AOL Search Data Contains Important Lessons for Search Marketers

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I'm sure you've heard about the massive trove of search data - more than 20 million queries run by more than 650,000 AOL users - that AOL released to the research community earlier this month. Unfortunately for AOL, the research site wasn't protected, and the data quickly made its way out onto the Web.

AOL's extraordinary gaffe has a lot of people buzzing, including lawyers, privacy advocates and government regulators, and it's a troubling incident for everyone in online marketing. AOL has apologized and fired several people associated with the breach, but the damage may be longstanding. Trust is what holds the whole online advertising game together, and this trust has been badly breached. Although most people using Google, Yahoo, MSN, or sites such as Amazon.com know that these sites mine user data for their own commercial purposes, it's been a tacit understanding that such data would remain behind closed doors.

For search marketers, the leaked AOL search data does contain some highly useful nuggets. One of its most significant revelations pertains to the click behavior of searchers when presented with organic SERP results. The No. 1 spot commanded 45 percent of clicks - almost four times the clicks gotten from the No. 2 position. 78 percent of clicks came from the top five positions.

Clearly, if you want scale, there's no substitute for being No. 1. The problem, of course, is being able to afford the No. 1 spot in a competitive field in which keyword inflation is likely, especially as we move into the holiday shopping season. Competition for the top positions will escalate, especially as deep-pocketed brand advertisers get into the game.

There is no magic bullet that will get you No. 1 paid positions for the critical keywords driving your business. There are, however, best practices that can ensure that your search campaigns yield the maximum advantage from whatever position you can afford. The most important campaign philosophy is to optimize conversions, or, as we say at Did-it, building a "conversion architecture" using customer segmentation. Who are your best customers? What do they look like? What behavior describes them? Where are they coming from? At what times? Some marketers may have enough information in their site logs to provide a partial answer to these critical questions, but others will need to mine their historical CRM data to bring answers to light.

Informed with such answers, the next stage is to provide as streamlined a path from query to conversion as is possible. This process of optimization looks at each individual link in the search marketing chain from keyword choice through creative through landing pages, and tests each variable. By testing all permutations of these variables, incremental gains can be realized which together can measurably lift the efficiency of any given campaign.

By delivering such efficiencies, the marketer can elect either to pocket the improved gains, or reinvest them in obtaining higher positions, which deliver increased traffic and conversions in a manner approximating the classic positive feedback loop. Using targeting, dollars which would have otherwise been wasted "duking it out" with free-spending competitors can be invested in targeted campaigns that avoid these head-to-head confrontations, where price escalation cycles only benefit the search engines. The money saved can be plowed back into spending which can deliver top rankings for contested battleground SERPs where, for strategic reasons, the enterprise must enjoy positional dominance.

No business is the same and it's certainly possible to run market share-building, profitable search campaigns that don't necessarily hinge on No. 1 rankings. But because, as the AOL Search data shows, these rankings provide such an enormous advantage in terms of scale, every search marketer should know how to achieve them where required. Remember, search is a zero-sum game and only the winners will receive the spoils.

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