Search Engine Marketing and Branding

Search engines are recognized as one of the best ways to generate qualified leads online. Should search engine marketing be considered as part of a brand-building campaign? A panel of experts addressed these and other branding issues at the Boston 2003 Search Engine Strategies conference.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference in Boston, MA, March 4-6, 2003.

How Users Interact with the Brands

DoubleClick’s end of the year 2002 Ad trends report showed that 630 billion online impressions with thousands of advertisers. The report stated that over course of 2002, there was a higher percent of recall from online ads. This hints at the fact that they’re reaching more people that don’t consume standard media.

“Marketers as a whole shouldn’t be just thinking about the CPC (cost per click) all the time,” said Craig Churchill of Fathom Online. “They need to start asking, how is the user interacting with the brand, and is this brand being portrayed correctly online.”

The DoubleClick study also showed that search engine results are just the first part of the branding process. “41% of all users are gaining awareness from online search results,” stated Churchill. “That’s the first touch-point. They’re coming back 30 days later because they are remembering and they are interacting with — a brand.”

Churchill also emphasized the importance of high-quality leads. “For marketers, this study is a very good thing,” he said. “If marketers feed their information to the search engines correctly, they will probably get very good results.

However, marketers can’t just sit back and let the search engines do the work. Marketers need to actively follow the whole search engine advertising process through the continuum.

“If users can’t find your brand, they will be frustrated,” he said. “And if they get the wrong message, it can actually be doing your brand harm. Brands with the right keywords in their message can generate positive results and feedback, including modifications to the original brand.”

In 2002, 40% of all online ads were targeted ads. Of that 40%, 81% were keyword and content ads. “If we are putting this much efforts into our CPC buys, we should be thinking about branding, said Churchill, “because its definitely impacting how people are coming to and perceiving your site.”

Branding Through Search Engine Ads and “Natural” Results

“When you talk about search listings, you have size limitations and character limitations on what you display to the end user,” stated Chris Copeland of Outrider. “The challenges you have with utilizing branding for search listings are the size of the message, the frequency of the message, and the content of the message.”

Copeland said that he seeing a lot of companies starting to integrate all of their search efforts, putting their online marketing under one vendor. “That is important because improved message consistency = higher message/brand awareness,” he said. “Consolidation achieves one of the goals of establishing a brand, no matter how big or small you may be.”

Copeland also emphasized that it is important to know how people perceive your industry as either a global or a local brand. As an example, he shared a case study in which a local dial-up company showed up very well in global searches but not under local search terms. People did not associate a dial-up company with a local entity, but 80% of their subscriptions were coming directly off of the branded terms. “They worked to their strengths, which any company should with its brand,” said Copeland.

Another problem with multiple listings for brands is cost. “The cost associated with creating a brand needs to be put in different parameters than the cost associated with simply making a sale,” he said.

In another case study, Copeland indicated that he did see elevated click-thru rates for paid and “natural” listings working together on the same page, such as paid listings on top and natural listings on top and paid listings below. Multiple listings/exposures on one page show a consistency of message. Because the company was so small, they were not able to build a brand from search listings over time. “It is very difficult, we believe, for an unknown company to build a brand through the search engines,” he said, “but we were able to push a consistent message, reinforce what their offering was.”

Overture and Branding

Craig Wax of Overture also shared his views on branding and search engine advertising. “Many companies, Fortune 500 companies, companies with big brands are starting to get really interested in search engine advertising, “he said. “Those types of companies place a premium on building their brands and measuring them in very specific ways.”

Research firm NPD put together a panel with over 2,600 respondents. Five companies were rotated across a search results page that included banner, tile, and the top three search results listings. The companies that were used in the study were real companies, and these companies had little to no brand name recognition. All of the companies in the study sold snow shoes, because that was the search term that was selected for the study. Each of the banners and tiles that were shown were actual advertisements from these companies.

Respondents were shown the items all on one search results screen shot. In Position 1 was the banner. In Position 2 was the tile. Positions 3 through 5 were the three search results listings. NPD asked the respondents — which of the companies do they remember from the preceding screen shot?

This question was asked two different ways: both unaided and aided brand awareness – two key factors that brand marketers really pay attention to.

Before seeing the results of this data, Wax thought (and hoped) that maybe search listings listings would be equal to the other results.

With respect to unaided awareness, respondents remembered search listings 4 times over banners and tiles. For aided awareness, respondents remembered search listings 3 times over the results over banners and tiles.

Furthermore, after respondents viewed the screen shots, sites that were shown to be in the search listing positions performed better for overall opinion of the site and better likelihood to visit.

“Search listings do have a significant branding impact,” stated Wax. “That is a message that needs to get out to folks that have a key marketing objective.”

Affiliate Programs and Branding

An affiliate program is truly performance-based marketing. With affiliates, other companies are marketing your product and you only pay them a sales commission. However, unmanaged affiliates are costing companies millions of dollars on the search engines.

Because of this, Catherine Seda of Seda Communication, stressed the importance of building an affiliate search engine marketing strategy. She described three directions to take with affiliate programs.

1. Completely prohibit affiliates from search engine marketing. Put it in your contract with them.

2. Allow your affiliates to do search engine marketing completely. Search engine affiliates can be very savvy on the Internet, and they can duke it out for you.

3. Set restrictions on affiliates’ efforts. For example, prohibit the marketing of trademarks, but allow them to market generic terms. It can be much harder to show up under a generic term than your actual name.

“Which direction to take depends on the following determining factors,” said Seda. “The first factor is your competitive landscape. You should be the only one to use your trademark terms if you are doing search engine marketing under those terms. The other factor is your affiliate commission payout. If you are paying a good percentage on a low-end product, let your affiliates handle the search engine marketing for you instead.”

“If you are an affiliate site, Overture requires that you call that out in your search listing,” said Craig Wax of Overture.

Since unmanaged affiliates can add up to cost-per-click fees and profit loss, Seda recommends the following search engine marketing restrictions in your affiliate agreements:

  • Use of keywords in meta tags. Are affiliates allowed to put the name of your product in their description, or do they need to just use generic terms?
  • Keyword marketing on search engines. Are affiliates allowed to purchase your keywords, use your keywords in ad listings?
  • Keyword-based domain names.
  • Outsourcing to online marketing firms. You can prevent your affiliates from turning your information over to such firms.
  • Types/specific search engines and regional boundaries. Are the clients going for other geographic markets?
  • Time frame for compliance. What time frame are you willing to give them?
  • Consequences of non-compliance. Stop selling your products to them if they do not desist, for example.

Having an affiliate search engine marketing strategy may require having your affiliates sign a new agreement. “There may be shock, there may be grief, there might be denial, but for the key marketing affiliates that are also interested in being your partners, there will be acceptance,” Seda concluded.

Grant Crowell is the CEO and Creative Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc., founded in 1993 in Honolulu. He has 15 combined years of experience in the fields of print and online design, newspaper journalism, public relations, and publications.

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