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Advertise (or Don’t) on the Most Popular Terms

A trip down Google’s Zeitgeist — the roundup page that tells you, among other things, what the 10 most popular Google search terms are for the past week — puts “War of the Worlds” as the fifth most popular search for the week of July 4.

At the time of this writing, the bidders advertising on the term are: OfficialWaroftheWorlds.com (“Official Licensed Radio Broadcast” of the original recording); NYTimes.com (advertising its movie reviews); and MovieAdvanced.org and Movie-Downloads.MoviesIndeed.com (two movie download sites).

Nobody else is bidding on what just two weeks ago was the fifth most popular term in all of Google — not even ticketing sites (“Get War of the Worlds tickets here.”) This leads us to the simple question: Where is everybody? Why doesn’t anybody bother to tap into highly popular terms to get a tremendous site traffic volume?

Rather than answering the question directly, we’ve decided to discuss the broader issue: the pros and cons of advertising on superpopular keywords.

The risks. Of course, there’s a good reason many businesses aren’t bidding on “War of the Worlds”: They aren’t selling anything related to movies. Hyundai, for example, isn’t bidding because it isn’t selling movies, or movie tickets, or alien spacecraft. It’s selling cars.

On the advertiser side, this means that most businesses don’t advertise on keywords related to “War of the Worlds” because “War of the Worlds” has nothing to do with what they sell. So even if the keyword were to get them lots of traffic, it would be primarily irrelevant traffic — but would still cost them the price of click-throughs.

This is true for two reasons. First, studies show that a high number of searchers still don’t know how to distinguish “organic” (unsponsored) search engine listings from sponsored ones. So even if your ad copy were to make clear that your site is not about the keyword at hand, many searchers will still think it is — because the very fact that your ad appeared on the search engine results page must mean (to them) that your ad is highly relevant to their search. What follows is an irrelevant click-through.

Second, other studies show that many people who do understand the organic/paid split (and many who don’t) just don’t read ad copy. So if they see an ad on a term, they’ll click through blindly no matter what kind of site the ad says it will bring them to. Again, what follows is an irrelevant click-through.

Either way, you can end up with the same risk: bad click-throughs.

There are problems with the plan on the search engine side, too. Every search engine’s goal is to create the most relevant SERP for every keyword, and ads for cars or watches won’t help searchers find out more about “War of the Worlds.” While there might not be a penalty for an irrelevant ad, the search engines might simply refuse to run it, or they might take it down (and be rightfully annoyed at you for putting your ad on that term — and you don’t want to get the search engines annoyed).

At the same time, because Google shows your ad only if it gets clicked enough, you run the risk, on the other end, of invisibility: If searchers do read your ad, but think it’s irrelevant, they won’t click, and your ad will disappear from the SERPs. (We’re just talking about Google here — different search engines deal with poor click-throughs differently.)

Why it’s good. So if advertising on unrelated popular terms is so risky — prohibitively so for some — why are we spending a whole article on it? Because the most popular terms have what no other terms have: the most popularity. And if you can tap into that popularity, you could be looking at visibility that’s the search marketing equivalent of the Super Bowl.

Plus, because so many advertisers don’t know how to take advantage of popular keywords (yet), those terms give you an enormous bang for your buck. Take “American Idol,” which had 3,734,068 searches in May in the Yahoo/Overture network — and currently goes for a maximum bid price in Yahoo/Overture of 16 cents. Compare that with “life insurance,” which has a maximum bid of $8.85 and got only 348,147 searches in May.

Obviously it’s an unfair comparison: Today’s bid prices don’t reflect May’s activity, and one life insurance transaction can create far more search ROI than any “American Idol” CD ever will. But the logic holds: There’s a whole lot of potential in popular keywords, and people are ignoring them, and that keeps the max bid price of these keywords (abnormally) low.

How to make it work. If you can create content that’s genuinely relevant to the popular search of the day, then you can legitimately invite traffic off of that term (thereby avoiding a run-in with the search engines), and you also can increase the stickiness of your site for a very high volume of traffic — giving you the time you need to pitch your products or services.

Case in point is The New York Times Online, which is generally considered a news source, not a movie magazine — but which happens to have content highly relevant to the popular term “War of the Worlds”: It has a movie review. And so bidding on the fifth most popular term in Google makes sense for them. And, while the Times online has gained off of that very popular keyword, it can pitch its site conversions to visitors (subscription signup; e-mail-a-friend; clicks on ads on the Times site).

Of course, the Times would have written its movie review without any connection to search marketing. But there’s no reason for a different site not to have done something similar just for SEM.

And if you can work fast enough to sell products related to highly popular terms (like “War of the Worlds” posters), you stand a chance of cleaning up.

Of course, even if you can make content that’s relevant enough to create stickiness, you’ll still need to use that content to drive conversions. That means integrating your popularity-based content and your conversion points so seamlessly that visitors jump from reading your movie review to, say, buying your iPods.

Because if you can’t create good conversions off of good keywords, the keywords aren’t good at all.

It’s not for everyone, it’s great for some people. But getting traffic from a popular term because it’s popular doesn’t work for everyone. If a term really isn’t related to what you do, you probably shouldn’t bother. Life insurance sites, for instance, probably shouldn’t advertise on “War of the Worlds”; neither should biotech firms. Done right, though, this kind of advertising could be a boon for certain advertisers.

The question to ask yourself is how much overlap exists between the things you sell and the more popular keywords — and how worthwhile it might be to make your site relevant for keywords beyond your immediate scope. For some sites, changes will be easy; for others, they’ll be costly, inefficient and worthless.

And this isn’t just a search marketing question; it’s a general marketing question. It all depends on whether you want to focus exclusively on what you already do best, or if you’re looking to expand slightly — or vastly — to draw more attention to your business.

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