Thursday, April 10, 2008

Coveting your neighbour's brand terms...

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ox.

Any Israelite who happenened to have a neighbour with an attractive ox was probably beginning to think he’d got away with it, until Moses said “and tenthly”. Still, everybody was probably relieved to have that whole ox-coveting thing cleared up as it probably caused more than a little strife, what with the lack of non-bovine consumer durables which might have provided alternatives to covet at the time.

Whatever else we might have got up to, coveting was definitely off.

And so it was until this month with Google too.

There we were all eying up our competitors’ brand names, but not allowed to do anything about it by the search engine. For some years now, Google enabled companies to protect their trademarks by preventing bidding by competitors – so Tesco couldn’t bid for Sainsbury’s.

Last week though, the search giant announced a change of plan. From May, the UK will follow the US, in allowing a free-for-all. Now, advertisers can get on with some serious coveting.

All this attention from your competitors could significantly impact on your search programme’s effectiveness, so you need to start work now to make sure you don’t lose out. Fortunately, there are three key things you can do to come out on top under the new commandment – and even better, I’m going to tell you what they are.

Content. Boosting the quality score of your landing page can directly impact on the amount you might have to bid for your brand term, because the Google algorithm rewards relevance. An effective SEO programme will boost your ‘natural immunity’ from competitors, meaning that you can retain top position in the paid-for rankings even with a lower bid for your brand term than your opponent.

Integration. Most affiliates generate traffic to their sites by using paid search, and unchecked they can drive up your bids on Google. Many advertisers fail properly to manage affiliates’ search activity, and some ban affiliates from bidding on their brand terms in the mistaken belief that this will control costs. In fact, properly controlled, affiliates can help a brand to block out the competition – outperforming competitors and pushing them down the rankings. Integrated search and affiliate management is the only way to achieve this – managing these in silos is only going to benefit your competition.

Data. Most advertisers attribute 100% of the sale to the last step in the process - more often than not, search. But most consumers make more than one search, mixing generic searches (“dresses”) with brand searches (“Next”) and branded product (“Next dresses”), and data-smart advertisers have responded by investing in clickstream analysis – understanding the value of keywords not just in creating a sale, but in pushing the consumer down the acquisition path towards a later sale.

Without this data-based model, both volume and cost-effectiveness are limited – and since bidding on competitors’ brand terms may be costly at face value, a more sophisticated model is necessary to justify the value of activity beyond simply annoying rivals (although this is fun too).

Google might be poor at relationships, but they’re very good at sums. They’ve got a huge test market for this approach in the US and Canada, where they’ve been allowing competitive bidding for four years – so I think we can be certain it’s going to generate increased revenues for Google, which means of course it’s going to cost marketers more.

The problem for most search advertisers is they don’t have a strategy.

A detailed focus on bid management, keyword groups and optimisation is important, but at a time of fundamental shift it’s those who have a big picture who will thrive. As Google moves the goalposts once again, the three core strategic pillars of content, integration and data will be essential components of that picture – and the critical success factors that will distinguish those who prosper, from those who merely covet.

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