SEM Post-Holiday Wrap-Up

In case you missed it, this holiday season was driven by search engine marketing (SEM). The closer we got to the holidays, the more apparent this became. It was a very strong retail season online, according to an NRF/Shop.org report, which showed healthy increases in sales and happier shoppers than last year.

This year, new SEM players fueled e-commerce growth for the holiday season. Building on last year’s momentum, Google became the powerhouse in search. Another major trend this year revolved around “shopping search,” or comparison shopping engines. A May 2003 NRF study conducted by Forrester reported high growth in the comparison shopping engine category (286 percent), confirming shopping portals have become a fixture in the search marketing landscape.

Even Google got into the act, once the holiday shopping season was in full swing. It started promoting Froogle heavily at the bottom of search result screens in a “shameless self-promotion” link area. Surprisingly, Google didn’t code the link to dynamically carry the original search forward into Froogle (the way it does with the different search tabs). It would’ve provided a better user experience and more AdWords inventory if Google had.

Shopping Portal Data

This was a particularly strong year for many of the independent shopping search engines. Shopping.com (formerly DealTime) leads in this category, according to several data collection services. Hitwise data placed Shopping.com sites (including Epinions.com) at 7.04 percent of shopping and classified sites, followed by Yahoo at 4.35 percent and BizRate.com at 3.67 percent.

We also see some interesting data coming from the shopping portals themselves. Shopping.com measured year-over-year changes for what it calls the “first 12 days of Christmas” — “Black Friday” through December 8. For 2002 and 2003, the trend data is quite illuminating:

2002 (million) 2003 (million)
Unique visitors 12.0 20.0
Leads (clicks to merchants) 4.5 14.0
Sales 24.0 55.0

The growth is undeniable. Shopping online is huge. And this data doesn’t take into account offline conversions that happen at multichannel merchants who can look up store locations or order via toll-free number.

Yahoo Shopping did a study that confirms the “Lunchtime Effect” hypothesis. The study shows one in four employed Americans who go online at work are shopping. If you didn’t test your data and execute either a dayparting or real-time campaign management strategy, you probably left orders on the table and wasted budget.

Shopping.com’s weekly Consumer Demand Index shows what’s hot among shopping searches. The top 20 search terms are prominently displayed, including trend data.

Overture Data

This kind of data is useful, along with trend data from sources such as the Overture Search Term Suggestion Tool.

If you have a seasonal business, take your primary (and perhaps some secondary) keywords and save the results from the Overture keyword suggestion tool in a spreadsheet. This data will become even more valuable next year, for year-over-year comparisons. November starts the holiday search season, and terms that are dormant during the rest of the year suddenly pop up. Similarly, in mid-January, when the December data is reflected in the Overture tool, you’ll have the data to look for trends in popularity or seasonality. Consider tracking some keywords monthly throughout the year.

Overture’s research group shared some interesting holiday shopping statistics with my team recently. The data is illuminating, as it shows when certain categories peaked in 2002.

For example, according to Overture data, the peak searches for gift items (e.g., “DVD player,” “clothing”) occur December 2-18, ending seven days before Christmas. Décor-related terms (e.g., “wreath,” “Christmas decoration”) peaked earlier, ending December 9. Both data sets clearly show day-of-week patterns in search behavior as well. Surprisingly, CPCs did not always rise in tandem with traffic, indicating a specific budgeting strategy may be appropriate.

Tracking and Using Your Data

Of course, your data matters most. Watch Overture and Google data, as well as overall traffic data in log files or analytics package.

Savvy marketers this year either manually or automatically adjusted listings, taking into account changes in conversion behavior across campaigns to execute a return-on-investment-based strategy. However, those who understand the buying cycle measured and adapted campaigns based on a spectrum of searcher behavior, indicating the different types of holiday searchers.

I’ll likely wrap up the year with more stats. If you have unique stats or a story to tell, email me your peak traffic days, peak order days, changes in conversion, unusual competitive behavior or price swings for your keywords. Did your CPCs change much this year compared with last year’s?

Online retailing is here to stay. Search drives consumers to sites where they can fulfill holiday wishes. This year is a learning experience for next. Before you know it, Thanksgiving’s right around the corner. Your SEM campaign had better be ready! Santa rewards marketers who have been good – and developed efficient SEM campaigns.

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