Yes, Virginia, There Is SEM Brand Lift, Part 1

Brand marketers have long considered the idea of brand lift through search engine marketing (SEM) no more credible than the idea of a real Santa Claus — a nice concept, but fabricated to change behavior with no evidence to back it up.

This week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Search Engine Effectiveness Committee published a study on the brand lift of textual paid search results. The results will knock your Christmas stockings off. Search can cause brand lift to soar!

The study, designed by the Search Committee, IAB staff, and Nielsen//NetRatings staff, measured changes in branding metrics based on exposure to a SERP and contextual search placement.

Brand marketers, search engines, and agencies have long asked questions about search and branding. The IAB and the Search Committee had no idea what to expect from the study. The last publicly released related research appeared in late 1999 and early 2000 from Overture (then GoTo) and the NPD Group. (Major marketers may have conducted their own studies in brand lift or the experiential branding impact of site behaviors.)

This column will only begin to cover the study. The IAB and research sponsors are taking the results on the road as part of a six-city “Search Marketing Road Show.” (If you’re interested in attending, email me. I’ll try to get you on the list.)


Ad categories in the study include health, auto, beverage, electronics, retail, and finance. Both well-known and lesser-known brands were included so results could be applied by marketers whose brands have varying levels of awareness. Branding attributes tested include:

  • Unaided brand awareness

  • Aided ad awareness
  • Familiarity
  • Brand image associations

The study was conducted with an email-generated invitation to participate. Participants (over 10,500) were randomly assigned to test and control groups. Control groups were shown pages representing SERPs and contextual articles, all running PSA ads. SERPs and article pages were not from specific vendors, portals, or publishers; they were generic to preserve the study’s integrity.

Test participants were shown brand ads appropriate to the page (a SERP or an article). After exposure to the brand ads, researchers asked questions to determine brand attitudes and recall. Respondents were not told in advance the subject was advertising, to limit self-selection and exposure bias.


Results were stunning. “On average, when respondents were asked to name a specific leading brand within a tested industry, they were 27 percent more likely to name the brand displayed in the top spot compared to a control group not exposed to the ad,” reads the study. Unaided brand awareness jumped from 43.9 percent for the search control to 55.6 percent for the top position. This result is for brands generally already well-known, which makes the results even more exciting.

Many brand marketers consider unaided brand awareness scores a highly valid measurement of advertising effectiveness. Marketers want consumers to consider their brand at every stage of the buying cycle. Higher unaided brand awareness increases the likelihood a consumer will include the brand in a purchase selection set.

The study also sought to quantify the difference in brand lift achieved through an aggressive bidding strategy (position one) versus a less-aggressive strategy (position five — above the fold, but not as prominent).

Lift for ads in position five was, as expected, lower than for top-ranked results but still quite strong. In addition, text search banners in contextually relevant article placements also showed good lift, generally similar to a position-five sponsored SERP position.

Next: more study details and highlights of case studies.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

Meet Kevin at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose. Also, join us at ClickZ’s upcoming AdForum.

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