Contextual Search Ads: Boon or Bust?

Scared of contextual search advertising? Not sure how to explain a lower click through rate to your boss? Never fear: A panel of experts offered insights on this close cousin of sponsored search listings.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 4-7, 2006, Chicago, Illinois.

Detlev Johnson moderated as Anton Konikoff of Acronym Media, Chris Bowler of and Don Steele of Comedy Central relayed their experiences and best practices during the Chicago Search Engine Strategies session “Getting Traffic from Contextual Advertising.”

For the uninitiated, while search engine advertising is served up based on keywords a user enters into a search engine, contextual advertising is based on the content on a particular page found anywhere on the web. For better or for worse, contextual advertising has landed into the hands of the search marketer. On one hand, many of the same platforms can be used, similar copy must be written and there are keywords involved. On the other hand, one of the key criticisms is that contextual advertising tends to have a lower click through rate, and cannot be held to the same standards.

This is true, but should be expected, suggested Chris Bowler, VP, Search Practice Lead, “You are not within the search results page and folks aren’t actively looking.” This, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, contextual advertising is an opportunity to reach consumers early on in the buying cycle. For one client measuring success based on a traffic increase, content targeting represented 25-64% of all clicks. Another client, focused on generating leads, found that the tactic represented 5-15% of clicks. In summary, both were acceptable numbers based on their respective objectives.

Bowler also noted that contextual advertising can defray the increasing cost of search. A representative client with an average search cost per click (CPC) of 75 cents found a benefit through content targeting, where the average was around 55 cents. Given that the CPC is a primary metric for the client, “we are moving search spending over to content spending.”

Another benefit of contextual advertising is the most obvious: It also serves as display advertising. This is a useful tool when a quick response or damage control is required, suggested Bowler. In the same way search advertising can augment public relations efforts, so can contextual.

Naysayers can take tips from Anton Konikoff, Founder and CEO of Acronym Media, who has used contextual advertising for a wide spectrum of clients. While he insists that ads appear next to as relevant content as possible, there is always the possibility that some matches are less than desirable. Most search marketers will agree that this is an unavoidable consequence, and as Konikoff puts it “Just hope your CEO isn’t looking when that happens.” On a more serious note, he suggests that negative match is a good tool, broad match techniques should be used wisely, and that programs should be augmented slowly after testing.

In regards to creative, Konikoff encouraged marketers to be more persuasive, as the consumer is not in the conversion mode. Copy should be both educational and highlight product differentiation. Other tactics include using image ads where available, and focusing on positioning. While paid search ads display 10 per page, many content publishers only take 3 contextual ads per page. As with all advertising, above the fold visibility is critical to success.

Examples of success for Konikoff’s team include targeting teens for Paltalk, a free chat service, within their spheres of influence. The firm placed contextual ads on sites offering ring tones and online video games. Client Sirius Satellite Radio also found contextual advertising effective in supporting NFL programming. In this program, “We reach out to all the sports sites via Quigo and Kanoodle to position us on the front page of sports USA today and Microsoft Sports.” Even luxury hotel The Four Seasons has played the contextual game with Acronym Media.

Don Steele, Director of Digital & Enterprise Marketing for Comedy Central, closed out the session with one of the more comprehensive online search and contextual strategies I have seen. As the online leg of a television unit, “The big phrase is that we want to be where and when users are.” Steele’s team is very disciplined in its approach. “When something is moving the needle, the first thing I do is look at the most watched videos on YouTube. If it is ours, I bid on it.” If he has a broadcast schedule ahead of time, he makes sure he bids on these terms as well.

These tactics, of course, map to a set of pre-determined objectives:

    • Branding to create buzz


    • Traffic arbitrage to support ad sales


  • Ancillary businesses such as mobile, the online store and records

In regards to the first objective, Steele commented, “We strive to support and when possible own our brand in the world of search.” Given that Comedy Central’s viral content is on the loose throughout the web, contextual advertising helps the firm be present. Suddenly, consumers posting YouTube videos of copyrighted material becomes an additional opportunity to be wherever consumers are.

As the viral nature of content cannot be predicted, Steele makes sure his team prepares for opportunities pre-broadcast. One such example occurred when Pakistani President Musharraf chose to kick off his book tour on The Daily Show, as opposed to a mainstream network or more popular news show. This rare occurrence generated traffic throughout the buzz as the interactive team placed contextual ads next to the surge in content about Musharraf’s decision.

All in all, Steele, like his fellow panelists, is bullish on contextual advertising. It extends the brand, creates a relevant environment and performance is gained at a very low cost. This is clearly a very good thing for Steele, as we live in a world where “You can still find Comedy Central on YouTube.”

Sara Holoubek is a free agent consultant for the interactive advertising sector and its investors. She can be reached at saraholoubek (at) gmail (dot) com.

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