Are We Asking Search to Do Too Much?

Search advertising is overrated. I realize this is a heretical statement in an environment where search is king. Just about every advertiser talks about the ways in which search is producing new and better leads and how it’s played a crucial role in their brand strategy.

Yet search creates an illusion that it is more effective than it is in reality. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be part of the advertising process; search is very important. But when it becomes the main area of focus, advertisers rely on it too heavily and discount other advertising tactics—many times to their chagrin in the long run.

Consider why people lionize search. An individual goes to Google or another search engine and types in a brand name. The searcher ends up at the brand’s website, where he or she becomes a qualified prospect or a new, paying customer.

In either case, the search professionals can demonstrate that it was search that hooked and landed the fish. In reality, however, they may have just pulled up the line that was baited by others.

In marketing, last click attribution is common. In other words, the sale goes to the last touchpoint before the customer converted. But what’s often unseen by the advertiser is the winding path that led to that last click. A click and a purchase result from cumulative exposure to an advertised product or service. Prospective customers are exposed to a print or broadcast ad, often more than once; they see banner ads online for the product or service; they do research about competing products or services, triggering additional exposures to a site. The last click may be the result of paid search, but advertisers should recognize how people reached that buying point.

In the direct response television advertising business, we are well aware of the correlation between DRTV spending levels and branded search traffic. Time and again, we have documented higher levels resulting in more traffic (and lowered levels resulting in less traffic). Just as tellingly, our research shows that a significant percentage of viewers buy later rather than sooner. They don’t call an 800 number or click on a website immediately after watching a spot but wait until they have more time to shop and buy. They may wait an hour, a day, or a week until they search for the advertised product (using Google to search for the product’s brand name), arrive at the website in question, and make a purchase—but the impulse to do so was sown during the viewer’s exposure to the television commercial. From a direct response perspective, Google is the new 800 number.

From any advertising perspective, however, it would be wise to be wary of depending too heavily on search alone, despite its enticing promise of generating high website traffic and increased business at a low cost. It used to be that advertisers bragged at cocktail parties about their brand-building advertising or their results-producing sales promotions.  Now they boast about their search optimization strategies.

Again, we’re not suggesting that search is bad—we integrate search into everything we do—but that it’s being asked to do too much. Instead of focusing most of their energy and budget on search, advertisers would be better served by combining traditional ad media and search analytics.

There are a number of variables that should be measured: the advertising media used, the ad spending, the search strategy, and the website ordering process, to name just a few. How many times does a given viewer need to see a commercial before he or she does a search and ends up on the advertiser’s website? What is the percentage increase of clicks that occur because this viewer also saw a banner ad for the product? What creative content is most likely to motivate the viewer to buy and not just visit the site?

These are crucial questions in the age of search. If we are not able to answer them correctly, it may be we haven’t yet reached the golden age of advertising the industry claims.

Bill McCabe is president and CEO of A. Eicoff & Company.

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