David vs. Goliath Brands on the Search Results Page

First published December 4, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I talked about branding on the search page, effectively intercepting the user during consideration. Certainly if you’re a household brand name, you have to be at or near the top of searches for your product category if you want to defend your position in the prospect’s consideration scent. But what if you’re a new entry into the market or a relatively unknown brand. Can you still effectively play in the category? Yes, but you have to be smarter than your behemoth competitors. Fortunately, in most cases, that’s not too hard to do when it comes to search.

The Strategy: Play Broad, but Think Niche

First, it’s important to know the common behaviors of the searcher. We start at the top left and scan the results in the “Golden Triangle” first. Only after this will we look at the ads on the right. We look for relevance, based not just on the query we used, but the implicit labels we carry in our mind. We will start with the simplest query that we feel will yield acceptable results with the least amount of investment. And, we will click through on two or three results to compare the information scent on the landing pages. So, given this behavioral pattern, what can you do to catch the attention of prospects with broad generic queries?

First of all, you have to target your messaging with exquisite precision in the title of your ad. This is no mean feat, because the limit is 25 characters, including spaces. Each one of these characters is precious, because this is the part of your ad that will get read. At best, you’ll get spot scanning of your description (bonus hint, move your most important “hot button” words in your description so they’re in the line right under the title and near the front. And don’t be afraid to put prices in. They’re a disruption in the text-based pattern and so stand out to the eye).

Rule of thumb, start with the query (hit bolding of the query is an important relevancy cue) and then laser focus on the primary hot button for your niche target. Don’t be afraid to identify the target. If you’re on a broad category, but your target is B2B buyers, say so. If the differentiator is benefit, move it into the title. One example, laptops that are durable enough to stand the rigors of road warrior treatment: The query you’re bidding for could be “laptops,” but your title should be: “Rugged Laptops.” Because your brand is unknown to the prospect, don’t worry about putting it in the title.

Pick Your Spot

Secondly, in a broad category, you want to avoid unqualified clicks. So you’re going to have to move down the right rail, preferably targeting the #4 or #5 spot. Eye-tracking studies show that this spot gets decent visibility (because of how we move over to the right rail when we reach the bottom of the golden triangle) relative to the rest of the ads, yet doesn’t pull a lot of unqualified clicking. This position, together with your targeted message, stands a decent chance of catching the prospect’s eye without capturing ROI-deflating gratuitous clicking. The challenge will be fighting the tendency of Google’s quality score to push you off the first page of results.

Plan Your Tactics in Context

All too often in search, we plan our messaging without paying attention to the user context that leads to engagement. Your ad will be appearing together with a number of other ads and organic results on a search page. Users will be scanning through those ads and making their choice based on not just what your ad says, but what all the others do as well. Additionally, there will be at least a few clicks through to competitive landing pages. You’re going to have to plan your messaging relative to what your competition is doing. Do a query yourself and see what the landscape looks like, through the eyes of your prospect. What other choices are available? How effective is the landing page experience, again, with your prospect’s potential intent firmly in mind? If you adopt this mindset, you’ll be amazed at how the biggest brands in the business (any business, yours included) routinely fumble the ball when it comes to delivering what the prospect is looking for on the search page. Unfortunately, non-targeted messaging and irrelevant landing page experiences seem to be the rule rather than the exception. There’s plenty of room for smart search marketers on the average results page.

Measure, Test, Optimize and Repeat

If you’re playing in the high traffic but generic keyword space, devote a lot of time to testing and tweaking. Find optimum positions and wording. Carefully watch your ROAS metrics. Capture the micro-conversions. Be smarter than the competition and you’ll find that search page where you can pull off a victory, even when you’re faced with David vs. Goliath odds.

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