The Keyword Shuffle


This is going back, way back… It is around the middle of 1995. With some of the media folk from the agency I work at, I am sitting in a small conference room in the original Wired offices in San Francisco, right off of South Park south of Market.

Some crazy guy named Rick Boyce wants to introduce us to the idea of “ad banners” running on web sites. He is showing us AT&T banners on the HotWired site. (They had a T1 line at a time when most of us thought “T1” referred to the first Terminator film.) Only a very few of us think this is remotely interesting, and only two of us believe there’s a viable ad medium here. I say to myself, “Wow, this Internet thing is even cooler than those chat units I used to sit at in Cafi Milano in Berkeley!”


Fast-forward maybe eight or ten months later, and we are in the conference room at the agency I was still working at… These two guys are in from a search engine called Infoseek – yes, the erstwhile search site that now serves as the backbone of Disney’s unfocused portal,

They’re there to talk about the latest in online advertising. It’s funny to think about anything as the “latest,” given that even the “earliest” in online advertising has yet to really go anywhere. But, be that as it may, these two guys from Infoseek are there to talk about something they’ve cooked up that they believe will be a powerful ad tool in the developing interactive advertising industry: the keyword buy.

That’s right. They suggest that it’s possible to serve targeted ad banners to visitors on a search engine based on the keyword input against which the user wishes to conduct a search for information. So, if you were selling underwater basketweaving yarn, then you could have your ad message about underwater basketweaving yarn served up every time someone searched on the word basketweaving.

This just seems too good to be true. To deliver a message pertinent to what a potential customer is at that moment searching for… well, this is amazing. And it will turn out to be one of the most effective targeting tools on the web.

Advertisers for decades had been looking for the best way to talk about their products to consumers when they were thinking about their products, and now, with the keyword targeted banner, we had it like never before.

Thus began the love affair with the keyword buy that continues today and still demonstrates itself as the most potent online ad tool an online media buyer can buy.


Keyword inventory continues to provide some of the most hotly contested CPMs and yields some of the most solid. As a buyer, it is important to know what you are buying, how much exists now and is projected to exist in the future, whether or not another advertiser wants it, and, finally, whether or not the premium paid for this kind of inventory is worth it.


Knowing what you are buying is of course very important. Some search properties bundle keywords together, lumping in those you really want with a bunch you don’t care about. Find out what the junk inventory is before you commit to the buy. If the only way to get the words you want is to buy a package, be sure you can track each keyword individually on the back end so as to determine what’s really working for you.

How much and who else wants it?

When buying keywords for your client, be sure you know how many TOTAL impressions are generated against a given keyword or phrase, and then what percentage is available to purchase. If it isn’t 100 percent that the advertiser can buy, find out who the other advertiser is. Your client will love having this kind of competitive information.

Also be sure to check on changing availabilities on a regular basis. Often times the keyword will experience “growth impressions.” Be sure you purchase these on your client’s behalf for their most important keywords. If you can, write a contract that stipulates your client’s right to growth impressions. This can be very strategic in a hotly contested industry category.

Is it worth it?

It is hard to answer this question right out of the gate, but if you have some experience with another search term buy, use the metrics gathered from that to predict results. If this is all brand-new for the advertiser, you’re just going to have to close your eyes, pinch your nose, and jump. It used to be that in advertising, you knew 50 percent of the advertising worked, but you didn’t know which half. The online medium can tell you which half. That’s the best you can hope for with a new test.

And that is really the basics for buying keywords. Be aware that you can never emphasize enough how important keyword inventories are and how fast they move. Most portal/search properties won’t hold inventory for more than two or three days. Let your clients know that they need to move fast and decisively with this kind of buy.

With keywords, you can get ’em when you want ’em and while they’re thinking about you. What better time is there to talk to the folks?

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