Quality of Contextual Paid Search Listings Is Unproven

Recent search marketing offerings indicate a shift in paid search engine placement towards contextually-based results listings. Whether it actually provides users with a better search experience or simply dilutes the quality of paid listings remains to be seen.

As marketers grapple with jargon like keyword density and struggle to devise bidding strategies, many may not be aware that some paid search results are being driven by user behavior and perceived relevance as opposed to strict keyword matching.

Gator’s new Search Scout product serves up listings within a pop-under window to its Gator Advertising and Information Network users who are performing keyword searches on various sites. In addition to considering keywords to determine pop-under listings, Search Scout looks at the context of sites users visit during a certain period of time. Like Gator’s pop-ups, its Search Scout pop-unders are prominently labeled as GAIN network ads, “not brought to you or sponsored by the Web site(s) you are viewing.”

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“We give consumers involved in a category additional commercial links to consider when they’re done with their search,” asserts Scott Eagle, chief marketing officer at Gator. Some argue that by the time users notice the pop-unders, they may not be so involved with the subject matter anymore.

Similarly, Applied Semantics’ KeywordSense product analyzes user behavior and other research to map search queries to conceptually relevant terms and categories.

Overture is also taking a broader approach to listing relevance with Match Driver. Through the tool, paid advertiser listings are served based on what Match Driver believes the user intent is, even if the exact keywords purchased weren’t entered by the user. For instance, if a user searches on “engagement ring diamond solitaire,” results might include listings from advertisers that have bid on "solitaire diamond ring” or “solitaire engagement ring." According to its site, Overture contends that Match Driver delivers “more qualified leads” to advertisers.

Kevin Lee, CEO of search engine campaign management agency, Did-it.com, isn’t so sure. “Imagine you’re making soup and there’s not enough to feed everyone so you keep adding ingredients to make more,” he explains. “It doesn’t necessarily make it taste worse, just different.”

Cory Treffiletti, media director at Freestyle Interactive sees the move towards contextual search results as “an enhancement of the search term model in that it makes it easier for advertisers to find a non-exact match.”

Some argue that at the heart of the transition to contextual search is the desire to create more ad inventory. Witness Overture’s recent decision to expand its affiliate partner network to include Gator’s GAIN. The keyword auction powerhouse is one of six major search partners that feed Gator’s Search Scout pop-under results.

“I think it raises questions in the advertiser’s mind as to whether or not they really want to be [in the Overture listings],” comments Lee, who believes many marketers aren’t aware of these new developments in the search industry. Gator is not listed on Overture’s abridged list of affiliate partners on its site.

“At this point, there’s no real measurement in terms of how the extended Overture network is affecting ROI,” continues Lee.

According to Eagle, Gator will make metric tools available to advertisers soon.

“It’s simply a test,” says Al Duncan, director, media relations at Overture, of the Gator partnership. He refused to comment any further on the matter.

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