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.

Craig Greenfield’s Redefining Performance Marketing: The Search Engine Results Page of the Future

Although impossible to predict exactly how tomorrow’s SERPs will look, marketers can position their brands for future SERP domination by focusing content creation strategies on some known trends that are currently influencing or will soon influence tomorrow’s SERPs. 

Take, for example, Google’s integration of rich media (e.g., photos, videos) into SERPs in recent years. This trend will likely continue and could easily evolve into paid video search ads in the SERPs of the future.

Search engine results pages (SERP) continue to evolve before our eyes, consistently becoming more relevant to consumers. Marketers seeking to stay ahead of these advancements in usability and relevancy to own more of tomorrow’s SERP should focus on developing three types of content:

  • paid content: paid search ads;
  • owned content: native websites, videos, social media, local information and blog posts; and
  • earned content: user-generated materials like YouTube videos, tweets and consumer reviews

Although impossible to predict exactly how tomorrow’s SERPs will look, marketers can position their brands for future SERP domination by focusing content creation strategies on some known trends that are currently influencing or will soon influence tomorrow’s SERPs. 

Take, for example, Google’s integration of rich media (e.g., photos, videos) into SERPs in recent years. This trend will likely continue and could easily evolve into paid video search ads in the SERPs of the future.

Real-time owned content from blogs and social media; user-generated earned content from blogs, tweets, and videos; and such local brand information as addresses, phone numbers and maps will likely all continue to be important in the SERP of the future. These represent just a sampling of the trends directing SERP evolution, but let’s take a closer look at the following three other likely influencers:

Sitelinks and deep navigation
.The SERP of the future will continue to incorporate more anchor links and clickable ad text, clickable search snippet text and clickable URLs. Sitelinks and deep navigation enable users to more easily find the exact page they’re looking for right from the SERP. Incorporating sitelinks into paid search ads, utilizing breadcrumb navigation, clear URL structure, and clear sitemaps helps spiders display more links in natural search listings. Expect more links in body content to permeate the SERPs moving forward.

The growth of mobile
. Predictions say that mobile search will rise to 73 percent of the mobile ad market by 2013 (Kelsey Group, Sept. 2009). With more than 140 million worldwide mobile social network users, consumers increasingly hold the future SERP in their hands; therefore brands must ensure visibility in mobile search by catering to an altogether different and separate SERP experience.

Personalization . Based on the search results that users click, Google already changes the results over time to make them more relevant and personalized. Google’s social search also pulls in results from the searcher’s social circle, such as tweets or Picasa pictures from friends. The highly personalized SERP of the future makes search marketing more complex—brands must have a deep understanding of their consumers to be able to most effectively target them, and this only becomes truer going forward.

How can brands manage the SERP of the future? Simply put, marketers must create and embrace holistic strategies to fully manage owned, earned and paid content that lives on the SERP of today to succeed on the SERP of tomorrow. A working combination of these trends – and more – can help marketers develop a comprehensive search strategy to take advantage of the SERP, while enhancing user experience and relevancy.

Search Marketing Reaches for New Heights

It’s no secret the economy is forcing online retailers to change the tactics they use to acquire and retain customers. But this doesn’t mean they’re cutting back across the board. While they’re cutting spend in some areas, they’re spending more in other areas that bring positive ROI.

It’s no secret the economy is forcing online retailers to change the tactics they use to acquire and retain customers. But this doesn’t mean they’re cutting back across the board. While they’re cutting spend in some areas, they’re spending more in other areas that bring positive ROI.

This may be why more than 80 percent of the 24 percent of retailers, who indicated in a recent Forrester Research survey conducted for Shop.org that they’ll spend more than originally planned this year, said they planned to increase their search spend.

The results of the survey of 117 online retailers were compiled in Shop.org’s study, The State of Retailing Online 2009.

The study reminded me of a case study I heard about recently involving Cabela’s, the direct marketer and specialty retailer of outdoor sporting goods. The company used a paid search campaign designed to push traffic into retail stores during a Memorial Day sales event last year.

Cabela’s maintains a strong online and catalog presence in addition to a growing number of retail stores across the U.S. “To increase traffic at these brick-and-mortar locations,” says Derek Fortna, Internet marketing manager at Cabela’s, “we decided to promote our offline stores online.”

