The Super Bowl of Search: Super Keywords

It’s almost Super Bowl ad season. The offline world’s buzzing about which companies will pay the multimillion-dollar entry fee to play the Super Bowl Ad Game. Traditional media buyers use a variety of formulas and rationalizations to justify Super Bowl spots: reach, frequency, gross rating points (GRPs), brand studies, even the halo effect Super Bowl ads create in the media.

Search marketers, meanwhile, have “super keywords.” They have the potential to generate huge volumes of targeted traffic to your site, just as Super Bowl TV spots have enormous reach and are viewed by millions. Strategic decisions regarding super keywords require in-depth analysis because of their cost-benefit and volume opportunities.

Super keywords are the one- or two-word generic terms (“travel,” “cell phone”) that represent an industry category. They typically deliver searchers who are early in the buying cycle. Someone searching “furniture” or “car” is in a different state of mind than one typing “travel to China” or “Toyota Tacoma price.” Super keywords tend to be volatile and expensive, particularly related to immediate conversion metrics.

Studies reveal customers early in the buying cycle are highly susceptible to messages (branding and educational). Web site experiences during the research phase of the buying cycle can have lasting impact. Brand marketers refer to a site visit based on a generic category keyword as an experiential branding event. The investment, made in an early stage of the relationship with a prospect, can potentially have high value if the prospect becomes a customer.

That’s why, even when marketers or agencies conduct return-on-investment (ROI) and conversion-based search campaigns, they’ll often create a new set of rules with respect to super keywords.

E-tailer keywords are often product category names, such as “computer,” “vacation,” “digital camera,” “recipe,” “taxes,” and even “Paris Hilton.” Yahoo recently released a list of 2003’s top keywords. Lycos released a similar list, and Google will do so soon. All these keywords, as well as some that get high traffic volume, have potential to work for some marketers. Or, they could be a colossal waste of money.

Search a generic term in the top 20. Chances are, you’ll see major brands advertising. They’re investing in visibility that may influence the buying process, even if a decision isn’t imminent. These major brands may track immediate ROI, but it’s likely they exempt super keywords from immediate objectives (short-term measurable conversion). There’s a rationale for exempting the occasional super keyword, particularly if data suggests the keyword delivers a searcher who’s early in the buying cycle.

Perhaps these advertisers rely on high-ROI keywords and campaign segments to subsidize keywords that don’t provide immediate ROI. Someone has probably made an informed decision (one hopes) and determined that maintaining visibility with super keywords is a priority and has long-term value.

Are these people nuts? Not if data supports the decision. Repeated exposure sparks interaction effects. Ad messages blend in the prospect’s mind throughout the buying cycle. Of course, it’s quite difficult to isolate the specific value of each media placement once interaction effects kick in.

Another reason to look at super keywords carefully is they’re the core of broad match listings, which generate diverse traffic. Instead of buying keyword traffic for an isolated keyword, you buy a super keyword for a slew of keyword phrases that all include the super keyword.

Your listing now no longer delivers only searchers who are early in the buying process. You get a broad range of searchers, including those who know exactly what they want. These searchers entered a multi-keyword phrase, making them more valuable. If the super keyword is “cell phone,” the broad match listing captures searchers who typed “cell phone family plan.”

Web analytics or a third-party campaign management solution (and a team that knows what it’s doing) will help identify super keyword effects and the direct response effects from a broad listing.

Even paid-inclusion listings sometimes include super keywords in the mix. Again, Web analytics or a third-party firm can help outline traffic profiles and modify strategy appropriately. Determine how aggressive to be with your super keywords. If you have budget constraints, balance broad, high-ROI keywords with high-volume, lower-ROI super keywords.

As you watch those Super Bowl ads this year, think about your search engine marketing (SEM) campaign.

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