Commentary

More Search Marketing Strategies For The Next Decade

Last month's column outlined the emergence of search-as-research, one of several growing practice areas that will reshape search engine marketing over the coming years.  This column, part three of a four part series, examines ways search marketers are getting smarter about measuring success, and the implications this trend has on search marketing strategies in the future.

Over the last decade marketers have come to accept that search is a channel primarily suited to direct response.  Especially in paid search, those investing in search marketing campaigns are generally measuring success based on explicit return-on-investment goals.  Initially, marketers opt for simple success metrics like cost per sale or cost per application.  Eventually, as they get more sophisticated, these marketers embrace metrics more closely linked to campaign -- and business -- profitability, such as gross margin per sale or customer account value per click.  An entire sub-industry of search analytics and optimization, in fact, has grown up around these metrics.  And by all accounts these measures of search campaign success are widely accepted and appreciated -- consider the size of the paid search marketplace as evidence to support this claim. 

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But more and more marketers are finding out that measuring search as a stand-alone direct response channel does not tell the whole story.  They are finding value intrinsic in search campaigns, like its ability to move brand perceptions, which are not accounted for in their old ROI models.  And they are uncovering more effective optimization techniques through understanding external factors that can impact search marketing success.  In short, search marketers are getting smarter about how they measure and manage successful search campaigns.

For example, marketers are slowly embracing the value search can deliver as a branding and awareness creation tool.   Though generally underappreciated and universally under-measured, several studies have demonstrated that search marketing has a profound impact as a brand building vehicle.  In a study Avenue A | Razorfish conducted with Yahoo last year, for example, it was demonstrated that simply seeing (not clicking) an ad in top positions on paid listings dramatically increase an advertiser's brand favorability and message association in the mind of consumers exposed to the search result.

This wasn't the first, nor will it be the last, study to demonstrate that search is a viable branding channel.  Surprisingly, few advertisers have embraced the potential search marketing can offer in this area, let alone begun to measure and analyze the brand impact of search. But across any industry, advertisers who embrace this measurement and evaluation technique will likely find they are able to expand into new and previously cost-prohibitive keyword categories that drive significant brand equity and long-term returns. 

Beyond branding, marketers are recognizing that search does not operate in a vacuum.  Advances in data collection and data analysis techniques allow for greater visibility into the impact online media efforts have in driving search conversions.  Leading search marketers with large online media investments are using these techniques to execute cross-channel optimization decisions. These advertisers are able to shift media dollars towards Web sites that are more likely to drive future search conversions.  In effect, they are making their search campaign better by optimizing their media dollars.  While direct response is the end goal, the inputs and actions taken to achieve that goal are far more complex than in a model where search is viewed in isolation.  They are also far more effective -- advertisers using this technique can grow search volume and their share of search clicks through smarter media investments.

Likely there will be no sprint by advertisers to shift the way they measure and evaluate search marketing success, but rather a slow and steady crawl.  And many search marketers will continue to rely on the tried-and-true, immediate direct response metrics that have powered search marketing for the last ten years.  But marketers who embrace a more complete view of search marketing success will be rewarded with search campaigns that are less constrained, more responsive and drive better long-term results. These marketers will be able to unlock additional value in their search marketing investment through data and actions that are simply not available in a siloed, ROI-only optimization model.  And as an added benefit, the scope of their search campaigns will get much broader and much more interesting.

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