Facebook’s Timeline for Brands: A Facebook Performance Opportunity

Facebook’s new Timeline for Brands enables marketers to foster engagement with participants. This engagement can equal Facebook performance. Brands can separate themselves from the competition by using real-time Facebook engagement data and insights to optimize their brand pages for performance.  

Facebook recently announced the launch of Facebook Timeline for Brands, or new profile pages for brands on the social networking site. New features of brand pages include the following:

  • pages are much more visual as brands have the opportunity to use large cover photos and videos to promote themselves;
  • brands can now prominently feature their most important tabs at the top of their pages;
  • brands can pin key posts to the top of their pages for up to seven days (i.e., they can highlight important posts for a longer time period); and
  • similar to Twitter, brands can privately message fans (and vice versa), helping Facebook become a more powerful customer service tool

The new pages are the hub for your brand on Facebook. All of your brand’s Facebook activities, ads and posts originate from your brand page. The brand page is also the key place for you and your fans to communicate, enabling you to foster stronger customer relationships.

Brands now have a platform on Facebook for complete experience optimization — i.e., engaging participants through sights, sounds, words, interactions, ads, games and apps, all in one easy-to-find place. Facebook noted that it wants Timeline for Brands to bring back the relationship between the customer and shopkeeper. The updated brand pages provide a platform for brands to engage with customers on a more personal and relevant level than probably any other platform, including the brand’s own website.

The same day Facebook launched Timeline for Brands, it also announced its new real-time Page Insights. Real-time insights are a game changer as marketers used to have to wait 48 hours for Facebook data.

Facebook Product Manager David Baser recently talked to AdAge about what real-time insights means for brands seeking performance through Facebook pages. Baser maintained that engagement can equal performance if brands are able to leverage real-time participant data to quickly optimize brand pages. For instance, if a brand knows that a certain post is driving a significant number of likes, comments or shares, that brand can quickly pin that post to the top of its brand page.

The new brand pages and real-time insights give brands the opportunity to understand how well they’re interacting with their users and how responsive customers are to the brand. These engagement metrics don’t necessarily directly equate to performance (i.e., sales and leads), but they can help a brand understand its ability to increase the likelihood of performance — e.g., conversions, new customers, improved customer loyalty and increased average order size.

The like button isn’t the only Facebook engagement metric of interest to marketers. Facebook also now reports on various engagement metrics centered on actions. These include the “People Talking About This” metric, which incorporates likes, comments, shares, tags, check-ins and event RSVPs, and the “Engaged Users” metric, which incorporates clicks on links, photos and video views. Performance marketers are focused on collecting and analyzing this engagement data to inform brand page content, make real-time brand page optimization decisions and increase the chance of performance. Brands should consider the following when analyzing their Facebook marketing strategy:

  1. Test specific posts (videos, polls, etc.) around new products, promotions and events.
  2. Collect engagement data.
  3. Measure changes in customer behavior (e.g., sales, leads, new-to-file customers, order size, etc.) based on the data.

Facebook’s new Timeline for Brands enables marketers to foster engagement with participants. This engagement can equal Facebook performance. Brands can separate themselves from the competition by using real-time Facebook engagement data and insights to optimize their brand pages for performance.

Don’t Be Creepy: Using Robust User Data for Ad Targeting While Respecting Privacy

When your brand possesses or has access to data that provides deep visibility into user interests, you should use that visibility to create more relevant ads, thus increasing performance while limiting costs. But with deep visibility comes deep responsibility to respect privacy. The fastest way to hurt performance is to cross into the creepy zone. Don’t be a creeper.

Google announced that on March 1 it will be updating its privacy policy to enable the integration of user data across Google properties. As it integrates more cross-property data, including information on user interests and demographics, Google can provide advertisers with more robust and precise targeting capabilities in search and display.

For instance, Google may uncover a certain person’s interests through their interactions on Gmail and Google+. This capability may someday enable an advertiser to direct search or display ads to that person based on those interests.

