As recently as 10 years ago, searching online was an unrecognizably different experience. The Google search bar, almost exclusively used on desktop, would return results based on relevance or whether or not they had been paid to be featured. The search marketing industry had very little to worry about outside of this, a far cry from the multi-channel headache of different platforms catering for different audiences, across devices and social media accounts. How, then, in this new landscape, are search marketers expected to know where to allocate resources?
At our recent Digital Marketing Innovation in New York, Ken Baucsh, Vice President of eCommerce and Digital Marketing at Welspun, led the audience through the developing landscape of search marketing and how brands can best navigate it.
Search in 2018 has moved far beyond the traditional Google desktop search bar. Today, users expect to use a number of different sites and devices to find the products and content they want, with everything from home hubs to smartwatches now capable of search that is genuinely more convenient than using a computer. Ken gives the example of Amazon's dominance over product search: as far back as the 2015 holiday season, consumers overwhelmingly preferred to use Amazon over Google for product search (29% to 8%), a gap that's only accelerated over the following years.
It's easy to forget just how far search has come in the past 10 years. On Google alone, 2008 saw the introduction of auto-completed search suggestions, followed by the introduction of Rich Snippets - an incredibly important marketing tool - in 2009. Google got into voice search in 2013, and in 2015 it began penalizing or promoting heavily depending on how mobile-friendly websites were. In 2016, the paid listings on the right-hand side of Google searches were removed. So, even at the most ubiquitous and reliable search giant, things have developed and the goalposts for marketing have moved.
Ken's presentation focused on a case study for a 'housewares company'. Without giving its name, he describes it as a 'well-known consumer brand' and one of the leaders in its field. "In 2008," Ken says, "while this was a really well-known company, where they sold their product was traditional department stores, etc., a very rapidly declining retail category. And, so, we engaged this company to really drive omnichannel sales of our best-known patterns." And Ken's involvement in the brand's strategy came at the ideal time; the brand's B2C website grew quickly through to 2011, while in 2008 and 2009 it was able to offset the closure of physical retail stores by transferring a chunk of its sales online.
With a focus on search, the brand has been able to build a sustainable digital sales presence. "So today, in 2017, search is 41% of their site visits," Ken says. "It was actually much higher in 2008 and 2009 as we were building the foundation for them to be a direct-to-consumer business, it then declined over time. Some of that decline was natural, and some of it was the way they were managing digital marketing, but this 40% level seems to be a natural fit."
So, what tactics did Ken and his team implement to improve the brand's return on search marketing? The first was to ensure that 80% of PLA impressions were directed to top performing products. "It's that idea that of identifying your top performing IDs, and really targeting the top sellers." The second tip Ken gives is that 40+% of total paid search budget should be allocated to PLAs. Feeds should be optimized for specific Google Product Categories, campaigns should be structured using detailed Product Types, and product pages should be segmented allowing for audience segmentation and bid adjustments for those audiences.
The next major trend for brands to be aware of is the growth in impact of affiliate marketing, and the impact it has had on Ken's case study. "You're all familiar with affiliate marketing, and many of you probably use affiliates," Ken says. "In this case we're talking about couponing affiliates. It's a very interesting indicator of brand health. Back in 2012, couponing was only about 15% of sales for this group, and it grew to 30% [by 2017]." What this has led to is a drop in the reliability of last-click attribution as a model; the landscape has become more complex. In 2011, Ken explains, the brand was having around 1 or 1.2 clicks before a sale, meaning last-click attribution was a valid model. Today, though, it's around 3.2 to 3.6 clicks before a sale, making the product to campaign to ad group model essentially redundant. Ken and his team switched to more of a journey mapping approach, looking at the customer journey as a whole rather than simply referral and conversion.
"Whatever you're using, or even if you're doing your search internally," Ken says, "what you need today is some sort of tooling or platform that's going to enable you to track this customer's activity across device. So, you can ultimately attribute the sales to the different activities. So, this one company that I've been doing things with for a while, they have their own proprietary platform... and them ultimately you can say: 'we actually had 5 clicks and it resulted in a sale.' I think that that level of rigor and analysis is really important to know the true ROI on your search campaigns."
Ken's final point addressed the growth of mobile, assessing the long shadow cast by what is a relatively fresh medium. Though it only accounts for $60.2 billion (1%) of all retail sales, it influences offline retails sales to the tune of $1.05 trillion (31%), a number that will only grow as it continues to outpace desktop. The brand in question in Ken's presentation now sees around 40% of its visits from mobile, a point which many more digitally mature companies will have passed a long time ago. 'Near me' Google searches doubled in 2017, but they are not limited to brick-and-mortar stores. "Why that matters, and what is interesting," Ken says, "is that even though this company does not really have physical stores, we're able to use the 'near me' search functionality in Google to better target ads to people based on their geographical location. And, by doing that, we had a really significant lift in click-through rates [27%]. So, even if you don't have a physical store network, you can use geolocation to tailor your ad content and what you're serving up to the customer." The possibilities for targeting on mobile extend further than anything we've seen on desktop, and search marketing can benefit significantly from it.
There's a lot for marketers to think about when it comes to search. The points Ken touches on are jumping off points for wider discussions around affiliate marketing, location targeting, audience segmentation, and the mitigation of the closure of physical stores by moving sales online. The fragmentation of search needn't daunt marketers; on the contrary, it simply brings more opportunities.