Search Scent in the Search Engines

If your paid placement landing pages don’t reinforce the search scent, you lose too many visitors to the “Back” button. Moreover, because Google has incorporated landing page relevance into the Quality Score, you overpay for clicks (or miss out on higher positions at the same CPC (define)). Yahoo’s phase two of Panama is imminent, and if you haven’t revisited your ad creative in preparation for Yahoo’s new ranking algorithm you’d best get cracking.

With phase two of Panama, search scent is important in ad creative, too. Generally, applying search scent to the ads in your PPC (define) campaign will improve performance, but there are times too much scent can be a bad thing. If you’re going to outsmart the competition and maximize profit, you must know when and where to use scent and how to make it seem natural.

Search Scent Defined

What exactly is search scent, and how do you use it to improve ROI (define) and campaign profitability?

Search scent is an extension of the information scent concept, initially developed by scientists at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Information scent centers on the how users navigate the Web, both within sites and from one site to the next while pursuing information on a specific topic. The research illustrates that humans forage for information on the Internet in much the same way animals follow scent and visual cues to find food. Scent is essentially an application of user interface optimization best practices, and search scent is a specific niche based on the fact searchers are even more wedded to a particular information-gathering mission than surfers or casual browsers.

While this may be old news, it’s critical to remember the PARC team has illustrated and proven that landing page testing and optimization must take a searcher’s mission and needs into account. In the research, the team was able to speed up surfing behavior by as much as 50 percent. Although you don’t care about speed, you certainly care about stickiness and some set of positive visitor behaviors. Even brand marketers prefer that site visitors to hang out for awhile and learn.

Ad Creative and Search Scent

They don’t call ads “creative” for nothing. The best PPC ads contain at least one element of a multikeyword search query. In the case of a single keyword search, it’s often a good practice to also include that keyword in the title or description. Yet here’s an interesting phenomenon: Overusing dynamic keyword insertion automatically inserts the searcher’s exact query in the ad title. This results in ad homogeneity within the SERP’s (define) PPC portion.

So to stand out, it may make sense to skip the Dynamic Keyword Insertion (DKI) or to use the full search term in the title and use it creatively in the description instead.

Note how many of these ads for “Elton John tickets” look nearly the same. One thing to test, then, is the performance of a scent-heavy ad against a lightly scented ad. In cases where all the ads are heavily scented, try testing something else entirely. In my experience, scented ads usually win, but there are cases where a completely unscented ad may outperform in the clutter.

Landing Pages and Search Scent

If you don’t have the ability to dynamically enhance scent on your landing pages based on core keywords in a search query, you may want to consider implementing such a system. Alternately, make sure your landing pages have sufficient scent to keep visitors moving forward rather than backward. The most common action on landing pages is the “Back” button. You paid for that visitor. The last thing you want expensive site visitors to do is head back to the SERP to click a competitor’s listings. When this happens, you potentially lose that customer forever.

Information scent researchers recommended fairly drastic measures to improve Web page scent. Of course, they sought speed, not stickiness. But they found highlighting words with color or enlarging buttons is a real aid to searchers and site visitors finding the content they’re looking for. Instead of highlighting, you may want to consider bolding keywords or otherwise making them stand out from the copy.

One example of real-time landing page customization is at CNET News. When you arrive from an organic Google link, the landing page says: “Welcome Google User! More headlines related to [your search topic].” CNET wouldn’t do this if it didn’t increase site stickiness. For publishers, it’s all about page views and site stickiness. We can learn from this example.

In testing client landing pages, we’ve found search scent is an important element. The jury’s still out on exactly how “in your face” the scent should be. This will probably vary based on the marketer’s business category and even search query type. Our research continues, and I’ll keep you up to date (but I’ll likely keep some of the really killer tactics to myself).

Use the upcoming Panama phase-two rollout as an excuse to revisit all your campaigns for ad creative, structure, and landing page relevance as determined by a scent test. If it smells funny, it probably isn’t working.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies in London, February 13-15, at ExCel London.

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