Although users can opt out of the experience and adjust and delete information that Google has collected, the privacy policy update has been met with some backlash. Lawmakers in the U.S. and European Union have asked Google to explain why the changes are necessary and how privacy will be protected. A privacy advocacy group sought a court order directing the FTC to sue Google, and sites like Gizmodo have urged people to take control of their privacy by switching to various non-Google-owned properties for search, email, social, photos, docs and video.

Assuming Google goes forward with the update and activates the potential for more robust targeting options, advertisers should keep a few things in mind to increase performance while respecting privacy:

1. There’s a fine line between appropriate and creepy. Ads that are more tailored to a person’s interests are more likely to satisfy that person’s needs. However, many users would prefer that advertisers don’t know everything about them. If a user sees an ad that’s eerily related to a Google+ or Gmail conversation they’ve just had with a friend, a line may have been crossed.

2. Users will blame you. Creepy ads harm people by making them feel as if they’ve been unwillingly observed. But who’s responsible for this unwanted observation? Technically Google observed the user, but the average web surfer doesn’t think about what’s happening behind the scenes. Users ask, “How did this brand know that about me? Have they been watching me?” Creepy isn’t always a label that users attach to Google (or Facebook or any other advertising platform). It’s a label attached to brands that push the platform’s capabilities too far.

3. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Users must agree to the new privacy policy in order to sign in to Google. Google provides an easy means within its Ads Preference Manager to opt out of customized or personalized search and display ads. Thus Google’s informing its users, obtaining their consent and providing them with privacy controls. But just because a person consents or fails to adjust their ad preferences doesn’t mean that it’s open season for creepiness. People shouldn’t have to choose between using Google and avoiding the creep factor.

As a marketer, don’t think that people agreed to diminish their right to privacy in order to use Google or another service. Respect privacy as a right that can’t be diminished, no matter whether a person opts in to a privacy policy.

When your brand possesses or has access to data that provides deep visibility into user interests, you should use that visibility to create more relevant ads, thus increasing performance while limiting costs. But with deep visibility comes deep responsibility to respect privacy. The fastest way to hurt performance is to cross into the creepy zone. Don’t be a creeper.

Applying Paid Search Optimization Techniques Beyond the Search Engine Results Page

In 2010, Forrester’s The Future of Search Marketing report predicted that “search marketing will become an umbrella term that applies to using any targeted media to help an advertiser get found.” Forrester was right. It’s now clear that search isn’t limited to being a channel.

In 2010, Forrester’s The Future of Search Marketing report predicted that “search marketing will become an umbrella term that applies to using any targeted media to help an advertiser get found.” Forrester was right. It’s now clear that search isn’t limited to being a channel.

Search is the science of understanding intent and acting on it to efficiently connect people to your brand — no matter if that connection is made on a search engine, social networking site, display network, affiliate network or other emerging medium. To foster these connections, search engine marketing best practices can be extended well beyond the search engine results page.

First, I’ll consider how traditional paid search techniques can be applied to display advertising to drive new-to-file customers. Like search, biddable display provides advertisers with targeting capabilities to find the right customer at the right price. While search marketers create segmentation via keywords to find the right audience, display marketers create segmentation via data sources.

For example, during back-to-school season this past year, one of Performics’ apparel retailer clients sought to efficiently boost year-over-year daily sales though performance display. Like we do with search campaigns, we restructured the retailer’s display campaign at a more granular level (31 different ads in 2011 versus 6 ads in 2010) to support product/offer testing.

The restructure revealed deeper audience insights, helping us buy only the impressions we wanted (i.e., the right placements at the right price). We also increased relevance through site retargeting (i.e., serving display ads to people who visited the advertiser’s website but didn’t take action). These strategies resulted in a 211 percent year-over-year increase in average daily sales at a 120 percent return on investment.

Likewise, paid search techniques can be applied to social media advertising. The obvious paid search/Facebook similarities are that Facebook cost-per-click ads are bid based, keyword triggered by likes/interests in users’ profiles and optimized through copy/creative testing. The obvious paid search/Twitter similarities are that Promoted Tweets are bid based, triggered by Twitter users’ search keywords and optimized through copy testing.

