Digging Still Deeper into the Search Branding Question

First published June 12, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I love debate. I love defending my ideas, and in the process, shaping, refining and sometimes discarding them as they prove to be too unwieldy or simply incorrect. My last two columns have generated a fascinating debate around the concept of branding in search. Fellow Search Insider Aaron Goldman, comScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni, his senior vice president of search and media, James Lamberti, Erik du Plessis, Millward Brown executive and author of  “The Advertised Mind” (fascinating book, by the way), as well as a host of others, have taken up the debating gauntlet on this particular topic.

As luck would have it, we just wrapped up a study with Google in Europe — and data there seems to show that I’m dead wrong about the inability of unclicked search ads to build brand, reinforcing the view of Gian and Aaron (Aaron has his own research, and ours seems to support his findings). We saw brand lift (based on traditional metrics) of anywhere from 5 to 15% on even unclicked ads. And this was with thousands of respondents across four different product categories in three different markets, so I don’t think it’s an anomaly.

The easy thing would have been to toss in the towel and admit I was wrong. But I’m not so sure about that. I’m convinced the neurobiological underpinnings I outlined in my column two weeks ago are sound and that the reasons for the apparent contradictions lie in some aspects of the search interaction and brand recall that I overlooked and the metrics we use to measure them.

But, in looking at this, I realized that this topic lies at the heart of a fundamental and not-yet-explored aspect of search: how does it influence our brand relationships? In one regard, I’m wholly in agreement with Aaron, Gian and James. There’s a tremendous amount of branding value being left on the table with search. Where we differ is in the nature of that value. But that’s not an easy thing to explore. It’s certainly beyond the scope of a single column. So yesterday I sent an email to my MediaPost editor asking if I could use this column over the next several weeks to lay out my hypothesis for how we interact with search. Thankfully, she agreed. So, beginning this week, I’d like to begin unraveling that knot.

In my weekly columns over the next few months I’d like to explore several questions:

Why do we search: This goes to Aaron’s comment that we don’t always search for information about a purchase. And this is absolutely true. We search for many different reasons. I’ll look at what motivates us to search and our mental frame of mind when do so. Is searching a conditioned behavior?

Why we search the way we do: Through all Enquiro’s research, we have found very consistent search patterns. Why do we search the way we do? How do we forage for information? And why is a search engagement “thin,” while a Web site engagement is “thick”?

Why does searching trigger information retrieval, but doesn’t necessarily create new memories: I’ll look at how memory works, specific to the act of searching, and how this differs from other types of advertising.

Why we use search differently at different stages in our purchasing behavior: The way we use search early in the process can be significantly different than the way we use it later. And it’s not the classic search “funnel” you may think.

Why the traditional brand metrics used are not accurate measures of likelihood to purchase, especially when applied to a search interaction.

Why search can be the most important brand tool in a marketer’s arsenal, if it’s used in the right place. It’s a matter of understanding what search can do and what it can’t. And, even more importantly, understanding how to measure that value.

And finally, will the changing nature of search change the way it acts as a branding strategy?

In this process I hope to provide supporting research where I can (there’s little empirical research in this area). I’ll also be reaching out to others, including my debating partners, to capture their views as well. And, as always, I invite you all to join the conversation.

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