SearchTHIS: Saving Your Search Tail

The advanced keyword buying, bidding and positioning technologies of today are technological marvels. They observe and react to buying behaviors and adjust positions according to Cost Per Order (CPO) requirements, return on advertising spend goals and, at a very basic level, according to budget.

The very notion of managing a keyword-based paid search marketing initiative is exciting. At first glance, it seems easy enough. Upload a bunch of keywords via a publisher-provided interface or a handy dandy one provided by one of the numerous third parties out there, then sit back and watch the fun. Millions of people searching for your goods and services will find them within days, hours or perhaps minutes.

What happens if millions of people aren’t searching for your keywords? How about hundreds? What if only ten people searched for your word? Should you even bother with these words and phrases? What if the decision to include low volume phrases is made for you based on someone else’s poor performance?

Let’s take a look at the front and back end of search activity and see if we can make sense of it all.

Witness, the tail

“Search's Long Tail,” is a phrase made popular in search marketing lore by Danny Sullivan in a March, 2005 post to the Search Engine Watch blog. It has been adopted the marketing world over, as Danny noted, due to a recent article from Wired editor Chris Anderson in October, 2004 called “The Long Tail,” referring to low volume production entertainment, in aggregate, becoming larger than giant monoliths.

The tail, as it were, is merely a chart of searched terms in your keyword-driven marketing program. It is designed to represent the number of searches within a category, or in your case a search initiative, to help make sense of search activity patterns. 

The search tail might be oddly similar to the graphic representation of the search data below from Hitwise, an online competitive intelligence service. High volumes of searches represent the peaks, and the valleys indicate where searchers have lost interest in terms and phrases. Take for example, the latest nudniks to embarrass themselves on television’s "American Idol," below.


Your search marketing tail chart would be a series of bars representing keywords stacked from high to low according to keyword search frequency. The decline from high to low would represent your keyword tail.

There is, of course, another kind of keyword activity phenomenon, like the one we see above with "American Idol" search activity. For our purposes here, let’s call it the search nose. Unlike the search tail, the nose appears in far in advance of the tail. There are few, if any, searches for terms in the nose and these keywords can suddenly appear on the search radar screen due to acts of Hollywood (in the case of "American Idol") or simple seasonal changes in product cycles like Cadbury Cream Eggs every Easter.

Volume issues

While high volume terms seem to get the most publicity and the most bid competition, the back end of search activity often represents highly targeted and (not to mention) inexpensive phrases. They are harder to find than high volume phrases, and search marketers have to dig pretty deep into search behavior to locate phrases that appear less often year round, seasonally or the even more elusive campaign-specific terms.

Another problem with low volume keywords is inherent to the lack of search activity. Since there are far fewer searches, commission-based search engine marketing firms or agencies can be reluctant to seek them out. The upside for marketers in targeting and pricing is clear, but tracking down thousands of keywords and phrases -- which may only comprise five percent or less of search activity -- is tedious and labor intensive. They may also only represent a marginal portion of a search budget.

Worse, search sites really don’t appreciate these little gems. Minimum impression and click rate requirements for keywords may inhibit an advertiser’s ability to secure them. Google’s controversial Smart Keyword Evaluation tool will disable keywords if they don’t meet minimum click requirements. The decision to remove a keyword is made based on accumulated historical clickthough rates for specific or similar terms in the Google keyword lexicon.

Search providers will often disallow keywords for not meeting minimum click requirements. This is a noble and worthy procedure that is designed to keep the search result relevant, but as with any practice designed for the masses, there are always exceptions.

Well-groomed keywords

Google’s tool seems to be a particular nuisance to seasonal marketers or those introducing new products or services. Consider the plight of the March Madness marketer client of Dallas-based Zunch Communications.

In the ZEN-SEM blog, Zunch’s Laura Deerfield profiled a seasonal campaign that didn’t quite make the Smart Keyword cut. “We started off with a test campaign using a core of college basketball and March Madness related terms, and then expanded to specific team and school names as the brackets were announced.”

Zunch’s client was offering an online broadcast to help promote the seasonal event, but they were precluded from using the most relevant keywords. “This was an unusual PPC campaign,” Deerfield continues. ”There was a very narrow window of consumer interest. Traffic was slow on the test campaign … and some of the key terms got disabled. Quickly.”

In the March Madness case, there is simply no search history to make decisions about past performance. Similar stories in restrictive keyword use in campaigns abound. Some relate to new product launches in which terms that are used -- terms which resemble phrases that performed poorly for other advertisers -- are barred.

There is a larger issue at work here. While the idea of keeping results relevant is simple, forcing advertisers to choose terms that worked well for others, thereby increasing bid competition, doesn’t benefit advertisers nearly as much as it helps the search site’s bottom line.

Stunted evolution

For a lot of good reasons, the artistic and scientific endeavor of creating a large scale keyword-driven marketing initiative is complicated. It requires a little massaging of a search site’s editorial policies, creative messaging, and in some cases it seems a crystal ball is in order.

In the end, we want users to begin to speak to search engines in a more educated way. Several research reports on key phrase use have indicated that -- despite a user's desire to interact with the search engine using multiword phrases -- they continue to use one, two or three words in queries.

Relevancy guidelines are critical, but the artificial intelligence in automated keyword removal just isn’t there yet. Clearly if we wish to continue expanding the relationship users have with a search, exceptions must be made, and representatives in day-to-day contact with advertisers have to be educated and empowered to make those decisions.

Additional resources:

SearchTHIS: How Important is the Pole Position?

Visit the Zunch Zen-SEM Blog

Steve Rubel's "The Long Tail of the Blogosphere"

iMedia 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.

Mr. Ryan is the principal of Kinetic Results, Inc. a New York-based online presence management firm.

Meet Kevin Ryan at the iMedia Summit, May 22 to 25