There are also less obvious similarities. For example, using paid search campaign structure best practices to boost Twitter followers via Promoted Accounts, which enable advertisers to recommend their account to particular Twitter users who may be interested in following them. For an advertiser’s account to be recommended, the advertiser targets Twitter users via keywords and bids on a cost-per-follower (CPF) basis. One of Performics’ clients sought to use Promoted Accounts to increase followers at a low CPF.

Borrowing from paid search, Performics restructured and relaunched the client’s Promoted Accounts campaign. We increased the account’s size from one campaign to 11 campaigns to include more granular, demographically relevant keywords. Like in paid search, more targeted keywords caused Twitter’s algorithm to recommend our client’s account to a more relevant Twitter audience. Post-optimization, the client achieved a 1,473 percent increase in followers at a 69 percent decrease in CPF.

Search will surely continue to evolve well beyond typing keywords in a search box (think asking Siri to find you an answer or using a mobile augmented reality app to see product reviews while walking through a store). Notwithstanding this evolution, time-tested paid search optimization techniques relentlessly focused on structuring campaigns to deliver the most relevant audiences at the lowest cost will always drive performance.

Holiday Paid Search Analytics Reveal Insights Into Today’s Cross-Channel Shopper

When analyzing early holiday paid search data, it’s readily apparent that shopping is truly a cross-channel endeavor. For instance, the majority of this year’s Black Friday shopping occurred in-store, but consumers used search engines in droves before setting foot in a store. Search helped shoppers map out their in-store Black Friday strategies, informing them exactly where and when they could find the best deals on the products they wanted.

When analyzing early holiday paid search data, it’s readily apparent that shopping is truly a cross-channel endeavor. For instance, the majority of this year’s Black Friday shopping occurred in-store, but consumers used search engines in droves before setting foot in a store. Search helped shoppers map out their in-store Black Friday strategies, informing them exactly where and when they could find the best deals on the products they wanted.

Search played a major role in driving in-store traffic this Black Friday. Performics tracked a huge spike in Google paid search clicks for its clients on both Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Paid search clicks increased 87 percent year-over-year on Thanksgiving and 65 percent year-over-year on Black Friday. Additionally, this year saw the most mobile paid search clicks and impressions ever seen on Black Friday — 400 percent more than 2010.

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For the second consecutive year, Black Friday clicks surpassed Cyber Monday clicks. The adjacent graph shows three primary spikes in 2010 and 2011 fourth quarter paid search clicks. Black Friday represents the biggest spike, with Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday (which were close to each other) following behind.

Cyber Monday has historically been the biggest online sales day of the year, not Black Friday. In terms of online sales, Black Friday historically ranks behind Cyber Monday, Green Monday (the second Monday in December) and Free Shipping Day. Black Friday drives the most clicks, but the fourth most online sales.

This indicates that consumers use search engines heavily on Black Friday to discover the best in-store deals. Post-recession shoppers are researching on their computers and mobile devices more than ever to find the right combination of quality and price. The rise of mobile, highlighted by the 400 percent year-over-year increase in Black Friday mobile clicks, is the biggest indicator of true cross-channel shopping.

Not only are on-the-go consumers searching for your store locations, but they’re also conducting competitive price searches and looking for product information on their phones/tablets while in your store. According to Performics’ 2011 Social Shopping Study, 62 percent of consumers perform competitive price searches on their mobile devices while in a retailer’s store and 41 percent look for product information.

To capitalize on this cross-channel shopping behavior during the holiday season and beyond, marketers should do the following:

  • integrate online and offline promotional planning;
  • create strong mobile websites;
  • use paid search extensions (e.g., addresses, phone numbers, click-to-call) to aid searchers looking for your store;
  • let searchers know that products are in stock in your stores;
  • ensure visibility in mobile search for keywords likely to be used by shoppers searching for your store while on the go or in-store; and
  • create comprehensive local paid and organic search campaigns.

Marketers should invest in analytics to understand exactly how search marketing affects offline sales. Uncovering insights through data will help you best allocate budgets and create marketing strategies to maximize cross-channel performance.

