SEM lessons from the death of Anna Nicole Smith

Celebrity model and reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith’s death on Feb. 8 caused a tsunami of traffic to race through the Internet. This traffic surge was so enormous that it immediately shut down access to her official Web site, as well as several newspaper sites first to publish news of the event. Not surprisingly, the term “Anna Nicole Smith” was the top-gainer in Google’s Zeitgeist report for the week of Feb. 10, narrowly beating out “Superbowl Commercials.”

Several PPC marketers were caught flat-footed by the event, including a vendor of a weight-loss elixir, plus several Internet-based DVD retailers who had previously purchased keywords relating to Ms. Smith. As thousands of searchers used Google to find news about Ms. Smith’s passing, these ads, which continued to display generic messages about her, were likely the target of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of clicks (the fact that the top organic results were overwhelmed doubtless increased the paid clicks, as searchers clicked on these results, hit the back button, and clicked on the paid results). I can only imagine the expression on the face of the weight-loss elixir merchant’s Search Manager the next day, when he saw how much he owed Google for these non-converting clicks.

Several quick-thinking PPC advertisers, however, were able to recognize the opportunity to leverage this traffic, including People Magazine, which within an hour of the news of Anna Nicole’s death ran an ad reflecting this fact. The ad was programmed to link to a customized landing page with the latest news of the incident.

Only the folks at People know if the investment they made in these keywords paid off. People’s online business model is, after all, selling subscriptions to its print vehicle, and it’s questionable whether the traffic it acquired resulted in enough conversions to warrant the expense. But there is no question that People’s PPC team was on the ball, and coordinated its actions closely with its Web content team.

There are several important lessons in this incident for search marketers. As the unfortunate weight-loss elixir merchant surely learned, it shows how instantly reactive one must be to breaking news that can inadvertently wreck one’s search marketing budget.

One powerful aid that marketers can employ to ensure such responsiveness is to employ campaign automation. For example, an automated bid management tool can be programmed to respond to an unexpected surge in clicks that occur without a commensurate increase in conversions by demoting the position of the ad to less expensive positions, and then, if conversions continue to lag significantly, automatically shut off the ad. Such a defense also is effective in cases where the ad’s target URL is inadvertently directed to an inactive Web page, or in cases where the target Web site is unavailable, due to server overload or hardware failure.

Clearly, pro-active marketers can achieve considerable potential gains by tying search terms associated with breaking news items to their core offering. One might even make the case that a favorable branding impact can be achieved: in People’s case, even though this magazine wasn’t really “first with the story,” it was certainly first with a relevant ad and a relevant Web page, which is almost as good. Finally, it demonstrates an obvious, but often overlooked strategic advantage that paid search marketing offers over organic optimization methods when marketers attempt to leverage the fast-rising, rise in Internet traffic caused by an unexpected news event and must move very quickly to gain a share of significant but ephemeral traffic.

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