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Big Brands Always Win, Get Over It

Ma Get My Gun image

SEOMoz has built a well-earned reputation as the source of expert advice for anyone looking to improve their search engine marketing. While its focus has always laid primarily with SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), the team has never shied away from offering broader advice about using paid ads in search or exploiting other digital channels.

But I particularly enjoyed reading this article, brought to my attention by Bruce Lynn, in which President of User Effect, Pete Meyers, implores SEOMoz’s members to get over the demise of SEO and to “start acting like a brand.” And, if a high search engine ranking is important to you, the single best way to achieve this is through establishing a credible social presence for your brand online.

It’s not quite time to declare the end of black hat SEO; there will always be people and companies that are prepared to use underhand techniques to gain a slim competitive advantage. But the time has come for every business to recognise the immutable truth that an active social presence online is a far stronger indicator of brand vitality than can be garnered from any amount of behind-the-scenes tweakery.

So go on, get social. Your business could depend on it.

How to Assess the Impact of Stopping Search Advertising: a Google Study

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to root out the motivation behind Google’s latest research finding that advertisers who stop buying paid ads on Google’s search engine lose lots of search engine clicks. So, in this post I’ll take a look at the research to help you navigate your way through the data.

First up, Google’s headline finding:

In the event of pausing a paid ad campaign, “organic traffic does not make up for the loss of paid clicks”

Will organic traffic make up for the loss of paid ad clicks chart

Few should be surprised by this finding. Paid ads on search engines exist to disrupt the natural search flow and provide standout far beyond that afforded by organic listings. And Google has recently enhanced this standout even further with their new Enhanced Ad Sitelinks feature that allow ads to be embedded within ads. So it’s logical that turning off paid ads will result in the loss of the vast majority of clicks they would otherwise have generated. Google’s research puts the lost clicks at 85%, slightly lower than a prior study in July 2011 which claimed 89%. Interestingly, if a minimal paid ad spend is maintained, the

What happens in the absence of search ads?

We cannot read any additional data (e.g. click mix between organic and paid listings) because Google’s charts are not drawn to scale and the above 85% actually measures about 66%.

Where ad budgets are partially cut (although the research doesn’t specify by what percentage), the lost clicks amount to 80% on average.

The biggest problem I have with this study is that it assumes all clicks are equal, effectively ignoring the value of the different click types. If, for example, the 80% of lost clicks arising from a budget cut only contributed 10% of the end actions (e.g. purchase, sign-up, trial etc.) then this might yet prove to be ROI beneficial.

We know from prior studies, like Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra Univertisty’s study in 2010, that search engine users exhibit very different behaviours when confronted by organic and paid ads, and that their propensity to click on either shifts based on their needs. Informational searchers are typically more likely to follow organic listings, while transactional searchers, particularly those in buying mode, are relatively more predisposed to clicking on paid ads.

Google’s study concludes by assessing the % of clicks gained by increasing search advertising spend levels:

Where advertisers were previously not advertising with search ads, and then turned on search ads, the incremental traffic was 79%

No surprise, again, that buying paid ads leads to a sharp increase in overall click volume. However, this comes at the expense of some lost organic clicks, but we cannot gauge how much from the research because the charts have not been drawn to scale.

What happens with an increase in search ads?

To accurately assess the true incremental value generated from increasing search ad spend we have to factor in the value of each end action. For examples, if we are seeking informational searchers, who are much more inclined to click organic listings, and by placing additional paid ads we generate fewer organic clicks, the net result may not be positive for our marketing goals.

Google’s report concludes as follows:

Across the board, our findings are consistent: ads drive a very high proportion of incremental traffic – traffic that is not replaced by navigation from organic listings when the ads are turned off or turned down.

It’s hard to disagree with such a generic statement; of course, if you pay for clicks you’ll get more clicks than you might otherwise. But each marketer needs to consider these findings in the light of their unique business challenges. By factoring in the value generated from each type of click, we can make a much more informed judgement about the investment levels needed in search engine advertising to achieve our goals.

