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Archive for September, 2006

Search ads are ugly

Let’s face it, search ads aren’t known for their eye candy factor. They are bare bones marketing to the extreme: three lines of text (in some cases a lot less) with one measly link allowed per ad.

Ironically, the fact that they are so effective has a lot to do with how they look. At most points of the online shopping continuum, there’s the search ad. Its lackluster presence beside the things we desire is what makes it effective. These ads are thoughtfully placed to the right of the organic search results and/or main page content. Sometimes they appear below the search box, but always as text ads – nothing too flashy or distracting.

Admittedly, consumers often click on search ads because they don’t realize that they are, in fact, ads (in spite of the “Sponsored Links” label that appears above them, in most cases). Consumers also don’t get pissed off at search ads the way they do with more intrusive forms of advertising such as, well, EVERYTHING else. Let’s face it – pop ups, unwanted e-mail, TV commercials, long-winded and loud radio ads, and big-ass banners that require you to click on an “X” to close them are annoying.

The internet pop bottle began to lose its fizz back in 2000-2001 or so and one of the main symptoms of this phenomenon was the alarming rate of banner clickthrough decline. Studies showed people not only weren’t clicking on anything long and rectangular at the top of the page, they were avoiding looking at them altogether. There’s even a term for it – it’s called “banner blindness.”

Search ads quietly began to replace traditional banner ads as the hot new form of online media because they lacked the bells and whistles that the “traditional” online ads boasted, not in spite of it. There was no flash, no rotating pictures,  no cute animations or sexy fonts – yet people were clicking.

And they’re still clicking, but now the landscape is changing…again. With the influx of broadband into the mainstream (Nielson/Netratings reported that 72% of at-home Internet users in the U.S. had broadband as of June 2006), the Internet is becoming a richly visual place to be.

This does not mean that “traditional” search ads are going the way of the old time banner. But, as marketers, we do need to think about the role that our text ads play in our overall campaign strategy and how we can leverage visual tools such as thumbnail images (think “Froogle”), photos and graphics (think Image Search) and video (e.g., YouTube, vlogs, Google Video) in conjunction with search technology to get even more response out of our online ad campaigns and continue to generate excitement from our clients.

I don’t think that plain Jane text ads will ever go the way of banners – at least not when they are associated with keyword searches at the engine-level (as opposed to contextual ads). Still, it’s important for search marketers to think beyond keywords and text to the end result – conversion. And when it comes to selling something, a picture definitely says a thousand words.

Add comment September 29th, 2006

At the end of the day, paid search is just media

A recent post on Google’s Adwords blog alerted me to the existence of the Google Adwords Philosophy which is as quaint and whimsical as the Unicorn slide show my 5-year-old insists we watch every night on YouTube.

But seriously, while I respect the well-intentioned folks at Google who took the time to outline a philosophy that is clearly built on integrity and the promotion of a good user experience, I can’t shake the feeling that they just don’t quite get it.

Here are a few quotes that gave me pause:

“By focusing on our users’ satisfaction and ensuring their confidence in the ads we deliver, we’re able to provide you with an audience that’s both highly targeted and highly receptive to your message.”

Um, no. Okay, well maybe. You’re able to provide us with an audience that’s highly targeted and highly receptive because YOU ARE A SEARCH ENGINE and you have brilliant engineers that figured out how to tie this technology into a keyword-targeted ad platform.  But, let’s be honest, paid search isn’t successful because you’re Google, it’s successful because it taps into the core of what pepole want.

Search engine users are receptive because that’s the nature of search, not because of Google’s obsessive desire to serve the perfect search ad. So please stop charging us more money based on arbitrary landing page criteria, or CTRs or other cryptic factors that are of no help to us, as advertisers.

“At its heart the AdWords program is simple: we bring our users and advertisers together at the moment when their interests intersect.”

Sure, ok. This is true at Google.com and other SEARCH partners that serve ads tied to keyword queries, but it’s definitely not true for site or content targeting. Nuh-uh. A fact that Richard from Apogee very aptly points out. Richard says, “People browsing sites displaying AdSense ads are NOT “‘customers who are actively looking for exactly what they have to offer.’” Right on, Richard. The difference between content-targeting and keyword-targeting is fodder for another post, so I’ll resist going into detail about that now.

“Yet, in order to maintain a safe and unbiased advertising program, there are certain things about our system that we cannot share…If we were to detail the specific ‘signals’ we look for when reviewing the clicks, malicious users could use the information to the disadvantage of other advertisers and to the AdWords system itself.”

Ok, so it’s for our own protection. How very George Bush of Google. In all fairness, I respect that Google and Yahoo both are more transparent than other forms of media. You can monitor results in real-time, view conversion down to the keyword level, generate on-the-fly reports quickly and launch a campaign wicked fast (again, compared with other forms of media). Still, I feel a bit squirmy when Google mentions all that blah blah blah about transparency when my work day is often filled with quality score mysteries and puzzling quotes by Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO) about click fraud.

