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Effectiveness of search engine advertising receives too much credit

I am a digital marketer. I have been certified by Google for both their AdWords and their Analytics products. Not only do I do digital marketing, I love it! I don’t just drink the Kool-Aid, I make it at home and bring extra just in case.

That’s why it pains me to stare directly into the camera, exposing the fourth wall to the entire audience. Let me apologize in advance to my colleagues in the digital marketing industry; this article might make you think about adjusting your sales pitch.

The truth is, search engine advertising receives way too much credit. It’s just not as effective as your digital advertising team (or intern) says it is. As business owners and marketing professionals, we want to believe it’s working as well as it appears to be. “Finally,” we think, “an advertising tactic that’s measurable and provides positive ROI!”

Consumers have been trained to use Google as their starting line on the web. Even when they know a company’s domain name they prefer to perform a search for the company name (or even search the URL itself) using one of the major search engines. When they get to the site and fill out the online form, call the company’s phone number, or make a purchase, that last click from the search engine often gets the credit.

That isn’t to say search engine marketing isn’t effective. Advertising to the exact right consumer, at the exact right time, and in the exact right place is certainly a winning formula. Recent changes to the layout of the search engine results page have made paid ads even more effective. In their recent earnings report, Google showed a 52 percent increase in paid clicks in Q2 2017 year over year.

The problem with giving Google or Bing 100 percent of the credit for a lead or sale—what’s commonly referred to as “last-click attribution”—is that it doesn’t consider the other influencing factors that led to that specific search. A recent survey conducted by Millward Brown Digital found that 74 percent of U.S. consumers will frequently access a second screen device while watching live primetime TV.

The same survey found that 37 percent of respondents search the internet during commercials while 28 percent will shop online while commercials are on. A savvy marketer might run a television commercial that builds awareness and triggers a search, a PPC ad that reinforces the message and provides an incentive to click, and finally a cohesive and compelling landing page that converts the prospect to a customer or lead.

This is just one simplified example of why it’s crucial to have an integrated marketing strategy that’s able to reach and engage the target audience at each phase of the purchase funnel. Marketers who find success with their search engine marketing efforts are often tempted to shift funds into “what’s working”—only to find that these dollars produce a diminishing rate of return.

Overestimating search engine marketing’s results is most prominent when the people responsible for various marketing initiatives work in silos. It’s easy for digital specialists to show why dollars spent in traditional media and other marketing channels should be shifted in the absence of hard data. While tempting, that strategy completely ignores the importance of the multiple touch points that are often needed for successful marketing initiatives.

While multi-source attribution (assigning credit to each touch point) is still in its infancy, there is a strong push to develop smarter ways to assign value to each marketing tactic that contributes to a desired action. Even a basic Google Analytics setup provides assisted conversion, conversion path and time lag conversion reports. These can clarify how various marketing efforts are currently contributing to your marketing success.

Another opportunity is to track paid search performance over time and measure results while other marketing initiatives are employed. I recently reviewed results with a client who ran a local spot during the Super Bowl. We found that the paid search campaign achieved a 23 percent increase in click-through rate in February compared to January. This is likely a direct result of people seeing the TV spot and searching for related terms. Even when advertising isn’t the motivator to search, people using search engines are more likely to click on a result with a brand and message that is familiar.

The most successful marketing plans use a holistic and integrated approach. When paid search is used in conjunction with other marketing tactics, the paid search results will increase. If you analyze the results in a vacuum, they will be inflated. This is something I find is rarely discussed in the digital circles.

It’s important for us digital marketers to understand how digital fits into the larger picture. Especially if it’s a picture of Kool-Aid.

Karl Heberger is chief strategy officer at Mason Digital, a full-service digital marketing firm. He can be reached at karl@masondigital.com.

One comment

  1. Karl, I think you make some excellent points here. The big takeaway for me was when you wrote, ” Even when advertising isn’t the motivator to search, people using search engines are more likely to click on a result with a brand and message that is familiar.” there is a lot that goes into building a lead generating sales funnel. Paid search is just one of the tools. Nicely written.

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