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SERP Position: Myth vs. Reality

  |  May 2, 2008   |  Comments

What the Holy Grail of relevance means to search marketing.

Recent changes to Google's paid and organic placement algorithms have turned many search marketers' fundamental attitudes on position upside down. However, these changes really just represent another stage in the evolution of search: position is no longer certain, it's now myth-like. Let's take a look at how position moved from a highly controllable marketing factor to a fuzzy metric that shows up when you log into your engine account reports.

Top position in the SERPs (define), either paid or organic, is a means to an end. Through top position, a marketer or advertiser gets both high visibility and the lion's share of clicks. However, with the changes that are underway at all the engines and that have recently gained particular momentum at Google, all marketers may need to revise how they think about position in a SERP. Even before the latest algorithmic changes, maintaining top position was becoming more of a myth than a reality.

Facing the fact that paid-placement position is a fleeting and perhaps mythical concept is more difficult for old-timers like me and others who managed PPC (define) search before the advent of Google AdWords and even before Yahoo acquired Overture (previously GoTo.com). We were spoiled by the idea of a PPC paid-placement position being an absolute that can be checked and verified through a tool or simply through a search at our desktops.

Here's how position has become a myth and why it matters to you. When Google launched the hybrid auction model, position began getting fuzzy. Irrational yet budget-constrained bidders would bid very high but have insufficient budget to get served for all impressions (too many clicks would occur). So Google would serve those advertisers sporadically till their budget caps were met. Often those irrational bidders would grab position from you but only for a small section of searches. The likelihood of you catching those competitors in a search of your own was low. Of course, those irrational bidders would have been better served by spreading their budget out across more clicks at a lower position, but then they wouldn't be irrational (or simply misled). These misled or clueless search marketers still exist (I hope you aren't one of them).

Google introduced Position Preference in April 2006. I don't know many marketers who use it, other than brand marketers who think search is about impressions and visibility and who are less concerned with clicks. It's similar to the underfunded bidders whose listings may infrequently pop into view, disturbing the SERP's predictability. Advertisers using Position Preference may float in and out of the SERP based on whether their bid and Quality Score are sufficient to allow their ad to be served. This may show up in your reports as an unexpected change in average position.

Geotargeting, around for many years, was an early feature in Google AdWords. When Google initially rolled out geotargeting, local marketers predominately took advantage of it, most often only within their own regions. This made position fairly easy to check, because a simple search would reveal position to the marketer. Logging into Google's, and later adCenter's, interface validated the position results. (Yahoo didn't add geotargeting till the Panama rollout last year.)

More recently, driven by a desire to simultaneously optimize current search volume and gain additional volume, national marketers began to optimize their campaigns by geographic segment. This practice extends beyond simply cloning the national campaign to bid higher against high-value audiences and includes customizing and personalizing the user experience based on geography. When your major competitors are geotargeting and boosting bids in major markets, you'll see one position and huge chunks of your audience will see a completely different paid SERP.

The more recent changes that completely change the concept of controlled position in both organic and paid search center on personalization. There are many ways Google and the other engines have started to personalize search results.

With the advent of universal search, the organic SERPs became more of a mashup than a predictable result, particularly when news results are included or commingled.

More recently, we've seen evidence that Google has been implementing the ideas and concepts postulated in its patent application. That patent addresses "determining ad targeting information and/or ad creative information using past search queries." Prior search behavior can often help tune the ads shown (and organic listings) more closely to user intent, particularly if the searcher has been using modifiers on a core concept. For search engine marketers, this really puts the nail in the coffin of predictable position. As personalization by geography spreads to the organic results and combines with prior search behavior, each SERP could end up being unique to the user: the Holy Grail of enhanced relevance.

Join us for SES Search Engine Marketing Training Workshops on May 6, 2008, at Crowne Plaza Denver in Colorado.

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Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee, Didit cofounder and executive chairman, has been an acknowledged search engine marketing expert since 1995. His years of SEM expertise provide the foundation for Didit's proprietary Maestro search campaign technology. The company's unparalleled results, custom strategies, and client growth have earned it recognition not only among marketers but also as part of the 2007 Inc 500 (No. 137) as well as three-time Deloitte's Fast 500 placement. Kevin's latest book, "Search Engine Advertising" has been widely praised.

Industry leadership includes being a founding board member of SEMPO and its first elected chairman. "The Wall St. Journal," "BusinessWeek," "The New York Times," Bloomberg, CNET, "USA Today," "San Jose Mercury News," and other press quote Kevin regularly. Kevin lectures at leading industry conferences, plus New York, Columbia, Fordham, and Pace universities. Kevin earned his MBA from the Yale School of Management in 1992 and lives in Manhattan with his wife, a New York psychologist and children.

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