No matter how well-intentioned Google, Yahoo, MSN or any other PPC search ad provider is when it comes to the quality of the ads served, at the end of the day they absolutely must remember that they are selling media. This makes them media vendors. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t search engines, and that we don’t still love them (group hug!) It just means that advertisers need not always take second place to Web site users.

Advertisers help fund the miracle that is Google. Most of us are not asking Google (or Yahoo) to cheat its users or display ads that aren’t relevant – obviously we benefit from highly targeted relevant ads just like you do – but I personally would love for Google (and Yahoo) to be a bit more media savvy (hint: MAKE THE IO PROCESS SIMPLER).

Admit you’re a media company. ADMIT IT!!!

Add comment September 21st, 2006

A dimple in the online ad spending bubble

John Battelle notes on his blog that Yahoo’s stock dropped in response to an announcement by Terry Semel (Yahoo’s CEO) that online advertising growth is slowing down. This slow down is focused on several categories including automotive and financial services and seems to be more display ad oriented than attributed to revenues from Yahoo Search.

I don’t think that this announcement from Yahoo means the search bubble is bursting, or that online advertising (overall) is in jeapardy. Ad spending going down for display advertising is not unexpected – as an online media planner I’ve reallocated a lot of my clients’ budgets to more response-driven tactics than display advertising – and I think that’s what’s happening here to some extent.

This article in the LA Times goes into more detail about the Yahoo announcement, and what it could possibly mean for online marketers, advertisers and publishers alike. I agree with Ken Cassar’s (of Nielsen/Netratings) statement that the Internet is being effected by things that have nothing to do with the Internet. 

I think to some extent – at least where media is concerned – this has always been the case. It stands to reason that if your industry is suffering overall (automotive), you’ll scale back your advertising overall. I wonder if Yahoo is just suffering in the display area with their automotive advertisers or if they are taking a hit in the search marketing arena as well. I also wonder if there are other and possibly cheaper tactics that the automotive industry is doing to replace the media they are no longer buying – like blogging, or writing articles, or PR… 

I think what’s happening here is a mini-shakeout that is completely different than the shakeout of the late 90s and early millenium when we all visited Fucked Company twelve times a day to keep track of the head count (and make sure we weren’t part of it).

What’s happening now is an awakening – to the fact that the Internet isn’t the magic bullet when it comes to media. Sure it’s more targeted, and search marketing is a sweet deal because it’s a response-driven tactic, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if someone sees a banner, or clicks on a search ad or even visits your Web site – they must buy your product.

So what may be happening here is that Yahoo and other sites that get a large portion of their revenue from display advertising are feeling the same pinch that offline channels are feeling – people do not want to spend money if there’s a poor ROI.

Sure more companies are going to carve out more media dollars for the online space – the Web is still a relatively new frontier that many companies have yet to truly explore. But these companies will also get savvy, and soon the Web will celebrate its 15th anniversary, and than its 20th and when the college years are over we’re going to know a lot more about what works online than we did five years ago, or three years ago or yesterday.

What then? I think the future in online ad spending has to do with focusing on how we can correctly spend our ad dollars (or our client’s ad dollars) on Internet tactics that tie into their unique goals. Broad banner buys are a thing of the past. Seriously, do they work for anyone? But that’s ok. Really, it is. Because banners are showing up in different ways – through CPA and CPC buys that are more response driven, through e-mail sponsorship to finely targeted lists, as blog ads that combine images with text….I could go on but I will spare you.

I think that Yahoo and the Internet are mutually exclusive (in this instance). That is, Yahoo experiencing a dip in ad sales is not reflective of the entire Internet bubble bursting. It seems like a normal and expected growing pain of online media. I mean, accountability hurts.

Add comment September 20th, 2006

Things to love about search marketing – part one

There are a lot of variables to consider when you advertise online. From ad types such as banners, text, rich media, pop ups/unders, direct e-mail and video to targeting options such as keyword, behavioral, regional, demographic and contextual– it’s easy to see how things might get confusing.

Through it all, though, there is one online media tactic that rises above the mix – search marketing – specifically, keyword-targeted text ads.

You know what I’m talking about. Keyword-targeted search marketing is the official name for those ubiquitous ads that appear to the right of the search results in Google, Yahoo and MSN Search (and, in many cases, just beneath the search box as well).

There are a lot of reasons to love search marketing, which is why this is only part one of a theme that I will write about repeatedly. Thanks to GoTo.com (now Yahoo! Search), search ads are performance-based. That means advertisers only pay when a user clicks on an ad – a remarkable concept back in the late 90s when banner ads could sell for as much as $80 per thousand (CPM) on premium properties such as AOL Health and WebMD.

Since search marketing is inherently tied to the way people use the internet, it makes sense that it is a very effective way to reach your market. As of December 2005, 91% of Americans who have gone online have used a search engine, according to Pew Internet & American Life and 30% of Americans use a search engine daily.

What makes search so effective and so unique? Well, for one thing, search ads are displayed only when someone performs a search. They do not passively appear beside an article or in the middle of your favorite sitcom. There is a “pull” aspect to search ads rather than a “push” aspect (if you push your product in front of me when I’m not remotely interested in it than I’m probably not going to respond).

