Managing Brands with Search

The paid listing/old search engine advertising issue of brand management is once again upon us. Advertisers often wonder why they must purchase a brand or product name, and most of those queries are answered with incredibly high return rates.

Brand, product and other trademark terms are a no-brainer in search engine advertising because they pay for themselves. But the world of SEM has become more complicated than simply uploading a list of protected terms and counting the revenue.

At issue is control: the desire to control brand perception is enormous. And in the age of consumer controlled information, search is the entry point for much of the consuming public. Thus, savvy marketers have discovered that search can be a tool for controlling brand perception 

It's the hits that make you wiser
A new white paper from Hitwise revisits some of the many tactics advertisers can use to help control brand traffic and perception. "Best practices for search engine brand management" is one of the best papers I have read of late and is certainly worth any brand manager's time.

The report includes data collected from over 30 online brands and notes that while approximately 85 percent of traffic went to brand sites, 15 percent went to competitors' sites. Of course, individual results will vary greatly, but if you are losing any brand traffic, that's not good news.

Making matters worse, the report indicates that brand search term traffic is up 17 percent in the February 2005 to February 2006 time frame. Also, 75 of the top 100 search terms contained brand names. Still think buying your own brand is a waste of money?

Compelling spelling
Start by reviewing your keyword lists and checking them at least twice. Affiliates and third party intermediaries account for much of the lost brand traffic and simply tightening keyword usage and monitoring procedures will go a long way to controlling the traffic bleed.

Searchers have been programmed to look for words like "official" in listing text but that won't stop a third party from using the same language referring to their "official" site.

Common misspellings in domain names and keyword selection are another great way for advertisers to slow traffic loss. For example, Hitwise indicates that half of the top 14 terms sending traffic to were misspellings.

Including multiple spellings of keywords in both site structure for natural optimization and paid search is another notable best practice. An advertiser can use keyword suggestion tools or simply enter keywords into a search box to see what appears on the scene.

Controlling trademarks
To make a long story endless, it's up to you, Mr. Brand Marketer, to keep tabs on who's doing what with your terms in search. While search sites have stepped up or modified policies on protected terms, much of the onus for protecting and controlling keyword buying falls with the brand owner.

Google's policy on trademark abuse includes investigating reasonable complaints. Yahoo! allows only non-competitive information sites and resellers to use protected terms. MSN has a similar policy, while Ask advises only that advertisers not use protected terms.

Every instance of potential trademark abuse requires a sharp eye on how terms are used. I have found that working with search providers in attempting to clear up any grey areas in usage to be very effective. A series of lawsuits and the US and abroad have led to stricter controls, but aggressively policing brand and term usage should be part of any search initiative.

Pull the pieces together
A winning search strategy combines the use of natural search techniques such as public relations and paid search tactics that emphasize brand control. Simply applying one tactic to a search initiative is clearly not enough if you wish to engage the consuming public.

People are lazy. They don't care if your name has one "L" or two in it. Competitors, affiliates and those harboring ill intentions for your brand will find every possible loophole in laws, policies and practices and exploit them.

In the end, an old cliché still applies-- the best defense is a good offense, and every step you take in search should be taking your brand forward.