First, I was sitting in on a meeting where an agency (not ours) was reporting on the performance of its sponsored search campaigns and was ecstatic with the performance of its branded term phrases, which were outperforming every other keyword bucket both in terms of click-throughs and conversions. While giddy with delight, company executives were at a bit of a loss to explain why.
On a similar track, a search marketing firm has recently released some results that looked at cannibalization of search campaigns when you are buying terms where you also hold top organic position. Again, they found this is most likely to happen when you're buying branded terms.
While neither of these examples should be surprising to a seasoned search marketer, we're all interested to know the reasons behind this interplay between organic and sponsored, particularly on branded terms. The answer, as it so often does, lies in looking more closely at what the search user is doing.
Pre-Mapping: A Theory
After looking at thousands of search sessions in detail, one thing is becoming clear. Searchers are incredibly adept at focusing in on just the portion of the results page that interests them. The time required to relocate to the prime real estate is literally a fraction of a second. Yet that real estate isn't always the same spot. It varies depending on query and intent. It also varies by user, but even the same users will navigate the real estate of the listings in very different ways, depending on what they're looking for.
Pre-Mapping supposes that we've interacted with search results pages enough to know the sections of real estate we typically deal with. We know where the top sponsored ads are and what they are. We know about where the top organic listings start. And in our minds, we already have a good idea of the type of site we're looking for and approximately where we expect it to appear. Before the page ever loads, we've already mapped out the sections that would appear to hold the greatest promise to deliver on our intent. As the page loads, we do a split-second scan to get our bearings (orient in the top left corner, see how many top ads there are, see where organic starts) and then we go to the part of the map we've predetermined to be our best starting point.
Theory in Practice
Let's run through a few examples. Imagine you're looking for the possible side effects of a medication. The types of sites you would be looking for would be authoritative information sites, either the official site for the medication, a recognized health portal or possibly a government information site. In this case, you may be leaning more towards objective sites, rather than the pharmaceutical company's own site. After launching the search (the name of the drug) you'll quickly filter out, or thin slice, any commercially oriented sites. In this type of interaction, you've determined through pre-mapping that your area of greatest promise is not likely to be in the sponsored ads. You also expect the official site to rank No. 1 organically, so your area of greatest promise is probably in the No. 2 to 5 organic rankings, where you expect the types of sites you're looking for to sit. In a split second, you've narrowed the real estate where you'll start your active scanning to about 10 percent of the total real estate.
Now, let's say you're looking to renew your auto insurance. You've already checked out a few quotes online, but before you commit to any, you want to see how your current carrier compares. You've also pre-mapped the page in this case. Here, you expect your company to be bidding for the term ( "Brand Name auto insurance") and because it's a commercially oriented query, you assume that the sponsored listing would take you to a page where you could get a quote. Your area of greatest promise is the top sponsored ads. Again, you do your orientation scan to find your bearings in the upper left, but in this case, you would start right at the top sponsored link and work your way down the page until you find a link to the carrier in question that offers the promise of giving you a quote.
Considering these two examples of user behavior, you can easily see what was happening in the two anecdotes I cited at the beginning of this piece. Brand terms will convert like gangbusters in the top sponsored location, because when a brand term is used, it's very likely that the user has pre-mapped and is expecting to find that site in those top sponsored spots.
Similarly, you will find significant cannibalization because when users have pre-mapped, they start at the top and work down. They'll hit the sponsored result before they hit any organic result that might appear. They're looking for the quickest route, and in this case, the sponsored listing is giving it to them.
The likelihood to pre-map, and what this means for interaction for the page, lies in that deep dark place where all the answers to search engine success lie, the mind of your target prospect. Spend some time exploring it.