The nature of search engine advertising forces advertisers to put themselves into the mind of the searcher. This can often produce an “a-ha moment” for advertisers who may realize for the first time that they do not really understand their own market.

For example, a company that sells jewelry may want to focus on selling diamonds either via engagement rings, as gifts or just take a “treat yourself” approach. Diamonds are a big ticket item and it makes sense to promote them liberally. I’m sure jewelry stores love to sell diamonds, but they may be missing out on a gold mine of opportunity (pun intended) if that’s all they focus on in their marketing campaigns.

Let’s say a fictional jewelry store – Ritzy Jewels – launches a search marketing campaign with a large number of keywords that reveal that terms with “diamonds” in them do not convert very well online. No matter how Ritzy words the ads and no matter where they point people to on the website, they’re getting a less than 1% conversion rate on diamond-related terms. This may be because people don’t want to buy diamonds online or they are printing out pictures of an item and bringing it into the local store (or someone else’s store). That’s something Ritzy needs to find out.

But Ritzy may be surprised to also learn that they are selling chunky pendant necklaces like hot cakes. The clickthrough rate on their ads about anything related to pendants is between 6-8% and their conversion rate is a whopping 12-13%.  Digging deeper, they may discover that pendants are a hot fashion trend which young women and teenagers adore. They can begin to experiment with this newfound knowledge online by adding keywords, ad copy and customized landing pages which will likely translate into more online sales.

They can further take this knowledge offline to help them when it’s time to purchase more merchandise. If they have an offline store they may try experimenting with a pendant display area and marketing it to a younger crowd.

In the above example, search marketing has helped shift the overall direction of the Ritzy Jewel’s marketing strategy and (perhaps) overall business model by providing some insight into the mind of the searcher.

This is why I love search marketing – because it taps into the very core of what people want, forcing businesses to rethink how they interact with their customers. Have you taken a long look at your own search campaigns lately? Have you tried to imagine yourself as a customer looking for your own products or services? If not, I encourage you to give it a try. You may be surprised at what you learn.

Add comment September 18th, 2006

How to get started with a career in search

Interested in starting a career in search? The Hired Guns, an agency that specializes in finding top-notch advertising and marketing talent for short-term and long-term temporary gigs is hosting a seminar about starting a career in search.

AND…I’m excited to announce that I will be a guest speaker at this seminar which is aptly titled, “How to Transfer Your Marketing Skills to a Career in Search Engine Marketing.” I will have the privelege of presenting my own experiences as a freelance search marketer to a group of eager Hired Guns. I am also honored to be presenting alongside Dana Todd, the Executive Director of SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization) and Co-Founder of SiteLab International, Inc. and Allison Hemming, Founder and Top Gun of the Hired Guns.

I love the projects I get through the Hired Guns because they expose me to the top minds in the industry, and give me an opportunity to really diversify the types of projects I take on. I would encourage anyone interested in freelance consulting work (whether it’s in search marketing or otherwise) register on the Hired Guns web site to receive weekly gig alerts.

As a registered Hired Gun, I can say that this agency is great for freelancers, consultants or anyone who wants a project that requires lots of experience without having to commit to full-time permanent employment with one company. The jobs are intense, the work is rewarding and the people at the Hired Guns are extremely savvy about the industry’s needs.

I hope to see you at the Hired Guns seminar on September 27th!

 

 

Add comment September 7th, 2006

My posts are now on Thumbshots.org

Some of the posts on this blog will now be published on Thumbshots.org. Thumbshots serves thumbnail images to thousands of web sites each month.

I’m posting this for two reasons:

  1. To promote my article titled, “How to hire a search marketer” (which can also be seen a few posts below this one)
  2. To demonstrate that this is a good way to promote your own business (e.g., via article writing) online – for not much more than a bit of your time. The value of the article is not just in the fact that it’s posted on Thumbshots.com and credits my company (with a link back to my business web site, but also that I get to place an actual text link on Thumbshots.com in addition to my article.

For small to nonexistent marketing budgets, article posting is an excellent way to drive some traffic to your website.

Add comment September 6th, 2006

New UI for Google Search Results

There are two interesting new deviations to Google’s search results pages that Nick (a friend who sells hot sauce online) and I noticed yesterday. Here’s what Nick (located in Manhattan) saw:

Google's new UI

The search results page now displays the additional search links at the left side of the page. So Nick’s search for “hot sauce” gives him the typical results in the main window, but at the left he can choose images, maps, news or whatever he finds relevant to help in his (ever present) quest for hot sauce on the Web.

At first glance, my Google results were the same, but upon closer inspection – here’s what I (located two hours north of Manhattan) saw:

See the little pop up window which lists some additional links for different types of search results?

Personally, I prefer the first layout better since it’s much easier to navigate and there’s room for Google to add morel inks. The pop window can get mighty long, plus it may confuse some less web-savvy souls.

As far as I can tell, no one is saying much about this on their blogs, although I’m not totally crazy because this guy noticed it too back in March.

Add comment September 1st, 2006


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