Big brands are now realizing the value of search engine marketing—but be careful where you pull budget back to support it.SEM and branding are just better together. Here’s why.
Many moons ago, I ran paid search for Gateway Computers.
We did a good job.
In fact, we did such a good job that the ROI from paid search far surpassed any other channel.
One day, I received a call from the Chief Marketing Officer over all of Gateway.
Now realize, this was back in the early 2000s.
Search as a channel was looked at as an afterthought.
Search was something you tried because everyone else was doing it.
It was not a strategy, but a tactic that most marketers checked off on a long to-do list.
Once the search box was checked, most big brands didn’t take a second look at search unless something went wrong.
But our efforts had caught the attention of Gateway’s senior management.
The call from the CMO was brief.
He congratulated me on the numbers, amazed that this relatively new channel was more efficient at driving sales than his newspaper, print, radio, and television.
In fact, when he did the math, he estimated that search could drive almost quadruple the sales for half the cost of his other channels.
He was all in.
He then told me some news that, at the time, would change everything for me.
He was moving the vast majority of the marketing budget into our search marketing efforts.
In about 15 minutes, my budget increased more than 10x.
As I hung up the phone, I did a happy dance.
Finally, a big brand was taking search seriously.
I was going to show the world that our channel was the best channel.
The case study was going to be epic.
Things went very well for about two months.
With the increased budget, our ROI percentage actually increased.
We all patted ourselves on the back and made plans for all the money we were going to make after other brands saw what we had done.
But then something strange began to happen.
Overall search volume for some of our most popular products started to decline.
We chalked it up to seasonality, or perhaps the economy was starting to weaken.
But about a month later, the numbers continued to decline.
Our once-triumphant ROI numbers were starting to look average.
We tweaked landing pages and creative, trying to recapture the magic.
But it didn’t matter what we did, the search volume kept falling.
We spent our days trying to figure out what was going on, all the while trying to keep panic at bay.
By month six, sales were down overall at the company.
In fact, it was the worst quarter for the company in three years.
If No One Searches, No One Buys
In the early 2000s, Gateway was a well-established brand.
The company’s pioneering spirit coupled with boxes decorated with cow prints made the company one of the most recognizable names in the computer industry.
But the early 2000s were also a time of tremendous change in the personal computer industry.
Every day brought new competition for the established players.
And what drove sales was new products.
Search behavior was a bit different back then, but one thing remains the same: If consumers don’t know about a product, they don’t search for it.
Gateway continued to create innovative products, including an ahead of its time touchscreen tablet.
But in a world where touchscreen tablets had never existed before, no one was searching for them.
If no one is searching for your products, search engine marketing doesn’t work.
Search Does Not Live in a Vacuum
In hindsight, it’s pretty easy to see what happened at Gateway.
Unfortunately, the company was sold to a competitor soon after my saga had transpired and we never got true closure on our “all-in” search engine marketing experiment.
But now I know that when the overall branding was put on hold, the volume of search queries for the company’s products began to decline.
The decline was slight at first, but started to snowball until around month six we were seeing about half the search volume we had seen the previous year.
There’s no doubt in my mind that good branding makes for great search engine marketing results.
Just Spell My Name Right
There is an age-old adage repeated by politicians and others who are disparaged in print.
The saying goes, “I don’t care what you say about me, just make sure you spell my name correctly.”
The implication here is that name recognition is, in many cases, more important than what is said about a company or individual.
In today’s world, this overall adage is debatable. But it remains true that if consumers are familiar with your name, you are more likely to get the click when your site shows up as an answer to a query.
Today, we work with many clients that utilize radio advertising.
Clients that effectively use radio have significantly higher click-through rates than their counterparts who aren’t on the radio.
We’ve seen the data and we know this to be the case.
When consumers are searching for something and they see a name they have heard or, they are more likely to click on that listing.
Even if they don’t know where they have heard the brand’s name from.
There is also a correlation when it comes to link building.
Links naturally flow towards brands with significant name recognition.
A few years ago, there was a significant debate on whether Google favored large brands in organic search.
In my opinion, Google doesn’t consciously favor big brands, but the algorithm favors sites with more links pointing them.
Brands with name recognition get more links.
So Google favors those brands.
In paid search, brands that have good name recognition get more clicks.
This in turn improves quality score, and those brands pay less per click than their unknown counterparts.
Sure, unknown brands can make up a lot of this ground with better creative, but in the end, name recognition is going to keep the clicks coming.
Good creative fades over time and must practice a cycle of rinse and repeat.
Don’t think that branding doesn’t have a place in search engine marketing.
Branding supports search engine marketing results.
Now, go out and look for ways to increase brand awareness and preference.
Your search engine results will thank you.
Featured image by author, January 2021