You’d think that, in a just and well-regulated world, buying your company’s brand as a search keyword would at least guarantee that the folks who searched on that brand name would be herded to your sponsored listing, wouldn’t you?
Well, welcome to reality. According to a white paper published in April by online competitive intelligence service Hitwise, “Best Practices for Search Engine Brand Management”, one in seven searches on a branded term wind up going somewhere other than to that brand’s Web site. The alternative destination might be an affiliate site (that could be okay), but it could also be your competitor’s Web site (probably not okay). Or users could be going to a price comparison site—something brand owners might also want to know.
It’s a situation that many companies using search engine marketing face. The Hitwise study analyzed 30 top online brands in the travel, retail and business & finance categories during February of this year, found a 17% increase over last year in the number of searches that used either a brand name or a term with a brand name in it. Out of the top 100 search terms for the month, 75 used some form of a brand name.
So users are searching more often by brand. That makes it all the more meaningful that, as the Hitwise study went on to find, only 85% of branded searches ultimately lead to the site of the brand-owning company.
“It’s important for marketers to realize that there’s both a threat and an opportunity here to capture more searches on their brand,” say Bill Tancer, general manager for global research at Hitwise. “They should also start thinking about buying their own brand as a sponsored listing, or at the very minimum about monitoring it to find out who’s getting traffic on their brand. They should consider practicing search engine brand management.”
Debate has gone on for some time now as to whether a brand strong enough to rank high in organic listings should also spend money to make sure it’s high in the sponsored listings on that name. Tancer says the Hitwise findings suggest that brands may want to grab all the real estate they can get on the search results page for their name, both through organic optimization and through performance ads: that it’s worth spending on your brand as a keyword to lessen the chances that you’re that one-in-seven brand search that goes astray.
Besides, as the report points out, even getting the top organic rank on a brand-search results page doesn’t guarantee high visibility. Hitwise illustrates the point with a search for “Princess cruises” on Yahoo! The Princess Line comes up tops in natural results, all right. But it’s preceded by three sponsored listings from other providers and a Yahoo! Travel shortcut that push that organic result down to just above the fold of the first page. And while the company bought a pay-per-click ad on its own brand, Hitwise found that three cruise agencies bid more for the name and got their search ads placed higher.
“You can only control your organic listing to some extent,” Tancer says, and you have no control over matters like how far down a search engine pushes the natural results on a search page. “But you can definitely control the sponsored listing. So why not use that opportunity to message the way you want to?”
The report shows vacuum-maker Oreck making just such use of the chance to issue a more explicit message in the paid-search ads it ran on its brand-name keyword. While the brand did indeed appear in the first spot organically, that listing described the company’s products in general terms and named its top product, the Oreck XL vacuum. But the top sponsored link on the same search, also from Oreck, let the company make a specific offer to customers: “Buy an Oreck XL upright and get a compact canister vac free!”
Perhaps the most important consideration for a brand-name search marketer is to find out if competitors are getting a lift from their branded-search efforts, Tancer says. For example, in February, the Expedia.com Web site got 90% of the visits from searches on its brand name. Where did the other 10% go? Applying its search term analysis tool, Hitwise found that Expedia affiliate Dealcrawler got 2.5% of that brand-search traffic, while competitors Priceline and CheapoAir got less than one percent. All those companies ran pay-per-click ads against the Expedia brand.
The conclusion: In this case, searchers who went looking for “Expedia” did not seem to want to click on competitors. In fact, the Dealcrawler affiliate ad probably looked like a legitimate Expedia link because it listed the URL www.Expedia.dealcrawler.com. So in this case, brand-name search traffic siphoned off to an affiliate is probably acceptable, because the Expedia brand holds the lion’s share.
But for many marketers, letting affiliates advertise on their brand names becomes a problem. “Some brands out there are losing traffic to their affiliates and losing money because they’re competing with those affiliates for their own names,” Tancer says. “We see that exclusion lists are becoming more and more popular in search marketing. Brands are telling affiliates that while they can earn them traffic through search marketing, they can’t do so by bidding on the brand name.”
Other brand-management issues to watch include brand misspellings and broad matches on a company brand name, both of which can leak traffic from a branded search. For example, Hitwise found that in February, the www.netflix.com site got search traffic not only from the correct spelling but from a variety of mistakes, including “netflex”, “net flicks” and “netflixs”. But while 87% of searches on “netflix” wound up at the company’s site, only 58% of searches on the term “net flicks” made it there.
Broad matching, which serves a company’s ad on any search term that includes the keyword it bid on, can also draw off search traffic from those companies whose brands include a generic term. “For example, if your brand includes the term ‘earth’, you’re going to show up on searches for Google Earth,” Tancer says.
The Hitwise report underlines this broad-matching problem with the example of Allstate Insurance. In February, 83% of searchers using the term “allstate” found their way to the www.allstate.com Web site. But among those looking for “allstate insurance”, only 74% made it to the company site; one in four searchers were drawn off to competitors’ or affiliates’ sites that also bid on the generic “insurance”.
“Your only solid bet for stemming that kind of hemorrhage is to outbid competitors for those generic terms that are part of your brand,” Tancer says. Brand marketers should also look at what terms are driving traffic to competitors’ sites, checking for any misspellings of their own names in that list and placing keyword bids on those terms that minimize the harm. Negative matching may be necessary to keep down the wasted ad spend from broad matching: to stop your “earth” branded ads from showing up in “Google Earth” search, for example, or to keep Dove Soap from matching to searches for Rita Dove or Dove Chocolate.
Naturally, Tancer makes the point that competitive intelligence of the sort his company offers can be usefully applied in the cause of brand-search management. Hitwise allies with ISP networks to monitor users’ Web behavior anonymously, and without collecting personal data. “That makes it a great proxy for brand equity data,” he says. “[Hitwise is] seeing what 10 million people type into a search box. If I can track the ebb and flow of traffic on your brand and your competitors’ brands, I would argue that’s better data than going out and taking surveys on whether your brand’s strength is increasing or decreasing on the Internet.”