Marketing as a Function of Your Entire Organization

In a world where earned content is increasingly influencing marketing programs, marketing as a function is changing. Marketing can no longer live solely in your marketing department. From customer service to product development to human resources, it must live everywhere in your organization. If marketing isn’t tied to your overall business strategy, it’s pretty much useless.

In a world where earned content is increasingly influencing marketing programs, marketing as a function is changing. Marketing can no longer live solely in your marketing department. From customer service to product development to human resources, it must live everywhere in your organization. If marketing isn’t tied to your overall business strategy, it’s pretty much useless.

The most telling example is the synergy between marketing and customer service. Do your customer-facing employees sit in the marketing department? No, they work on the front line, in the field, in your stores and service centers. Depending on how they interact with your customers, they foster either customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Your customer-facing employees thus wield incredible potential to influence your earned content.

Earned content is content that’s created by your customers on behalf of your brand. It could be a great review on Yelp, a gripe on Twitter, a user-generated YouTube video, a Facebook “Like” or a Google +1. Earned content has a powerful impact on your online marketing. It’s word-of-mouth marketing on search results pages and social networks. Your marketing department stays awake at night brainstorming ways to generate positive earned content and minimize negative earned content. But ironically, it’s your customer-facing employees — not your marketing department — that largely influence this content.

Consider this famous internet video: “A Comcast Technician Sleeping on My Couch.” This video is five years old and still ranks No. 15 in a search for “Comcast” on Google. It’s gotten 1.7 million views and 1,600 comments on YouTube. The video’s comments section is a gripe board for Comcast customers. The video is a thorn in the side of Comcast’s search marketing department, negatively affecting its reputation for years. Yet the video would never have existed if that one technician didn’t fall asleep on that customer’s couch. This example reinforces John Battelle’s point that the search engine index is the modern-day equivalent of carving our stories into stone.

Redefining performance marketing is about making the investment needed to bake marketing into every function of your organization. It’s about ensuring that all functions embrace your universal value proposition, central brand methodology and key benefit statements. This increases the likelihood that your customers actually get what your marketing department is promoting, including the right service, the right product, the promised benefit or the promised reward.

Baking marketing into every function is also about ensuring that each department knows that what it does influences marketing (sometimes in a huge way, as in the Comcast example or the recent Netflix price change which created an uproar in earned media). This not only includes how your customer service employees act, but how your product team develops products, what your executives say to the media, how your HR department screens job candidates and so on.

Making marketing an integrated function of your organization fuels the earned marketing engine. It sets the performance marketing spiral in motion as that earned content informs brand perception for the next person in market for your product or service.

Affiliate Governance in Paid Search: Asserting Control to Boost Overall Performance

Your affiliate marketing and paid search programs are intrinsically linked. For instance, your brand uses paid search to generate leads, while at the same time your affiliates use paid search to generate leads for you. Paid search and affiliate marketing success often depends on integrating your paid search program with your affiliates’ programs. This can be accomplished through affiliate governance.

Your affiliate marketing and paid search programs are intrinsically linked. For instance, your brand uses paid search to generate leads, while at the same time your affiliates use paid search to generate leads for you. Paid search and affiliate marketing success often depends on integrating your paid search program with your affiliates’ programs. This can be accomplished through affiliate governance.

Affiliate governance requires a flexible operating framework that can be used to relay core messages to your affiliates. Affiliates manage their search efforts independently, yet must be directed to follow brand standards and best practices. Affiliate governance strategies help in two ways:

  1. they prevent affiliates from competing with your brand in paid search; and
  2. they foster brand/affiliate collaboration to boost paid search visibility.

Preventing Competition
Competing with your affiliates in paid search can raise cost per clicks (CPCs). It can also raise overall cost per acquisition (CPA). For example, your affiliates could be generating leads through paid search and charging you commission for those leads in situations where you should be generating the lead yourself, therefore avoiding paying said commission.

This not only inflates overall CPA, but also results in inaccurate revenue attribution, skewing the data needed to make future channel investment decisions. The affiliate network Atrinsic recently analyzed hundreds of advertisers running affiliate campaigns and estimated an average of 40 percent of revenue attribution per advertiser is inaccurate.

