Thursday, September 13, 2007

Brand terms and the navigator

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Every day, I walk through a street market to get to my office.  From fruit and veg to improbably large pants, the traders call out their wares, trying to attract attention and bring customers in - but whilst they all look the same, very different motivations drive those punters. 

Some know exactly what they want, and whilst they hear the stall-holder calling out, they’re going to buy anyway.  Others are simply browsing, and only are only attracted to buy when they hear that call.  If the traders had to pay every time they called out, they’d be a lot more careful who they called to.

The last step in the purchase process, search is on the face of it, hyper-accountable.  Tracking lets us to establish precisely which keyword resulted in a sale – allowing the online marketer to pick out which of perhaps thousands of keywords are generating business – and that information can be fed back into bid strategies, continuously adjusting the amount it’s worth paying a search engine for a click.

Attracted by the apparently low cost per acquisition in search, investment has spiralled, often at the expense of other media.

But whilst there is no doubt that search is an incredibly valuable tool, most marketers are working under some fundamental misconceptions about how search works.  And as a consequence, they’re often substantially over-valuing what they get.


Because almost half the people who search directly for your brand name aren’t really searching at all.

Nielsen research tells us that 43% of people don’t type the web address of the site they’re looking into the address bar of their web browser.  Instead, they type it into a search engine.

So when someone types “easyJet” into a search engine, it isn’t because they don’t know the address is  It’s because they don’t know how to use their browser properly, or because they can’t be bothered. 

Either way, they’re not searching.  They’re using the search engine not to find the website, but as a means of navigating to it.

The impact of this is profound.

Navigators were going to your site anyway.  The search engine added little or no value here – it didn’t present your brand to them when they weren’t expecting it or were considering another – it merely directed them on.

This has some value, but this value isn’t equal to that generated when a consumer is actually searching.  Here, a search engine has moved them on substantially in the purchase process, and often at a critical point.

On Google, easyJet have successfully prevented others from bidding on their brand term and are almost certainly therefore paying the minimum bid of 1p a click.  The term itself is probably their best converting term in terms of sales.

But if 43% of the people typing that term into Google are Navigators rather than Searchers, and we say for argument’s sake that a navigation is worth one third what a search is (I’d argue it’s really much less), then the true cost per acquisition is going to be much higher than the conventional wisdom would measure.

Under these circumstances, the ‘true’ cost per acquisition is actually 40% higher.

That knowledge could make the difference between a term being cost-effective and a dud, and particularly if it’s a brand name that can’t be trademark protected.

So how can we tell a Navigator from a Searcher?  If we could tell them apart, we could choose not to put a paid-for listing in front of a Navigator, letting them rely on our natural search results, and saving a bundle.

But regrettably, you can’t.  They type your brand name and either buy something or not, and you’ll never be able to spot one coming unless you’re a mind-reader.

But you can gauge the overall impact of Navigators, and factor cost per acquisitions to allow for this.  If you don’t, you’re paying the search engine for value it hasn’t created.

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