Further reading:

Google +1 data now in Google Analytics

Much has been written about Google’s recently announced +1 service but now Google has added advanced analytical features that could help prove or disprove the value of this new tool.

But first, what is Google +1? At it’s core, +1 is much like Facebook’s ‘Like’ feature. Website owners can add +1 icons like this: Google +1 iconto their sites that allow visitors to indicate that they like the page. A counter shows how many other people have clicked the +1 button, thereby giving social proof to boost the perceived value of the web page. Importantly for site owners, these +1 votes are also taken into consideration when presenting search results in Google, so the more clicks you get the greater the chances of people clicking through to your web page.

There’s also a social media component to this. Signed-in Google users who click a +1 button leave a trail that shows that they clicked the button. When a signed-in Google user is searching, the Google search result snippet may be annotated with the names of the user’s connections who have +1′d each page. If none of a user’s connections has +1′d a page, the snippet may only display the aggregate number of +1′s the page has received.

What’s new? Google has now gone one step further and added new tools to Google Analytics that allow site owners to show exactly what influence (if any) the +1 buttons have on traffic to a site. As the example screenshot below shows, Google will report how many times a +1 count has been annotated to search results, and what clickthrough rates have been achieved with and without these +1 annotations.

[click to enlarge]
Google Search Impact screenshot

There’s also an Activity Report that shows how many times selected pages have been +1’d and an Audience Report that shows geographic and demographic data about signed-in Google users who have +1’d pages.

These data data points may prove valuable in helping marketers quantify the value of social proof and the impact is has on broader online marketing efforts like search engine marketing and neighbouring display advertising.

My advice: Test +1 on selected web pages and see if these analytics tools can help you measure how people interact with your content. With luck you may be able to establish how much influence social proof has on search behaviour. Just don’t expect quick results as Google’s +1 service has far lower penetration and awareness than Facebook’s well-established ‘Like’ feature and may not have a long term future if it stumbles like some previous efforts.

More reading:

Google Webmaster Central Blog:
http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2011/06/1-reporting-in-google-webmaster-tools.html

Web Pro News:
http://www.webpronews.com/google-adds-1-button-data-to-google-analytics-2011-06

Search Engine Land:
http://searchengineland.com/official-google-analytics-gets-social-engagement-reporting-83707

Web SEO Analytics:
http://www.webseoanalytics.com/blog/google-plus1-vs-facebook-like-the-similarities-and-the-differences/

Cricket and a broken window: how search engine advertising can be remarkable

[image credit: Getty Images]
Broken window at Lord's Cricket pavillionI think I owe Lee Williams a beer or two as this is the second consecutive blog post I’ve written from a tip-off he passed my way. And this time, we’re talking about pay-per-click (PPC) advertising on search engines…

Every marketer wants their brand and web site to appear high up in the SERP (search engine results page) when a user searches for a relevant keywords. Most often this means compiling a lengthy list of relevant terms then optimising your website against these (known as SEO, search engine optimisation) as well as, if budgets permit, buy PPC ads against these keywords.

That’s fine, but sometimes a little imagination and creativity can go a long way too.

When England cricket player, Matt Prior, accidentally broke a window in the Lord’s pavillion during a test match against Sri Lanka, marketing agency Dare spotted an opportunity for their client B&Q, a home improvements superstore.