To avoid competition and attributing revenue to the wrong source, set some paid search ground rules for your affiliates. For example, prohibit your affiliates from bidding above you (or bidding at all) on your brand terms. While nearly all major brands prohibit most affiliates from bidding on their trademarked terms, the majority of brands do allow a few affiliates to have limited search privileges. This reduces competition, subsequently reducing CPCs. It also increases the possibility that searchers will click on your ad before an affiliate’s ad, potentially saving you a commission.

However, allowing affiliates to outbid you on particular brand terms can actually improve efficiency. For example, assume Old Navy is running a Groupon promotion. A person searching for “Old Navy coupons” probably isn’t looking for OldNavy.com, but rather a coupon site. They likely wouldn’t convert from Old Navy’s ad. Thus, Old Navy would improve efficiency by allowing Groupon to bid above it for “Old Navy coupons.” Searchers would land where they want, and Groupon — not Old Navy — would pay for the clicks. Of course, affiliate bid governance rules require a test-and-learn approach to determine which rules work best in each situation.

Once you’ve set the ground rules, ensure that affiliates abide by them. This requires affiliate-monitoring technology. Monitoring technology should be able to identify whether your affiliates are doing the following:

  • following bidding guidelines;
  • using your trademarks correctly in ad copy;
  • following landing page guidelines; and
  • fostering collaboration.

Affiliate governance not only prevents conflict, it fosters collaboration. The goal is to ensure that your brand dominates the paid search results for brand queries, pushing down potential competitors who are bidding on your brand. For example, search engines don’t allow advertisers to serve more than one ad per query. To supplement your one ad, organize affiliates to serve ads that promote your brand, boost brand awareness and drown out your competition. You can also increase visibility for generic queries by communicating collaborative keyword and messaging strategies to your affiliates.

Affiliate governance uncovers opportunities where affiliate marketing interests should yield to paid search interests, and visa versa, to boost overall search and affiliate performance. Overall success is therefore most likely achieved when you have one entity responsible for the combined performance of the channels. Ask yourself, “How can we integrate search and affiliate to increase overall leads, conversions and efficiency?”

In the end, performance is all that matters.

Optimizing Paid Search Campaigns for the ‘Third Device’

It’s time to think of tablets as a distinct “third device” and devise performance marketing strategies to engage tablet users. Advertisers must take advantage of the ability now offered in AdWords to target smartphones and tablets separately.

Tablets are the fastest-selling consumer technology device in history. According to eMarketer, 24 million U.S. consumers will own a tablet by the end of this year. By the end of 2012, 12.8 percent of people in the U.S. will own a tablet.

As of June 1, Google AdWords began separating “tablets with full browsers” as a distinct device within AdWords reporting. Previously, tablets were grouped with all “mobile devices with full browsers” (i.e., smartphones). Thus, June gave us our first look into tablet paid search impression and click volume. Impressions and clicks were immediately high in June, showing that tablets have likely been materially contributing to Google mobile paid search share for a number of months.

For Performics’ aggregate client base, 12.1 percent of all June desktop and mobile paid search impressions came from mobile devices. Of this 12.1 percent, 14.3 percent came from tablets. Based on these numbers, tablets now compose 1.7 percent of all paid search impressions. Additionally, tablets contributed to 13.3 percent of all mobile paid search clicks. Tablet cost per clicks track at about 50 percent of PC cost per clicks. The bottom line is that consumers are now on tablets searching for your brand, and it’s not expensive to engage them.

It’s time to think of tablets as a distinct “third device” and devise performance marketing strategies to engage tablet users. Advertisers must take advantage of the ability now offered in AdWords to target smartphones and tablets separately. At Performics, we’ve seen that tablet usage patterns resemble mobile patterns — people do most of their tablet searching in the evening. However, people use tablets differently than smartphones, which reveals opportunities to optimize your paid search campaign for the third device.

Unlike smartphones, tablets feature advanced scrolling functionality. Since tablet users can scroll with a gesture, they’re more likely to peruse search results and landing pages. This makes tablet users more likely than smartphone users to click on search results that are further down the page. Thus, bid strategies should differ when targeting tablets versus smartphones.

