Is Search Recession-Proof?

By Aaron Goldman, VP of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships

Appeared in: MediaPost's Search Insider

By the time this column is published, I'll have completed my duties as moderator for what I'm sure was a riveting session -- with fellow Search Insider Gerry Bavaro on the panel, how can it not be? -- on search in a recessionary climate at the Digital Publishing and Advertising Conference yesterday in New York.

I did a fair amount of prep for this session -- not to mention, had a lot of fun with image search -- so I thought I'd squeeze a little more mileage out of it here.


To date, much of the rhetoric in the trades paints an optimistic picture for search. The conventional wisdom goes that, in a recession, marketers will move budget from platforms that are less accountable to those that are proven to deliver strong ROI -- leading to incremental investments in search. And from a consumer standpoint, when times are tough, people will spend more time searching for good deals and distractions -- leading to increased search query volume.

Accordingly, a study by Jupiter Research showed more than half of all search marketers are planning to increase their budgets over the next 12 months. And data from Search Ignite and Covario show marketers spent 27-51% more on paid search media in Q3. Sure enough, Google's Q3 earnings reflected this bump, with revenue up over 30% year over year.

From a consumer point of view, proprietary research from OMD's Snapshots platform underscores the importance of search in a down economy. The study points to an additional 87 minutes per day per person spent online during a recession. Why? Apparently the surfing the Web is a form of "escapism" for consumers, with 76% of respondents citing the Internet as their primary means of escape -- over such activities as reading books, watching movies, and taking walks. Furthermore, search engines were selected more than any other "types of websites visited more frequently during a recession" -- nearly double the number of social networking sites.

So it should come as no surprise that comScore is showing a 25% increase in year-over-year search queries. But are people responding to advertising in this climate? Well, Google's Q3 numbers had paid search clicks up 18% in Q3 over last year, which is remarkable considering the changes it's made to eliminate poor quality ads.


It's all well and good that more and more people are searching and clicking on ads --but are they buying stuff? If so, we have nothing to worry about, and search is indeed recession-proof -- hooray! If not, though, it's only a matter of time before ROI drops significantly enough that search budgets are corrected -- oy vey!

For more insight, let's turn back to OMD's consumer research. Nearly three-quarters of consumers report they spend money more cautiously in a recession -- OK, more reason for them to search around. But 62% are "more likely to window shop, but not actually buy something" --- yikes, watch out for falling conversion rates!

In fact, paid search ROI for many companies may be dropping as we speak -- but search marketers are too busy scrambling to optimize keyword lists, copy points, landing pages, and bid rules to realize the problem is not with the campaign, it's with the consumer.

That said, many brands are poised to do well in this environment. The OMD study highlights groceries, healthcare and household products as "last to be cut from consumer spending during a recession." However, these categories aren't ones typically known for their search-savvy. Indeed, CPG and pharma companies have only recently embraced search -- largely on the backs of research showing the brand awareness and consideration benefits of search -- so search engines and agencies can't rely on these categories to sustain their revenue.

Don't Just Sit There!

Clearly the picture is not pretty for categories like online retail that rely heavily on direct ROI from search to grow their businesses. So what's a stressed-out search marketer to do?

1. Try something new. Yep, I said it! Now is the time for experimentation. Try out new programs like Live Search Cashback -- assuredly this was brought up on my panel yesterday by Patrick Harris of Microsoft Advertising -- or Google mobile.

2. Test, test, test. Know thy customer? Tweak your copy to see if price messaging resonates more than other brand attributes. Set up a landing page test to see if you can't shave a few points off your bounce rate. Create product bundles or try free shipping promotions to increase average order value and conversion rate.

3. Drive efficiency through automation. There are plenty of good campaign management tools out there that can help you more quickly identify and act on opportunities without throwing more people and spreadsheets at the problem. If you're still managing paid search campaigns manually, you're costing your company money and quickly moving up on the list of heads to roll.

4. SEO, now more than ever. There's never been a better time to hunker down and devote energy toward improving your Web development process to ensure SEO best practices are implemented. The more free traffic you can generate from search, the less you have to spend on ads to maintain sales volume.

5. Improve your WA IQ. Are you regularly mining web analytics data to understand what's happening on your site? If not, shame, shame, shame. With the recent upgrades to Google Analytics, mountains of insightful data are at your fingertips on an easy-to-digest (and free!) platform. Leverage this data to improve your on-site experience and drive your audience to action.

6. Reinvest search learnings into your overall marketing program. That's my fancy, non-buzzwordy way of saying: focus on integration. Taking insights like what calls-to-action are working or what geographies/dayparts are converting best to the larger marketing team will help improve the performance of other channels.

7. Take a deep breath. This too shall pass. Meanwhile, rest assured your job is safer than most.


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