For the campaign, Cabela’s partner, Performics, built paid search campaigns for each store, focusing on keywords for Cabela’s brand, the Memorial Day event and the combination of both, such as “Cabela’s Holiday Event.”

Geotargeted strategies were used. The company developed ad copy offering in-store coupons. These appeared on search pages of people who were in a 200-mile radius during the holiday event, and could only be redeemed at those locations. Landing pages were also developed to guide consumers through the coupon retrieval process.

The results? Ten percent of all consumers who clicked on the ad retrieved coupons, and 40 percent of the coupons were redeemed at retail locations.

This is one of the best success stories I’ve heard involving geotargeting, retailing and online search, and certainly one worth going to school on.

Paid, Organic Search a Big Part of DM Budgets

This didn’t really surprise me. But it did confirm what I and colleagues from sister publications Target Marketing and Catalog Success have been hearing from readers this year: More direct marketers are shifting marketing funds away from print and to the Internet.

This didn’t really surprise me. But it did confirm what I and colleagues from sister publications Target Marketing and Catalog Success have been hearing from readers this year: More direct marketers are shifting marketing funds away from print and to the Internet.

I’m referring to a recently released response rate report from the Direct Marketing Association, which showed that SEM and SEO combined to account for 33 percent of direct marketing budgets. Paid search makes up less of that 33 percent, however — just 8.2 percent.

This report lets marketers compare their own performance with success metrics for six media — direct mail, catalogs, inserts, telephone, e-mail and paid search.

The report also looks at DM budget allocations by channel and changes in budgets, as well as attitudes toward such new media as SMS (texting), social networking, podcasts, blogs, RSS feeds, wikis, online video, user-generated content and virtual worlds.

Other findings from the report include the following:
· 35 percent of marketing budgets are allocated to direct mail, although this number will likely shrink in coming years as digital media take an increasing share of marketing spend;
· response rates were higher than in previous years, perhaps as a result of better list management and more sophisticated targeting; and
· the catalog and retail segment outperforms other industries in direct mail response rates.

The report was conducted through a survey e-mailed to DMA members in Dec. 2008; 1,175 responses were received.

I may be biased, given the publication I edit, but this seems like the wave of the future. What about you? Do you find any of these statistics surprising? Let us know. Post your comment below or send it to me at mcampanelli@napco.com.

Olympics Advertisers Fail to Go for the Gold

During the 2008 Olympics, advertisers in both the U.S. and U.K. largely failed to use paid search marketing to promote themselves online after their national teams’ won gold medals.

This bold statement came to me from Steak, a digital marketing and search agency headquartered in New York and London.

Between them, the U.S. and U.K. won 55 gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games, finishing second and fourth, respectively, in that category behind leader China.

During the 2008 Olympics, advertisers in both the U.S. and U.K. largely failed to use paid search marketing to promote themselves online after their national teams’ won gold medals.

This bold statement came to me from Steak, a digital marketing and search agency headquartered in New York and London.

Between them, the U.S. and U.K. won 55 gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games, finishing second and fourth, respectively, in that category behind leader China.

In the release, Steak said “analysis of search traffic showed significant spikes in interest in athletes following their gold medal win, signaling an opportunity for sponsors, news organizations and other advertisers to connect with interested consumers.

But Steak’s research shows that few seized the opportunity to use paid search to capitalize on a positive association with the Olympic stars. Search ads showed up against just 35 percent of the U.S. and U.K. gold medal winners’ names. Among others, advertisers who sponsor medalists in particular missed out on some of the highest-profile moments, Steak said.

Steak noted that search interest in U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals, skyrocketed between Aug. 10 and Aug. 17, according to its analysis of Google Trends data.

Steak’s research also shows that Phelps’ corporate sponsors, such as Speedo and PureSport performance drinks, started running paid search ads against the swimmer after well after he gained his eight medal.

Similarly, Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, the popular winners of the women’s beach volleyball gold medal, failed to generate much interest from advertisers. Neither their sponsors nor the AVP or FIVB beach volleyball tours, in which both athletes compete, capitalized on their respective Olympic successes, according to Steak.
Food for thought…