Monday, February 26, 2007

Search Marketing - The Emperor's New Clothes Revisited

Recognizing The Reality (And Risks) Behind The Marketing Hype

By David Miranda

There is considerable hype regarding paid search. The hype is reinforced by the considerable amount of marketing dollars being committed to the channel. Google, the market leader, alone accounts for a reported $7.5 billion per year, but buyer beware.

The hype and the money demands, at least, a closer look at this robust phenomenon, particularly for major brands who have invested, collectively, billions of dollars in building brand awareness. For major brands, the question which should be posed is "is paid search a good offensive channel or defensive channel? In either case, are major brands contributing to driving up their costs of doing business in paid search? Are brands getting what they pay for? What risks are there to a brand in funding an environment where search results could give exposure to adjacent brand critics and negative information? Would a brand buy ad space in a medium adjacent to negative editorial? Highly doubtful.

The following screen shot, for example, illustrates the point. It shows the results page when the keyword, "Coke", was entered. Note that the results page generated over 31,000,000 results. The first selection on this first page of free results shows the first result, "Coke", with links to various web pages on The Coca-Cola Company web site. The second entry, however, shows a link to "Killer Coke" which alleges Coke bottling plant managers in Colombia "allowed and encouraged paramilitary death squads to murder...." Is it probable or possible that the second most relevant search result after "Coke" is "Killer Coke"? The sponsored link, My Coke Rewards, is, of course, paid for by Coke, but also look at the other sponsored links to the left which includes "Marijuana Defense Lawyer", the relevance of the latter is unexplainable.

This page illustrates the good and the bad of the search channel that brand managers must recognize. The good is that the site for The Coca-Cola Company ranked first in a free search. The bad is having a highly negative free search result, Killer Coke, appearing second out of 31 million - a result that puts the brand (and company) in an unfavorable light with consumers. This is not unique, the following screen shot shows a search result for Starbucks which includes a "I Hate Starbucks" site.

Regarding the issues of brands being a victim of their own success in paid search, consider this. The search engines charge only for consumers sent to the advertiser's site. Keywords are ranked by their popularity - the greater the popularity, the greater the potential demand from advertisers, and the higher the cost to the eventual "highest bidder". The question is "are brands paying premiums for their success?" Would major brands be highly ranked in the free results anyway? Wouldn't it be wiser to enjoy the brand benefits of free listings and let competitors pay for the privilege? Isn't that what a brand is supposed to do anyway, i.e. put your competitors at an economic disadvantage? In other words, brands should not being paying premium prices for business they would get anyway.

Are marketers getting what they paid for? There is the issue of click fraud which is defined as a person, automated script or computer program clicking on a paid search ad, adversely affecting the advertiser who received the click, often to the benefit of the publisher who receives a cut of the revenue from the search engine. The American Association Of Advertising Agencies (4As) has offered general recommendations for detecting click fraud. They have advised marketers to compare the data from their own analytics tools with their search engine bills. If there is a discrepancy greater than 10-15%, agencies should work with both the search engine and analytics provider to determine the cause. How serious is the problem? Yahoo and Google have both recently agreed to settle click-fraud lawsuits. In July, an Arkansas court approved Google's offer to settle a class-action suit for $90 million--$30 million in attorney's fees and up to $60 million in ad credits. Yahoo in June agreed to pay refunds to search marketers in a separate click-fraud lawsuit.

In summary, it would be wise for brands to take a pragmatic view of search. First, if you are a major brand, exploit the power and ubiquity of your brand before you decide to pay-to-play. Second, scrutinize the editorial environment. A brand can do little to affect the results of a free search, but a brand does not have to pay to place itself in a vulnerable position. Third, insure you have the controls in place to audit the placement and buy to avoid click fraud.

Most importantly, see through the hype.