While the online advertising industry is frantically developing methods to combat banner blindness and adapt display for rapidly diminishing user engagement, little has changed in search engine marketing. Search keeps humming along, taking a healthy share of the marketing budget and delivering reliable results.
What is it that allows search to consistently perform well while display engagement continues to wither? There is nothing particularly sexy or pretty about search advertisements, yet display ads are getting bigger and sexier by the minute. In fact, the display industry is focused on building bigger, richer and more interactive ads so that brands can have a proper “canvas” on which to tell their stories. If all that time, energy and budget is going to be invested in jumbo ad units, surely we should be investing just as much in ensuring that these ads work, and that they drive results at least as well as search engine marketing does. After all, there’s a lot to be gained by everyone if we can improve display’s results.
Of course, it’s not all up to the advertisers. Publishers play a huge role in advertising success, and can actually drive the movement to make display advertising more effective. If we look at search sites like Google, Yahoo and Bing, there are several of lessons we can learn. Truly, publishers can gain valuable insight from search advertising:
1. Focus on real-time intent: The key to search’s success is intent. Search engine marketing targets consumers who actively seek information relevant to their interest in the present moment. In contrast, display relies on technology that may be targeting intent from several days or weeks ago. As an example: consumers may be interested in researching or buying a new mobile phone. When they searched for a handset yesterday, they were in shopping mode and found a great deal of information. They may have even made a purchase decision. If those consumers are hit with a retargeted display ad days later, they may be engaging in an activity completely unrelated to their mobile phone search -- perhaps watching videos on Youtube -- and the ad you’ve just run will be ignored because it is irrelevant and out of context to their present intent. The unfortunate result is an impression wasted and money left on the table. The lesson here is to implement advertising technology that targets real-time intent for better results.
2. Using granular targeting: Search relies on keyword-based queries to surface relevant ads for consumers. As a publisher, you too have that power. While many publishers today rely on broad categories for advertising placement, you can drive better results for advertisers by getting more granular with contextual targeting. Extracting the most relevant keywords from your page content and using them for ad targeting will dramatically improve accuracy. For example, run the ad for the mobile phone alongside the article about the best new apps for smartphones, rather than randomly in the section that targets “consumer technology.”
3. Location, location, location: One of the primary causes of banner blindness is our insistence upon running banner ads in predictable locations along the top and right side of every interior webpage. In contrast, consider Google AdWords, which is one of the earliest forms of online native advertising. These ads blend neatly in with organic content, providing useful information in a format only subtly different from editorial. Publishers really need to think outside the golden triangle and determine what “native” might look like on their unique publication. Where can ads subtly appear and offer value? What unique opportunities can you offer advertisers to sponsor your content or add their own?
4. Know when not to serve. As much as publishers need advertisers, I’ve learned over time that publishers may not need every advertiser. Based on my experience as GM of Display at Yahoo North America, the bottom 40% of publisher impressions probably account for only 5% of revenue. It’s likely these low performers are actually doing more harm than good, so it’s in your best interest to get rid of them. I know it’s hard to turn down money-in-hand, but it’s smarter in the long run. One reason: Reducing the number of ads on each page can dramatically improve the effectiveness and value of the remaining ads (Ad tonnage is another major cause of banner blindness). Search has a flat minimum cost-per-click in addition to strict relevance standards for ads. You can insist upon this too. There’s no reason to run low-paying and irrelevant ads on your site. In the long run, you’ll probably attract better quality, higher-paying advertisers by keeping your standards high.
5. Create user utility. Advertising is a necessary evil, but we don’t have to make our users suffer through it. While many advertisers strive to make ads that “surprise and delight,” search advertising does a great job of just being helpful. We can do that, too. Just as some publishers include useful “You might also like” suggestions at the end of an article, our ads can serve the same purpose -- if they’re highly relevant. If an article about preparing for your first marathon includes ads for protein supplements and lightweight running shoes, that’s useful. Furthermore, if the ad appears in a format that doesn’t compete with the article, that’s equally helpful and a really pleasant user experience. The takeaway here is this: Look for ways to make ads provide a useful navigational service for visitors.
The overarching lesson here is that search is doing something right, as much as brand advertisers may view it as the red-headed stepchild. Targeting intent, opting for native formats, being useful and relevant -- these should be priorities in advertising, regardless of the ad format. Unfortunately, many in the advertising industry are looking in the wrong direction. It’s up to publishers to lead the way.