The SEM Content Conundrum

The talk in the search engine marketing (SEM) sector these days is all about something other than search. It’s about search-style ads that appear on content pages, a product that most players in the paid-placement space are now offering.

The most recent player to jump in is Overture, which made significant additions and improvements to its content network with the Content Match rollout. Overture follows Google’s much talked-about launch into the category earlier this year.

Content advertising mixed into, or offered in conjunction with, paid-position search is not new. Sprinks has run a content network alongside its search network for over a year. In the Sprinks model, advertisers select categories, not keywords, affording broader matches. FindWhat.com, Search123.com, Kanoodle, and ah-ha.com also supplement pure search inventory with content-based, targeted inventory.

If you’re wondering if content advertising is for you, fortunately, you’ve got time to figure it out. Both Google AdWords and Overture allow you to opt out of having your search ads appear on content pages; Overture is offering a 20 percent discount on content-based clicks until September 24. Experiment now, before prices go up.

To help you know what to look for as you experiment, let’s delve into the essence of the inventory.

Behavioral targeting — catching people when they’re looking for something — is a primary reason search inventory commands a high price.

Contextual ads lack that behavioral element, rather they are relevant to page content. The better the ad aligns with the content, the happier both marketer and surfer. Both prefer well-targeted ads. So does the publisher, who can generally set higher rates.

Extremely high-level targeting generated by a well-tuned content network is highly desirable, but for some marketers or campaigns, it still doesn’t measure up to pure search targeting. As Danny Sullivan points out in a recent article, there’s a difference between “search mode” and “surf mode.” Therein lies the core of the quality issue. Does it make a difference for you?

For some marketers, quality (conversion rate) of content-driven clicks is lower than the remainder of pure search inventory. Other marketers don’t see a difference in conversion quality. Chris Seahorn, eBags director of business development, notes, “I have not seen a drop in conversion quality within my Google AdWords campaigns.” After a bit more digging, I learned Seahorn does not yet have a very high level of content inventory mixed in with pure search inventory.

Other marketers are enthusiastic but reserving final judgment. John Rogers, director of e-commerce marketing at Orvis, says, “We monitor the conversion and quality of our traffic on an ongoing basis and have not seen any change in quality; however, we will be watching the conversion quality carefully.”

To test how well content inventory works for you, you may need to enlist the help of a technologically savvy search marketing professional and/or your Webmaster.

Currently, the only way to identify the source of paid search traffic from Google and Overture is through something called the HTTP referrer. The HTTP referrer is stored by a browser and supplied to the server. It works as follows: A visitor on the way to your site clicks a link (paid or unpaid, search or contextual). Her browser stores the referring site information in a referrer field. This information is normally relayed to your server in the header of the landing-page request.

By looking at the referrer data in your server logs, you can usually determine if a visitor originated through a context/content or pure search link. However, the referrer is not reported by all browsers, and it’s stripped out by some firewall software. Also, if you use an ad server to run clicks through, it may strip out referrers, making it difficult to run an analysis (unless you have the ability to tap referrer data and run conversion analysis at the ad-server level). Google content network referrers are easy to identify, as each contains a common element (googlesyndication.com).

Overture has no networkwide identifier for content terms. Assuming you already have your inbound Overture links uniquely tagged, a highly sophisticated tech team could create a complex filter that looks for Overture link tagged referrers missing search term queries. A referrer matching Overture’s inbound tag but missing a search query string could be assumed content. Alternatively, a content site list could be matched against inbound traffic. It’s possible, but it’s a very poor method.

None of the major search networks append a content source tag to landing URLs. Some referrer data is lost. So you can’t tell every origination type with certainty. Of course, some data is better than none.

As the percentage of content inventory rises, making the right opt-in or -out decision is critical. If the content inventory works for you at the price you pay, you wouldn’t want to miss that traffic and give the click to your competition. On the other hand, if the segment of your budget spent on the content-based portion of your campaign doesn’t meet objectives at the CPC you pay, you’d be foolish not to reallocate that budget elsewhere (perhaps new keywords or improving the efficiency of your campaign).

Bill Demas, senior VP and general manager of Overture’s partner business and solutions group, says although technology plays a significant role in content targeting, Overture will add human review to selecting and targeting content pages. This contrasts with Google’s techcentric approach. Google’s content network is expanded through AdSense, an ad-serving program for publishers interested in syndicating Google AdWords results. Google’s automated system of extracting a page’s essence as expressed by keywords is based on the company’s proven crawler and indexing technology. Both advertisers and publishers undergo some human editorial at Overture.

Overture’s Content Match page suggests the vast majority of content inventory will show up for broad terms:

Some advertisers who have broad, general search terms in Premium Listings (positions 1, 2 or 3) should see a significant increase in traffic. Other advertisers may receive only a handful of clicks, or none at all.

The statement is important, as the difference in conversion behavior between those in surf mode and those in search mode may be significantly less for broad terms. Someone searching for “music” or visiting a music site with content match links might be very different from someone searching under the term “music download.” The latter may be more inclined to take action.

To get the most out of content ads, make sure the creative and offer are well tuned for searchers and surfers alike. Write appropriate creative when opted into content advertising.

If you use Overture or Google, it won’t be long before the floodgates open and inundate you with content-based traffic. You need to know if you want that traffic. The way to decide is to start a testing-and-decision process now.

Meet Kevin at the Jupiter ClickZ Advertising Forum in New York City on July 30 and 31.

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