Tablets have bigger screens than smartphones. Tablet traffic should therefore be driven to desktop — not mobile — landing pages, where users have more room to browse.

A different device means different copy optimization opportunities. Once tablets are separated into distinct search campaigns, copy and links can be geared specifically to tablet users — e.g., “purchase now from your tablet” or “buy an accessory for your tablet.”

As the device landscape becomes increasingly fragmented, performance marketers must capitalize on every little opportunity to optimize advertising by device. Brands that tailor advertising to support tablets will achieve a first-mover advantage as tablets increase in popularity. This advantage comes in the form of data — e.g., nuances in how your customers use different devices — which reveal opportunities to engage consumers in more effective and efficient ways.

Have you noticed ways that your customers interact with tablets differently than smartphones or PCs? If so, please leave a comment below.

Genuine Strategies to Outsmart Paid Search Counterfeiters

According to MarkMonitor, counterfeiters sold $135 billion in goods online in 2010. Many counterfeiters are now using paid search to engage U.S. consumers. Search engines make this possible by allowing third parties — potentially counterfeiters — to bid on others’ trademarks (e.g., Coach bags, Oakley sunglasses, Rosetta Stone). Search engines prohibit advertisers from promoting counterfeit goods, but smart counterfeiters regularly evade the engines. Offshore counterfeiters also evade U.S. law enforcement, which only has jurisdiction to seize domestic domains. As a result, some high-end retailers and software providers are being forced to wage a constant paid search battle against counterfeiters.

According to MarkMonitor, counterfeiters sold $135 billion in goods online in 2010. Many counterfeiters are now using paid search to engage U.S. consumers. Search engines make this possible by allowing third parties – potentially counterfeiters — to bid on others’ trademarks (e.g., Coach bags, Oakley sunglasses, Rosetta Stone). Search engines prohibit advertisers from promoting counterfeit goods, but smart counterfeiters regularly evade the engines. Offshore counterfeiters also evade U.S. law enforcement, which only has jurisdiction to seize domestic domains. As a result, some high-end retailers and software providers are being forced to wage a constant paid search battle against counterfeiters.

Let’s look at Coach, a brand susceptible to counterfeiting. According to Coach’s website, the only sites that sell authentic Coach products are Coach.com, Macys.com,Nordstrom.com and Dillards.com. However, according to Google’s search engine results page (SERP), searchers can buy authentic Coach products from sites like Cosaletoday.info, Aomart.info, Alibuys.info and Bestaomall.info.

Actually, the domain names of the counterfeiter sites don’t even matter; every time Google removes an ad, the counterfeiter puts the same content on a different domain and buys a new ad. Controlling counterfeiter paid search ads is like a game of Whac-A-Mole — every time one is eliminated, a new one pops up.

A “Coach bags” Google query on May 26 I conducted illustrates the paid search visibility that some counterfeiters can achieve. Although rare, the results showed an instance where the top three advertisers are all Coach counterfeiters. Coach’s official website was found in the sixth position.

The most interesting aspect of this example is the position of the counterfeiters’ ads in the top sponsored box and above Coach’s own ad. Google has stated that for an ad to display in the top sponsored box it must meet a high quality score threshold. It’s unlikely these ads — which contain misspellings and are obviously suspect — have high quality scores. Thus brands cannot rely on quality score alone to keep counterfeiters from the top of the SERP. Brands must employ sophisticated strategies to outsmart paid search counterfeiters, including the following:

Powerful monitoring and workflow technology: Brands that are susceptible to counterfeiters must monitor their keywords in real time, 24/7. This requires powerful technology that not only identifies when a counterfeiter is bidding on your brand, but automatically does something about it.

When your trademark monitoring technology identifies a counterfeiter, how long does it take to you or your team to:
1. contact the search engine to remove the listing;
2. increase your bid to ensure you’re running above the counterfeiter until the engine removes the ad; and
3. ease back bids once the counterfeiter’s ad has been removed?

