'Doing Search' Only Counts If You're Seen

I'm not making any friends with Ontario Tourism. Two weeks ago I said in this column they weren't using search. I was quickly corrected by the tourist bureau's Nick Pedota, who told me my claim was "wildly inaccurate" and that Ontario Tourism in fact has "an extensive search program." But based on the following searches I did while in Toronto, Ontario Tourism didn't show for: Ontario vacations, Ontario resorts, Toronto vacations, Ontario getaways and Ontario holidays. According to Google Trends' keyword research tool, these are the most common searches for Ontario, by a substantial margin.

If You're Not Seen, You're Not Doing Search

Here's the reality of search marketing. It's one thing to say "we're doing search" internally -- and it's a totally different thing to have the searcher realize that yes, you're doing search. The smart thing to do here would be to give Pedota and Ontario Tourism the retraction they're looking for and say I made a mistake (which I did). But this proves too good an example of the disconnect I see all the time; managing a search campaign to budgets, not objectives. I stand by my original claim: Canadian advertisers aren't clueing into the power of search.

Nick wasn't really in a mood to share many details of the bureau's campaign, but he did share that they're were bidding on thousands of "targeted keyphrases" and were using heavy geo-targeting to focus on their prime markets (Ontario and the border states). He said that's simply "smart marketing". I can't disagree. It makes sense to target in on your best clicks first, especially if budgets are limited.

Where's the Money Going?

But in this case, are budgets really limited? Let me share some things I was able to dig up on Ontario Tourism's site. First of all, the tourist bureau is doing print (lots of print) and TV (lots of TV). The goal? To drive people to its Web site. Full-page 4-color ads are running multiple times in over 70 dailies and weekly newspapers and 9 magazines. One 4-color full-page ad in the Toronto Star would run about $54,000 (there's a certain amount of guessing here, as print rate cards are really a mathematical exercise in confusion and frustration). Circulation of the Toronto Star is 350,000 (on an average day). An excellent conversion rate for a newspaper ad would be 0.5% That means, ideally, 1,750 people would actually visit the Ontario Tourism website. Now, I have never in my life seen a newspaper ad convert this well, but even if it did, that would be a cost per visitor of $30.85. If the ad doesn't work that well, the average cost climbs dramatically. And you pay whether or not the ad works.

What People Actually Use

Now, courtesy Yahoo Canada and a recent survey, let's look at what actual travelers cite as the most important influencers in making travel plans. Search and Web sites are tied for number one and two, used by 51% of respondents in a recent survey. Newspapers and print? Only used by 7%. But yet, only 2.1% of Canadian ad budgets get spent on search, and 42% gets spent on newspapers and magazines. I couldn't get any specific percentages for Ontario Tourism, but one only has to look at their campaign page to see that search is very likely getting only a fraction of what's going to newspapers and magazines. And don't even get me started on the TV buys.

The Search Story

So, where is Ontario Tourism in the search results? As Pedota shared, they're only geo-targeting the prime markets, and then only for a 3-month period (April through June). Only 1 of the 7 highest traffic key phrases I found (using an Ontario IP) returned an ad or an organic listing for Ontario Travel (the site also hasn't been organically optimized). More specific phrases, like Ontario Summer Vacations or Ontario Wine Getaways, did return more ads.

But by bidding on specific phrases (even thousand of "long tail" ones) and not on the more popular ones, Ontario Tourism is catching less than 10% of all the people using search to plan a vacation in Ontario. And unless you're in the top-sponsored ad locations (which few of the ads I saw were) you're actually only being seen by a small percentage of those searchers (usually 10% to 30% of them) on the results pages you do appear on. So, according to 97 out of 100 people who are using search to find the official site for Ontario Tourism, the tourism bureau is not "doing search." By the way, you could maintain top spot in Google and Yahoo for all the top traffic phrases for less than $2 per visitor. Remember, that ad in the Toronto Star cost, at a minimum, 15 times that!

Again, let's recap. What's the purpose of the campaign? To drive people to the Web site. And not just any one -- THE official Web site of Ontario Tourism, the site most people are looking for on these key phrases.

And You're Spending Your Money Where?

Is it really "smarter" to ignore 97% of the people who are actively searching online to find you, so you can spend more money running ads in newspapers for the 99.5% of people who have no interest in your site at all? And the real irony here is that if people don't click on a search ad, you don't pay! Take a fraction of that budget from the Toronto Star and blow out the geo-targeting and time parameters and go for the high-traffic phrases. After all, there might be people in Saskatchewan or Nova Scotia that are planning a trip to Ontario. Or, perhaps they're planning their trip in September, or February. If not, it's not costing you anything. Try getting the Toronto Star to offer the same pricing model!

Is this really smarter marketing? You decide. The readership of this column includes some of the smartest marketers on the planet. Blog about this and give me your opinion. Maybe I'm missing something, but I've decided I shouldn't apologize for trying to get advertisers to spend money more effectively. After all, in this case, it's really our money they're spending. At least, it would be if I were an Ontario taxpayer. Something tells me after this column, it might be a good thing I live 2000 miles away. As I said, I'm not making any friends in Ontario.