world as a money maker. Not yet anyway.

Murphy was an underestimating windbag

Why can’t I arrive at the airport terminal to find my connecting gate next to my arriving gate? Why can’t people read the damn menu at Starbucks while in line? Why don’t runway models ever call to give me their numbers? And, why can’t an industry organization like the IAB acknowledge the presence of unpaid listings?

Travel is always going to suck, idiots will be allowed to buy lattes and runway models won’t find me attractive until I turn at least 65 and have a metric ton of money in the bank or start importing large quantities of cocaine. As for the latter, an industry organization beginning to acknowledge the presence of paid listings, I have a solution, and I promise you it will work, but you have to wait until next week to read about it.

Search Editor 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. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations. Meet Ryan at the Jupiter Advertising Forum, July 28-29, and Search Engine Strategies, August 2-5.

This week’s column was made possible in part by the insightful and analytical genius of Lesley Hatch, BHWLM.