Does the Oil Market Affect Your SEM?

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Last week we discussed how a real estate bust could be devastating for real estate sites that are practicing poor search engine marketing. This week we want to look at a different market trend and a different market: oil prices and the automotive world.


Oil prices hit a phenomenal record high last week, about $64 a barrel. And with a war in Iraq, fears of nuclear arms in Iran and President Bush's new energy bill with effects -- positive or negative -- that are yet to be seen, only time will tell where the future of energy prices, and oil prices, may lie.


Meanwhile, the best-known rule in finance is that as the oil market goes, so goes the rest of the economy. That's only more true if you're in an oil-tied business, like, say, automotive.


So far, all of this is obvious. Equally obvious is that consumers are aware of these facts, too, and purchase accordingly. If you're buying a car in the middle of an oil price spike, miles per gallon will be a question that's bound to come up in the back of your mind.


In search terms, what your customers think translates into what they tell the search engines and what they'd like to see back. What they tell the engines are the keywords they use. What they'd like to see back are the results -- both paid and organic -- that the search engines offer them.


At the time of this writing, the report card for how search advertisers deal with oil prices is mixed. On some keywords, advertisers seem very eager to take advantage of a source of opportunity. On other keywords, search advertising is conspicuously absent.


"High MPG car," a term we figured that someone looking to buy a non-gas-guzzling car might use, has no search marketing whatsoever in Google (again, at the time of this writing). In Yahoo, the term gets more attention from the advertisers -- but still not so much: only four ads appear (compare that with "toyota," which gets 11 ads in Yahoo). The results for "fuel efficient car" are slightly better: four ads in Google, but eight in Yahoo. The bottom line is that different gas mileage-related terms gave us a range of search ad results.


It's entirely possible that not advertising on these terms is a wise choice. A search for "high MPG car" also could be a search for .mpeg files. Perhaps advertisers concerned about wasting their pay-per-click ad costs avoid the term because of that ambiguity. That would be a sound decision, but the fact that top organic listing after top organic listing for that term deals explicitly with miles per gallon would indicate that they could be wrong. Not to mention that a search for "car high miles per gallon" doesn't get much advertising, either (four ads in Google, two in Yahoo).


Before we get to the question of knowing whether advertising on fuel efficiency/oil price terms is right for you, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that they are a worthwhile investment. If so, then it's worthwhile to turn the conversation to some specifics -- what parts of your campaign you'll want to shift or sharpen to get the best mileage out of the oil issue.


* Keywords. The thing to keep in mind about keyword choice is this: Searchers only partially search for what they want to see. Largely, they create keyword choices around what they want to exclude. For oil-price-related terms, that means trying their best to exclude the ads, organic results and ad copy that will show them gas-guzzling cars.


A search for "car" might become a search for "fuel efficient car." Or it might become a search for "hybrid car" or "car high MPG." Because searchers who use these terms really don't want to see certain results, they go out of their way to tell the search engines -- and the advertisers who care to listen -- what they do want to see.


* Ad copy. Creating the right ad copy could mean two different things. It could mean addressing concerns that searchers have expressed through keywords; it also could mean speaking to concerns that searchers haven't expressed, but might be thinking about. If a searcher looks for "fuel efficient car," then it might just be worth advertisers' while to create an ad that speaks to the searcher's specific concern -- fuel efficiency -- rather than speaking just to a search for a low price ("Find great deals on fuel efficient cars," or just "Find the best deals on all cars," for instance). But a searcher who has just read an article about fuel efficiency and proceeds to type in a more generic car term like "auto dealership" also might be quicker to respond to an ad that talks about high MPG.


When MSN Search's advertising program, adCenter, becomes a player, locating the searcher who is likely to respond to gas prices in a generic search like that will become much more feasible. That's because adCenter will be able to target searchers by demographic.


* Changing with the times. Of course, the best SEM responses to oil price fluctuation require changing your advertising on a moment's notice. The quicker you can change ad copy or keyword choice, the quicker you can speak to the searcher who's just heard news about gas prices -- and will be the most responsive to advertising related to MPG.


The bottom line is that, like everything else in search engine marketing, it all depends on how much your market cares and how much your ad budget will let you experiment with new terms. If your market isn't particularly gas-price-conscious and/or they don't associate your products or services with gas price fluctuations, then there's no reason to worry about gas prices much.


But if your market is concerned about oil prices and would be more interested in what you have to offer if you could speak to them in the language of dollars per barrel of sweet crude, or dollars per gallon, or MPG, then you might be passing up a chance that only comes around once every gas price hike.


And how do you know whether your market thinks of you in oil terms? That requires serious market research, sophisticated tracking and testing and the ability to discern good search keywords, ad copy and landing pages from ineffective ones. That's a difficult task for some -- and, frankly, it can be an impossible task to do well for even very good search marketers. Plus, like we said above, doing it in the best way requires a campaign flexible enough to change quickly. Again, not everyone has that capability.


But it might be a weapon for your arsenal that's worth looking into. A conversation with your SEM provider will let you know what your options, and your capabilities, really are.


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