Media Buyer's Guide to Search Advertising

  |  October 2, 2002   |  Comments

A six-point plan for marketers who view search as 'media.'

If you are at an agency or are an in-house media planner/buyer, chances are you've added search engine marketing to your online plans. As a media buyer, you approach search marketing from a unique perspective, defining search traffic as media. Knowing the ways pay-per-click (PPC) search media is unique, particularly in comparison to other types of online media, will help you plan and execute a search engine listings campaign effectively.

The following are particularly important in planning and buying search:

  • Limited inventory. With search media, inventory is fixed, as with TV ads during the Super Bowl. Only a certain number of people search for a given keyword or phrase every day at the major search portals. This inventory shortage becomes a larger issue because of how most search media inventory is sold, that is, through auction or quasi-auction distribution (Overture, Google, and If you want the inventory, you pay the going rate. Nonauction search result vendors often base the value of their inventory on current auction-based rates, knowing these prices are an indication of the market's willingness to pay.

  • Inverse volume discounts. A result of limited inventory is a really crazy phenomenon (until you get used to it). Let's say a $5,000, month-long test worked. Your cost-per-order (CPO)/cost-per-action (CPA)or branding metrics were met, and the client is ecstatic. Now, you want more. The budget is increased to $20,000 a month. The inventory may not even exist. If it does, it will cost you per click, as you displace advertisers who pay more in auction-style engines. Broadening your campaign to include more keywords or vendors will help. Make sure you use every possible permutation you can get while keeping conversion high. Even low-volume keywords help. They add up!

  • Limited negotiation. You can't negotiate in an auction. You (or your search listings management company) will adjust listings within a near real-time marketplace. Pricing and position are changed. Because of the dynamic aspect of this marketplace, it's even more important your objectives are mapped out clearly. Objectives can be position, click volume, or CPC averages/caps. A truly efficient campaign incorporates post-click behavior differences into it, focusing on keywords that work. If you want to exercise negotiation skills, premium keyword placements are available at most portals where reps do the deal making. Expect longer commitments when dealing with reps.

  • Unpredictable budget and click volume. A biggie for those used to knowing exactly what a spend or click volume will be within media buys. How much should you allocate toward search if you're new to the game? Getting a fix on this question is very difficult. You can get an approximate spend prediction for Overture, Google, and LookSmart based on specific pricing, but those assume predicted positions, CTRs, CPCs, and click volumes.

    CTR has an impact on position and, therefore, on click volume (see "Google and Overture: CPM in Disguise"). XML and directory paid inclusion are even more difficult to predict. These feeds do not guarantee any position, so no particular spend or traffic volume can be determined. Search campaign management companies can help you plan budgets in both XML and auction vendors. Often, the best solution is to have a flexible budget weighted toward return on advertising spend (ROAS) or CPO/CPA.

  • Diverse conversion behaviors. With search, as with other media, all clicks are not created equal. When optimizing by post-click behaviors, individual keyword positions/prices need to go up or down in the quasi-auction engines based on post-click behaviors.

    For example, 40 percent of your initial spend may come from 20 high-volume keywords. If half those keywords exceed your post-click conversion cost objective, scale back those words (reduce positions) or eliminate them from the campaign altogether. Conversely, some keywords perform well and come in under your CPO/CPA target. Look for opportunities to boost that kind of inventory. Remember that changes in position result in different conversion behaviors because the network makeup changes within vendor distribution. Top positions often have more compulsive clickers. Similarly, when doing XML or directory paid inclusion, some listings outperform others in conversion behavior, and some may be poor enough to require modification or deletion from the feed.

  • Creative strategies. I hope your copywriters don't mind working with strange restrictions while doing their best to balance call-to-action and prequalification copy across different formats. For example, Google allows 25 characters for title and 35 characters each for description lines one and two. Overture permits 40 characters for the title and 190 for the description.

    Editorial guidelines vary, such as not using "click here" within Google and no superlatives in Overture. You may be able to do some prequalification or branding in your Overture copy. In Google, your listing risks being demoted or deactivated for noncompelling copy that gets a poor CTR. Overture's Click Index may kick in, deleting listings with poor CTR. Directory listings at LookSmart have different creative specifications and go through an editorial review process. XML listings have guidelines, but most XML creative is pulled from the core site the XML represents. That makes it the one area typically under client control.

Banner keyword buys and premium search result or text link placements can supplement your search marketing activities. Most portals sell this inventory directly, often on a CPM basis. Be sure to measure and manage this inventory based on your goals, even if you can't change the keyword or creative as easily as self-managed listings.

Search engine marketing can be complex, but it may be the most unobtrusive online ad medium. Internet searchers have a mission. Most media interrupt and intrude; search media facilitate the searcher's mission.

The more you work with search engine media, the more you'll appreciate the power of a win-win scenario, where searchers, portals, and marketers all fulfill their individual needs.

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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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