Are you being oversearched?

Ever wondered how many keywords you should buy? Or, more crucially, how to effectively manage the ones you do buy? Tricia Holly Davis finds out


A few months ago a major tour operator approached Google to enquire about purchasing three million search terms.


The search engine giant was reportedly taken aback by this request, and responded by asking the company why it wanted to buy so many terms, and, more importantly, if it had the capacity to manage such a high volume of keywords.


The tour operator was TUI and, in the end, it wound up with 1.5 million phrases, but the questions Google posed are important ones.


In a business landscape where more and more companies, from the mega operators and smaller niche holiday specialists, to hotels and regional airlines, are bidding for top placement on the web, the two questions on everyone’s mind is how many search terms do you need and is there a point at which you can be over searched?


David White, of search marketing firm Efficient Frontier, says: “There isn’t one answer to these questions; it depends on the number of destinations and products you’re advertising. What’s more is that focusing on the number of keywords sidesteps the important question of how do you effectively manage those keywords?”


Titus Johnson, Air Berlin country manager UK and Ireland, observes that the number of search terms a company buys purely depends on the nature of the campaign. “Five hundred would be a big campaign for a small airline, and if an airline had a lot of destinations the number would be higher.”


For TUI’s part, the company’s new media director Graham Donoghue says: “1.5 million phrases is about right”.


However, he agrees there is no hard and fast rule. Even larger outfits such as TUI, which has the resources to buy and manage millions of search terms, admit there are a number of factors that must be taken into consideration.


Among these are whether pay-per-click advertising campaigns should out-favour more traditional marketing methods; whether it is worthwhile to bid on the most popular, and therefore most expensive, keywords, particularly if you’re a smaller company with limited resources to invest and manage search terms; and how effective is the long tail of search marketing?


There is also the sticky matter of how to compete on search terms without conflicting with certain preferred supplier partnerships or at the expense (quite literally) of a sister company. Travelport notes that firms with multiple subsidiaries must ensure that the search marketing efforts of one business do not cancel out the efforts of the other. Paris-based Accor has reportedly put a clause into its tour operator contracts barring its partners from bidding on the search phrase ‘Hotel in Paris’, as this could actually hurt the hotelier’s sales.


While the 80/20 rule of supply economics still applies to search marketing – the majority of sales will come from a minority of search terms – there is a very long tail that can generously supplement a supplier’s sales volumes. Certain, carefully chosen keywords and phrases, which are not as popular and are less expensive, can have a higher margin of return.


For example, the majority of TUI’s sales come from a minority (about 1,000) of its search terms, with ‘holiday’ and ‘cheap flights’ being the most successful, but also the most costly.


However, there are tens of thousands of tail terms and phrases on which TUI bids, and pays only a few pence. “If we get just one sale from a search term that costs 5p, then it is worthwhile to bid on them,” says Donoghue.


Whether it’s a mega-firm like TUI or a smaller travel seller, all companies must focus on getting the right number of leads at the right price. But this requires careful management and precise tracking of return on investment.


White observes that the search engines offer a broad matching feature that allows advertisers to target millions of unique searches even if they buy only thousands of keywords. For example, Google says it offers two forms of tracking: conversion tracking, where code is placed at a point decided by the client to register an activity and measured by keyword; or advertisers can deploy Google analytics, which is an extensive tracking facility, tracking all activity across the site.


But Donoghue notes that it is up to the companies themselves to ensure they are getting their money’s worth, be it pound for pound or pence for pence.


This is far less of a challenge for firms such as TUI, which can afford to outsource its ROI tracking. However, for smaller firms this can be a monster undertaking. Deciding how many search terms to buy is further complicated by next-generation algorithms, which base search results on a quality index, rather than the amount the supplier has paid for a top listing.


Google has already introduced this concept to the mild concern of some of its advertisers and Yahoo! will roll out a similar model in the UK this year under its long-awaited Panama project. The logic behind the quality index rating is that search engines will deliver the most relevant results, which will thus garner higher click-through rates. After all, there is fierce competition among the search engines and the ones that can deliver a smarter, more personalised search experience will win consumers’ trust – and advertisers’ pounds.


Richard Firminger, regional sales director, northern Europe, Yahoo! UK and Ireland, explains that under the new quality rating a search engine will downgrade a company if its website is not up to par. “Under the old PPC model, price dictated position, but that is no longer the case,” says Firminger.


This is great news for companies that have invested in top-notch websites, but which have limited budgets for PPC campaigns, since the new quality index favours quality over price.


Firminger adds: “Another anticipated result of Yahoo!’s new ranking model is a shift in composition of total click volume from algorithmic to sponsored.” In other words, the new sponsored search, as it starts to perform better, takes more clicks from the page versus natural search, though it will vary by company and will be dependent on their paid search strategy and the success in natural search. Paid search in the new system will perform better relative to the legacy system assuming the advertisers deploy a number of the features and focus on quality, optimisation and effective measurement and tracking.


That said, the main lesson in today’s online marketing world seems to be that more is simply more. Whether it’s buying more search terms, be they popular terms or obscure phrases, or adding more bells and whistles to your website so that your brand can rank higher on a quality scale, more is just better. In addition, the more investment you make in tracking and managing your search terms and ROI, the better.



Tips on managing search terms



  • You don’t need more words to capture more searches. Using millions of keywords can spread your data too thinly.

  • It is more precise to target each search individually, but if you do it that way then each keyword may only get a few clicks per month.

  • This isn’t enough data to make a decision, and you’ll have to aggregate the data across groups of related keywords to get a clear picture.

  • In short, you’d be reinventing the broad match that the search engines already offer.

  • Save time and target keywords individually only when there’s enough search volume to make sense.

  • Consider how to manage your keywords. Dumping thousands of keywords into your account isn’t enough: each one must be tested systematically. 

Source: Efficient Frontier

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