So, when thousands of cricket fans heard the news about the broken window and headed off to their search engine to find out what happened, here’s what they saw in response to a search for Matt Prior:

Search results for Matt Prior

I love seeing this kind of guerrilla marketing. Buying ads against the keywords “Matt Prior” is clever and very cheap. A quick check on Google AdWords confirms that there is, unsurprisingly, no competition whatsoever for these keywords and with 2,900 monthly searches there’s a good amount of traffic to go after. Conversely, there’s much more competition for keywords like “broken window” because every glazier and hardware shop wants a piece of that action meaning the price you pay for a click on a prominent ad will be much higher:

How search volumes compare

But will B&Q get any return from this investment? The truth is probably not, in a direct sense at least. People interested in Matt Prior’s window smash are highly unlikely to need any new windows themselves right now. But what this type of activity does do is help boost B&Q’s notoriety and reinforce their position as a great place to buy DIY materials. By cleverly associating themselves with a high profile cricket incident, B&Q demonstrates that they are interested in cricket (even if at the most superficial level) and cricket lovers who spot this association are more likely to think of B&Q next time they need DIY supplies. Who knows, some might even remember that window they’ve been meaning to fix and pop in on their way home after a hard day watching the cricket in the office ;-)

Opportunities like this can present themselves at any time. I recommend keeping back a small slush fund in the online marketing budget so you can jump on topical events at a moment’s notice. And don’t think this type of work is only for the big boys like B&Q; small and medium businesses who operate at a local level or in specialist fields have equal opportunity to exploit trending topics online, perhaps even greater opportunity. The prizes, as always, go to the marketers who think quickest and have the courage to experiment boldly.

Proof that Search and Display Ads work best together

The major search engines have long argued that paid listings can help boost brand awareness and recall. However, data from iProspect and comScore, Inc. shows that search listings alone may have very little, if any, impact on recall. If you really want to boost your brand recall online, you’ll need a more integrated approach, embracing both organic and paid search, as well as other exposure points like display ads.

(click image to enlarge)
Unaided Brand Recall Infographic by Allister Frost

Crucially, this research underlines the potency of having both paid and organic search listings for your brand. Combining these two exposure types alone boosted unaided brand recall by more than a third, from 17% to 23%. If you cannot afford expensive display ads, getting your SEO and paid search ads working in harmony will give you the biggest recall bang for your bucks.

And, here’s a gentle reminder for us all: even when throwing everything at consumers, fewer than half of the respondents in this research were able to recall all brands. Widespread brand awareness calls for much more than a few simple online ad exposures, and there are no guaranteed shortcuts. Becoming well-known and remembered is usually the ultimate result of a carefully planned and executed online and offline programme of activities delivered over an extended period of time.

Further reading:
eMarketer article: Uniting Search and Display for Stronger Results

Search and Social Media: inextricably linked for buyers

Search and Social Media marketing are increasingly intertwined, and for good reason: both serve as highly efficient vehicles to connect what you have to say with people who might want to hear it. And while search is still the dominant tool used by people who want to buy something online, social media is starting to be used more frequently as part of the process, primarily to validate purchase choices before and after buying.

A new study from GroupM and ComScore provides hard data to confirm what many of us already suspected. The study focussed on people buying in consumer packaged goods (or FMCG) and electronics/telecoms categories and found that most people start their online buying journey with search; 58% start with search compared to just 18% with social media and 24% for company websites.

Most consumers start with search

And while 45% of people claim to use search all the way through the buying process (from initial research, right through to and beyond the purchase itself) only 18% use it exclusively at the end of the process, highlighting the relatively more important role that search plays at the very start of the process.

But those searches at the start of the buying cycle differ significantly from those at the end, in what GroupM Search have coined the “Late Kick” for brands. In the last 30 days prior to purchase, after the initial evaluation has been completed, search behaviour intensifies with the chosen brand site receiving considerably more traffic than competitors who may, by now, have been dropped from the consideration set.

The late kick end stage surge in queries

Finally, the report reminds us that social media doesn’t just mean Facebook or Twitter. During the buying process social media tools like user reviews are used by 30% of buyers, while sites like Facebook are used by only 17%. Gathering the opinions of others is hugely important to many buyers, but its seems knowing who those people are may be less important than being able to easily access lots of reviews very quickly.

Further reading:

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