The Good and the Evil of Branded Keywords

We love branded keywords.

Many search marketers perceive branded keywords as the holy grail of a successful search campaign. From a SEO standpoint, compared to generic keywords, brand advertisers are at a natural advantage to get branded keywords to rank high because they are usually part of a website’s URL naming. Marketers will have relatively few problems in using branded keywords with sufficient density and high prominence, which are also some of the factors that affect the organic search ranking.

From a SEM/paid search perspective, because most of the existing ad tracking system focuses on the last click to conversion metrics, branded keywords are usually the terms that receive the most credits for each conversion. A recent presentation by Google Head of Travel Rob Torres on travel search pattern reveals that typically, an Internet user will perform 12 searches for travel-related terms before making a purchase. The last search that leads to a booking is usually a branded keyword. Also, depending on the extent of trademark protection policies of each search engine, the level of competitiveness of your branded keywords tend to be less compared to the generic keywords; effectively making the CPA/CPL of your search campaign a lot more favourable than other terms. It becomes inevitable that every single marketer will invest heavily to ensure that branded keywords are part of the ‘Golden Keywords’ set and are on 24/7 in the paid search results.

A major problem with the branded keywords is that everyone within the advertised organisation wants a piece of it. On Yahoo, each advertiser can have multiple listings of paid search ads having the same top-level domain (TLD). In the example I have shown below, Citibank is running six different ads for the branded keyword; ‘Citibank’, two for loans, one for IT credit card, one for Travel Card, one for Citibank Card, and one for Octopus Card. On the surface, it looks excellent because Citibank literally ‘owns’ the first search engine results page (to avoid any competitors or negative news being shown.)

Example 1: Branded Keyword on Yahoo Hong Kong

Google AdWords has a different policy that allows only one ad to be shown from the same top-level domain (TLD). In the example below, you can see that Citibank can only have one ad appear for the branded keyword, rather than six, as they are shown in the Yahoo search results.

Example 2: Branded Keyword on Google Hong Kong

The problem arises because for many search marketers, each product line or hotel within the holding group actually has its own search budget. Without carefully planning a strategy to deploy branded keywords across multiple product lines, marketers within the same organisation will end up competing with one another for a higher ad position, or as in the case for Google, for its appearance in the search results page. In turn, each product line ends up having to pay a higher CPC for the branded keywords, which drives up the CPA/CPL. Also, it is very common that the ad that got ranked the highest or appears most frequent will capture a lot of leads and conversions that are not directly to the product line advertised. Internet users end up using the highest ranked ad as a short cut to get to the client’s website, rather than having genuine interest in product advertised.

Before proceeding further to lay out some possible solutions to the aforementioned problem, it is good to revisit how ads are ranked on most search engines.

Ad Rank = Bid Price * Quality Score/Quality Index (depending on which search engine you use, they will have a different name).

Quality score is calculated based on a number of factors including historical click-through rate (CTR), keyword relevancy, landing page quality, and a number of other factors. Assuming at the very beginning, the quality score of your branded keywords are roughly the same across all campaigns and the major factor that affects your ad rank is your bid price.

Although there is no ideal solution to avoid Internet users using your ads as a short cut to navigate to products other than the one advertised, marketers, however, can ensure that each product line does not outbid and compete with one another for the same branded keywords.

Solution 1: Set the same bid price for branded keywords that are shared across each campaign. This will allow the search engine to show ads based on each quality score. The ad that got ranked highest or appears most often is the one with the highest quality score. In this case, you let each ad take its own course based on the historical performance of the ads. Assuming all factors being equal, the ad that got ranked highest or shown most is the one being most receptive by the Internet users (highest click-through rate).

Solution 2: Set aside a group or company level budget for branded keywords that are shared across all campaigns. This new group level/company level campaign can have multiple ads driving people to different product pages or have a generic, all-encompassing ad that drives people to the company’s home page. At the end of each month, based on the conversions across different product lines or hotel properties, the ad spend can be appropriated back to each corresponding product line or hotel property.

Though not ideal, the two aforementioned solutions will help make more effective use of your budget and avoid each product line outbidding or competing with one another. Normally, after running the campaigns for several months, a pattern emerges and you will discover that certain branded keywords are more geared towards driving conversions of a particular product or hotel property. You can then make the strategic decision to allow a particular product ad to have the exclusive right for a branded keyword phrase.

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