Searching for Better Metrics

By Aaron Goldman, VP Marketing & Strategic Partnerships
Appeared In September MRCC Review

Given that search marketing is still in its infancy -- Google is still less than 10 years old -- it’s understandable that there’s a lack of standardization and comprehensive metrics. What’s unacceptable, however, is that when it comes to measurement, search pales in comparison to online display advertising—which hasn’t been around much longer.

You wouldn’t know it from the budget figures, though. Search currently represents over 40% of online media spend (IAB) and is projected to reach nearly 60% in 2010 (SG Cowen.) In absolute numbers, that’s $9 billion in 2007 and $12 billion in 2010 (Forrester.)

Why has search grown so quickly?

Unlike any other marketing platform, search combines these 4 key attributes:

  • Proactive Consumption: consumers seek out and indicate an active interest in specific content, products and/or services.
  • Mass Customization: marketers can display a different listing to each consumer based on the perceived intent of his/her query.
  • Instant Point-of-Need Direction: marketers can instantly direct interested consumers to a specific destination based on the query where they can engage with the brand.
  • Dynamic, Performance-Based Pricing: marketers name their price in real-time and pay only for actual traffic delivered to their website.

So you may ask, “What’s the big deal? Search seems to be a strong channel and growing quickly -- who cares if measurement isn’t up to snuff?”

The problem is that, despite hefty investment by marketers, search is currently underutilized due to being pigeon-holed as a direct-response medium. The conventional wisdom has been that search reaches consumers at the bottom of the funnel when they are ready to purchase. Besides, how much branding can you do in a few lines of text?

From a Direct Response standpoint, search provides all the metrics you need to measure success -- cost per click, conversion rate, cost per acquisition, etc. And search has proven to drive the strongest ROI out of any online marketing channel (AAF.) However, I believe this is a case of chicken-and-egg in that search is being thought of as a Direct Response medium because it’s being measured as one.

It’s important to recognize that search also impacts consumer behavior higher-up in the purchase funnel. After all, search is how many people first find out about a brand. University of Phoenix, for example, uses search to generate awareness by buying keywords like “education.” Search also plays a strong role in the consideration process as consumers evaluate alternatives prior to taking action (comparing features, price, reviews, etc.) And search can be a great tool for connecting a brand to an associated theme -- witness McDonald’s buying the keyword “Shrek.”

The challenge is that most marketers have not developed robust measurement systems to properly attribute lift in brand awareness, consideration, and purchase intent from search. We’ve all been laser focused on immediate ROI.

When it comes to online display media, we look at a broader swath of metrics to evaluate brand engagement—impressions, ad interaction rate, post-view activity, etc. And marketers conduct extensive research to determine the impact of display ads on ad recall, brand affinity, and purchase intent by recruiting consumers that have been exposed to the ad and asking them to take a survey.

So why aren’t we doing this right now in the search space? I’ll give you two reasons...

The first is that you can’t serve search listings through 3rd party ad servers. We’re hoping this will change with Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick and Microsoft now owning Atlas but we’ve been given no indication that anything’s in the works along these lines. Third party ad serving allows for post-view tracking so we could see how consumers act following exposure to a search ad. Intuition tells you that being at the top of the search listings reinforces brand credibility and influences future behavior but, as we all know, intuition doesn’t help marketers sleep at night. Third party ad serving of search ads would also allow us to better understand the interplay between search and display ads and attribute �assists� to each ad that touched a consumer along the online purchase path.

The second barrier to proving the value of search to lift key branding metrics is the inability to recruit for panel-based surveys directly from search results pages. Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Ask all hold the userexperience dear. They will not tolerate anything that interferes with the sanctity of its results pages—including the pop-ups that are typically used to ask viewers to take surveys about the ads they’ve seen. comScore and others currently offer search studies that tap into established consumer panels and map back to search activity but they can be pricey and difficult to scale—not to mention lose some of the immediacy of exposure to the search ad. For marketers to accurately get their hands around the role of search in moving the brand needle, we need the ability to recruit respondents straight from the search results page.

Another key challenge when it comes to search measurement is the difficulty in accurately forecasting search investment and return. Many marketers have adopted a selffunding search budget model—not only because the ROI is so strong and they’ll take as much as they can get, but because it’s too hard to predict how much can be spent in any given month with any degree of certainty.

There are many reasons why search is hard to project, among them:

  • Volatility of query volume—one day you’re hot, the next you’re not.
  • Fluctuations in pricing—the open auction system allows bids to change hourly.
  • Opaque ranking models—top bid does not equal top rank; it’s a combination of bid, click-rate, and landing-page quality.
  • Evolving network distribution—search engines are always adding and dropping syndicated site partners.

Today the only effective way to forecast search performance is by creating complex models that leverage historical data and factor in outside market conditions—e.g. seasonality, offline marketing, etc. And with so many marketers new to search, this information is not always available or scalable. The search engines have created some nifty tools to help marketers wrap their arms around query volume—MSN adLabs, Google Trends, Yahoo Buzz � but they don’t account for variables that impact each brand differently.

Overall, while there’s no question the search marketing sector is healthy and sustainable, better metrics will allow it to grow exponentially in value to marketers. As all forms of media become digital—and therefore searchable—it’s crucial that we have a proven model for measuring the impact of search marketing throughout the purchase funnel. Otherwise, we’ll have to keep searching for the next killer marketing app.


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