The Graphical Search Divide

Search engine marketing’s stratospheric growth of late of has led many online marketers to ponder how the category can be expanded and improved upon. Numerous ideas have been thrown into the ring, ranging from local sponsored listings to better personalization. Some will certainly appear in 2004. Others are of more uncertain value.

One unknown that’s generated considerable buzz of late is graphical sponsored listings. Would marketers do well to add images and richer visual elements to their paid search results? Would doing so increase the branding effectiveness of search marketing?

Or is mentioning “branding” in the same breath as “search engine” akin to going down the up escalator?

Several smaller search engines, such as AskJeeves and Enhance Interactive (formerly Ah-ha.com), already support images in their ad offerings, but the industry is deeply divided on the ultimate wisdom — even the viability — of graphical listings. Naysayers assert search is effective precisely because it’s text-based (users feel all links on a results page are equal), and including images only serves to remind people they’re faced with an ad. Graphical search advocates, on the other hand, say Fortune 1000 advertisers are poised to pounce on any offering that lets them boost the visual impact of their search campaigns.

“Graphical paid listings could prove to be very popular with large advertisers, especially if they become available as sponsorships,” said Nate Elliott, an associate analyst with Jupiter Research (which shares a parent company with this site).

“These big advertisers aren’t used to battling it out with smaller competitors for ad space, and many would jump at the opportunity to ensure themselves a top listing with a logo on it,” he said.

A jump, or a downfall? The biggest search engines say it’s the latter. While declining to elaborate on their reasons, both Google and Yahoo-owned Overture told this publication they won’t support graphical listings anytime soon.

“Currently, we have no plans to serve graphical ads,” offered Google public relations manager Michael Mayzel. Overture spokesperson Jennifer Stephens chimed in, “Overture does not have plans to do any graphical ads at this time.”

The biggest argument against graphical listings will seem backward to most traditional media folks; namely, users will respond less to these ads than to text ads.

“I find it amazing that people haven’t discovered the correlation between banner advertising and [graphical sponsored listings], because there’s a very clear correlation,” said Shari Thurow, marketing director for SEM/design firm Grantastic Designs.

Thurow believes the big engines are right to deprive marketers of graphical listings.

“People eventually got irritated with banners,” Thurow said. “What’s nice about AdWords and Overture is they don’t allow you to be irritating. The ads have to be relevant and produce results or the engines won’t run them. And I think users like that.”

At least one major bid-based search player concurs, citing internal research that shows adding graphic elements to sponsored listings defeats the point of search (the study was not limited to shopping search). In user focus groups, people perceived graphical ads as banners, which they’ve trained themselves to ignore.

But What If It Works?

Some smaller search engines — with and without strict CPC models — are enjoying success with graphical search.

Enhance Interactive (formerly Ah-ha.com) recently began experimenting with automated graphical search marketing. Their LogoLink service lets marketers place an 80 x 40 image next to a text ad.

Among the first to offer graphical listings was AskJeeves, which also appears to be the most bullish on their effectiveness. Their image-enabled “Branded Response” offering has been on the market since 2001, and the company reports meaningful increases in demand for the Branded Response unit, both in terms of pricing and number of marketers purchasing it.

AskJeeves VP of Sales Matt Gilbert said marketers should use images to target consumers in the early phases of the purchase decision process.

“In the consideration phase, users often just want to see the product,” he said. “Having the image there in many cases increases the likelihood that the marketer can guide the consumer through the phases and make a purchase online.”

As he elaborates on reasons for adding images to the search marketing mix, Gilbert sounds increasingly like a brand marketer. Ultimately, he says, richer graphic elements may be most effective when used in conjunction with click-based text links.

“You’ll see companies saying, ‘Okay, if a graphical ad is less likely to result immediately in a conversion, then I need to combine it with a [lower cost, conversion-oriented listing],” he said.

Search Engine Branding?

The theory that branding can occur on search engines has made inroads into interactive marketing dogma. Companies such as AskJeeves, which relies partly on direct sales and hence can easily offer premium and customized listings, have an interest in advancing that idea. Search’s self-service giants do not.

“Google and Overture are hesitant, at least in part, because graphical listings would take away their economy of scale,” said Jupitermedia’s Elliott. “AskJeeves sells and traffics their graphical listings manually, rather than through an automated system, and that’s a headache the larger players don’t want.”

Search marketing as a branding mechanism may be fundamentally incompatible with the prevailing listing ranking system. After all, Google and Overture remove low-performing paid listings from results pages and replace them with listings that get clicks (i.e. direct responses).

Marketers are rewarded for selecting relevant keywords. Users see results likely to be in line with their search. Buying listings intended only to enhance brand impact without necessarily generating clicks is at odds with the system.

According to Grantastic’s Thurow, “It’s very common sense for us that if you want to drastically reduce the click-through rate, put a logo on the banner. The branding people will tell you the exact opposite.”

“I hate to burst branding people’s bubble,” she continued. “If people are searching for something, they’re not searching for a brand. They’re searching for a keyword. An exception would be Sears, which has a lot of brands that could also be keywords. But they really are the exceptions.”

Advocates for graphical listings concede they must be subtle and understated, but disagree that users recoil from them. In a sense, the opposing camps make the same argument, but come to differing conclusions.

“One of the reasons paid search works so well is that users don’t feel overwhelmed by graphics and animation,” said Elliott. “It’s important to maintain that comfort level — that non-commercial feeling — when adding graphics to paid listings.”

“Graphical paid listings aren’t the same as banners — or at least they shouldn’t be,” he continued. “This is a chance to make a text ad stand out from the crowd, not a way to put more large graphics onto a page.”

What’s a Graphic, Anyway?

Subtler applications of graphical elements on results pages can be found in the area of shopping search. While a different beast from most search marketing, shopping sites may offer a lighter-touch model for graphical ads, one that enhances a marketer’s page placement without offending user sensibilities.

Shopping.com, for example, offers color logos to the top seven merchants on a product search results page. Lower bidders appear in a bold typeface. Yahoo uses images to cross-link many of its search results pages with Yahoo Shopping pages. While the pics aren’t the result of commercial relationships with advertisers, they do support Yahoo’s own cross-marketing efforts.

On Google’s still-in-beta shopping engine, Froogle (as on other shopping engines), product images aren’t paid for through commercial relationships with marketers, but rather collected via data feeds from merchants and manufacturers.

“Graphical” search isn’t strictly limited to .JPG or .GIF files. Other graphical controls are already on the table, such as the color palette publishers can choose from when deploying Google’s contextual AdSense listings.

Even Thurow agrees AdSense publishers and other search marketers should be given a range of graphical tools flexible enough to create ads that blend in — but not too much.

“The most effective ads we’ve ever done are not ostentatious, but they don’t blend in enough to vanish,” she said. “You want it to blend in, though not so much that it disappears.”

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