Desperately Seeking Stats to Prove the Value of Branded Keywords

Maximizing your dollars in any advertising buy is extremely important – we’ll file that statement in the same category of advice such as “buy low, sell high” or “make sure you wear pants in public, at least most of the time.” But let’s put common sense aside for a second. In the world of search engine marketing, does maximizing your budget include bidding on your own brand and product names?

Recently, the blogosphere has been rife with opinions on this subject – and some of these opinions actually have statistics to back up their arguments. And stats, as we know, are always correct – especially when they support your position.

The debate as to whether or not advertisers should buy their own brand and product names has been around since the first ad was purchased on many years ago. Back then, as a young pup eager to learn everything about search engine marketing, the answer seemed to be common sense: “Why would you pay for exposure you can get for free? I would really suck as a search engine optimizer if I couldn’t get my client to show up under their own name.” I don’t know what the blogosphere said back then, mainly because the blogosphere didn’t exist yet.

Fast forward a few years. People started realizing that if they bought their brand and product names they could control the message they were sending to searchers who were seeking their products and services. Guess what, click-throughs were through the roof! Conversions on branded keywords were higher than any other word! Basically, search marketers started using tons of exclamation points to get the point across – buy branded terms! I started referring to a search engine results page with both natural and paid listings as “a mini branding experience.” And we all bought our brand and product names. Our conversions were high. Our clients were happy. Our common sense theory had changed.

Now, we’re seeing a new spin. Recently, Travelocity’s Chief Marketing Officer Jeffrey Glueck rocked our common sense once again while speaking at IAB’s Performance Marketing Forum. Advertising Age reported that he stated – and I’m paraphrasing here – it’s a waste to buy anything but branded terms. I think my “common sense” brain exploded.

While I was gathering up the pieces of my brain, I saw that over on Search Engine Land, Mr. Glueck had a slight change of heart. In a comment at that site, he stated:

“I never said that buying non-brand search terms was a waste of time, or that it’s impossible to measure. Far from it…My point was that search marketers should get more precise about calculating ‘assist’ percentages, and more accurate in their ROI methods… I was simply saying that assist percentages only modified our ROI by a few percentage points…”

OK, so it’s an analytics thing. By “assist” percentages, Mr. Glueck was referring to the assumption by many search engine marketers (and major search engine sales reps) that buying non-branded terms will put you in front of buyers who are not so far down the buying funnel. He means the information seekers – those who are not sure exactly what they want to purchase but are looking for information in order to make a more informed decision. In fact, I know I had seen a study (complete with statistics!) in my regular, biblical reading of Search Engine Watch. And as we stated before, stats don’t lie, especially when they support my side.

To support my conjecture that brand keywords are ultimately very valuable, and non-branded keywords provide support for branded keywords, ultimately increasing the number of branded searches performed, I’ll turn to another informal study that hit the blogosphere. Jonathan Mendez posted a three-part series on his blog (complete with statistics!) that showed how one of his clients had HIGHER conversion rates all around when they bid on branded terms.

But it’s not over. Alan Rimm-Kaufman, a new author over at Search Engine Land and a guy with a PhD in operations research and stats at MIT (this guy’s stats should beat all of the other stats) said in a recent column that sales from brand phrases are NOT incremental.

What? But Jonathan Mendez said they were. And he had stats. So did the sales reps at the major search engines (in a meeting I had with a client – you weren’t there, but trust me, they said it). Ok everybody….BLOGFIGHT!

But I think I’ve got my common sense back now. I think the answer lies in what many senior citizens see as a solution to an embarrassing problem. The answer is – Depends.

Here’s my experience. If you have ANY brand equity at all and aren’t doing everything you can to maintain at least a 95-percent share of voice on all of the searches done against your brands and your unique products, you are missing out on sales. If no one knows who your company is and you don’t have a 100-percent share of voice on your brand, then you are missing sales only on the off-chance someone hears about your company and types it into a search engine. Hey, it could happen!

Do branded terms provide incremental sales? I believe they do, but there is no conclusive statistical evidence to support this assertion across all verticals. If you can afford to, test it out. Run one campaign with branded keywords for a week and then run it without those keywords for a week. Make sure that there isn’t an external factor affecting the number of sales going on (a promotion, or an article on your CEO’s tawdry affair) and test. That’s the only way to know for sure in your specific case. I wish I had a magic bullet that would tell you all the answers, but you are better off asking the magic eight ball on your desk.

So, the lesson to be learned here is: Test and see if branded keywords work for you. They do for most of my clients.

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