Shaping Creative in Search Engine Ads

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Suddenly, search engine results advertising is hot. Marketers can buy text-link search results on all of the top 15 search sites as ranked by Media Metrix, New York, and NetRatings, Milpitas, CA. That is quite a change from just two years ago when none of the major search engines included paid listings within the search results.


The explosion in popularity of paid search results advertising can be attributed to several factors, including the search engines' need for alternative revenue sources, marketers' increasing requests for search results traffic and the high value of the traffic generated through search results.


Not all paid search results advertising is the same, however.


Search results advertisements are available in essentially four variants.


Cost-per-thousand pay-for-placement ads, available from Yahoo, Google and AskJeeves/DirectHit. CPM pay-for-placement ads are sold either on a straight CPM basis or as a bid for the inventory. Marketers pay per impression regardless of clicks. Check with each vendor for details and pricing.


Fixed-price cost-per-click search results, available from LookSmart.The fixed price is the same for all keywords in a campaign and is set by the vendor based on the advertiser and the specifics of the deal. The LookSmart subsite listings are heavily syndicated to other sites and are designed primarily for larger advertisers that can deliver huge keyword databases into the system and have deep pockets to pay for the resulting traffic.


CPC bid results. Bidding for search results puts the marketer in control. These are great for all marketers, but are particularly appropriate for smaller budgets or for marketers just getting started in search results advertising. Most marketers' first forays into search results advertising are with bid-based, pay-per-click search results from GoTo, Sprinks, FindWhat, Ah-Ha, Bay9, 7Search, Kanoodle or one of the other vendors.


Paid inclusion -- the newest twist on search engine results advertising. Inktomi's paid inclusion program requires that marketers pay to have their URLs spidered regularly and included in the database. There is no stated increase in relevance for a URL that is part of the paid inclusion program. However, given that marketers have a fixed price per URL, or a variable price based on a small setup fee and click throughs, it is difficult to imagine that any organization with negative cash flow could resist the temptation of a slight boost in relevancy. Other search engines are expected to debut paid inclusion programs shortly. The most difficult thing to measure as a marketer will be the return on investment from such a program.


Creative strategy options for search results advertising differ depending on how the marketer is paying for the ads and how they are displayed. For search results ads on a CPM basis, creative is obviously quite important in maximizing ROI. The title and the description should maximize click throughs and retain the level of targeting. That way, the campaign will result in high conversions on the site. Test titles and descriptions regularly to determine which combinations work best.


For advertising on a CPC basis, however, the marketer pays only for click throughs, regardless of how many times the listing is seen. Marketers are often initially inclined to make their title and description as enticing as possible, as they would with CPM-priced search ads. However, the creative should do some pre-qualification. For example, the title and description can encourage those outside the target audience to pass by the link.


The Hartford Financial Services Group, an insurance and financial services firm whose Web site is thehartford.com, does this with its AARP listings displayed on GoTo and GoTo's search partners. A search for car insurance brings up a title that begins: "Over 50? The AARP Auto Insurance Program from The Hartford ... ." Searchers younger than 50 seeing the displayed results will be less likely to click on that creative. The Hartford has pre-qualified the click through with the use of good creative matched to the type of search advertising being used.


The Hartford also makes great use of what I call the brand effect. Inclusion of a brand name in a title and description will increase the desirable click throughs. In most types of text link advertising, creative that includes a recognizable brand will have about double the click-through rate. Equally important is that the user is likely to have an existing positive relationship with the brand, so the marketer gets a nice, qualified click through.


In addition to the use of brand and a general creative message in search listings, it is possible to manage the user experience and the type of click through by introducing the keywords themselves into the title and descriptions. This eases the user experience and tends to increase click throughs because the user sees the same word or phrase for which she searched.


Also remember that almost all of the search results ad vendors require a strong editorial match between the ad content and the destination URL. This may require selecting a landing or destination page that matches the ad copy.


This brings us to the user experience after the click, which is the landing page. Do not ignore the landing page creative. The creative on the landing page is more than text. It is a full user experience. Do not waste the opportunity to meet the user's needs. It is important to give the user every opportunity to find what she came for. Give her a clean, navigable interface and a way of getting more information through a toll-free number or feedback/e-mail. Losing the user now means the damage has been done with a harmful experience that affects the brand.


The rules of direct marketing creative stay the same in the search results advertising arena. Everything leads back to strategy and simplicity. And do not forget to test, test, test.


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