Best-in-class performance marketers optimize the campaign management process to scale across keywords and publishers by combining business intelligence tools with trademark monitoring and workflow automation technology. While speed to market and quality of implementation are important success factors when trying to blunt the competition, it’s critical when a counterfeiter is bidding on your brand.

Multidomain distribution strategies: Brands should consider SERP domination strategies to overpower counterfeiters’ ads. For instance, most luxury retailers sell via channel partners like department stores. These retailers could employ paid search co-op strategies where they provide their channel partners with money to bid on the retailer’s brand. For instance, a retailer could bid on its brand in conjunction with four channel partners, effectively pushing counterfeiters below the fold. This strategy requires clear communication with channel partners, as well as bidding rules and monitoring to avoid cost-per-click (CPC) inflation.

“Official” ad copy: Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of ad copy that contains your trademark symbol and the phrase “official store.” Searchers seeking the real product will look for this kind of copy.

As you can see, complicated paid search challenges require sophisticated, customized solutions. This blog only scratches the surface on how to deal with counterfeiters and other unauthorized parties who bid on your trademarks. Do you have a complicated search challenge? If so, leave a comment below or send me an email at craig.greenfield@performics.com.

Blurring the Lines Between Paid and Natural Search Listings: The Impact on Search Performance

Over the past few months, Google has made some subtle changes to the look of its top position sponsored listings. These changes have, in the aggregate, made top sponsored listings look remarkably like natural search listings.

Over the past few months, Google has made some subtle changes to the look of its top position sponsored listings. These changes have, in the aggregate, made top sponsored listings look remarkably like natural search listings.

In January, for instance, Google lowercased the display URL for all paid search ads (e.g., Example.com became example.com). The new lowercase display URL now matches natural search URLs. A few weeks later, Google began allowing top position paid search advertisers to move the first line of description ad text into the title of the listing. This can be done for any listing by placing punctuation at the end of the first description line. By moving the first description line into the title, the paid search title looks more like a natural search title.

Other recent changes have helped top position paid search ads blend into natural search results. These changes include the lightening of the paid search box’s color and a change to the box’s right-side label from “Sponsored Listings” to the less noticeable “Ad.”

What do these changes mean for paid and natural search performance? Performics’ 2010 Search Engine Results Page (SERP) Insights Study found that two-thirds of searchers know the difference between paid and natural search results. However, in light of Google’s recent changes, fewer searchers may be able to tell the paid and natural listings apart.

Many searchers click on natural search listings because they believe natural search is less biased than paid search. Yet, as the lines between paid and natural search listings blur, searchers may be more likely to click on a top position paid listing. Thus, paid search clickthrough rates (CTRs) may rise while natural search CTRs may fall. Performics’ 2010 SERP Insights Study also found that 20 percent of searchers frequently or always click on paid search ads. This year could be a different story.

In light of these changes, advertisers should pay close attention to both paid and natural search CTRs, especially for brand queries. For example, most advertisers run a top position paid search ad and rank first naturally for their brand name. Google’s changes could divert clicks from the natural listing to the paid listing, which means advertisers will be paying for clicks that they used to get for free.

This is fine if the cost per order/lead from paid search remains at or above goal, but if click costs rise and order sales and leads don’t, advertisers need to refine their paid search campaigns. This includes employing landing page optimization strategies as well as testing paid search site links to better direct searchers to the exact page they’re looking for.

It’s generally easier to use paid search rather than natural search to direct a searcher to a defined landing page that’s optimized to drive conversions. Thus boosting paid search CTRs — even at the expense of natural search CTRs — can drive more conversions. The key is ensuring that paid search landing pages are optimized.

It’s clear that Google’s changes blur the lines between paid and natural search listings. Will Bing and other engines follow suit? That remains to be seen, but in response to this change on the industry’s leading engine, advertisers now have an opportunity to boost paid search CTRs. Advertisers must be strategic about their programs and remember that in order to stay efficient, they must ensure that more clicks ultimately yield more sales/leads.

Have you seen a difference in your search programs as a result of these blurred lines? Have questions about how it might impact your campaigns? Contact me at craig.greenfield@performics.com.