NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Although it is a mainstay of advertising pitches in TV, radio and print advertising, the word "free" may not be all that effective in the strange new world of online search engine term advertising.
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Many consumers who use the term "free" in their queries on search engines often turn out to be from a demographic that can't afford to spend the minimum necessary to actually get something like free shipping, said Danielle Leitch, vice president of marketing and analytics at search agency MoreVisibility.com.
83 cents a click
This is despite "free shipping" being of the hottest search engine key words during this shopping season and selling for as much as 83 cents a single click on Google this month.
Search engine authorities point out this doesn't mean "free" doesn't necessarily work as a purchased search-term phrase but rather that the word's inclusion involves evaluating subtle complexities and imponderables not obvious to outsiders. It was one of the bits of wisdom offered to AdAge.com by some of the experts who are deeply involved in the emerging and curiously different field of search engine advertising.
Rich holiday ad period
Now approaching the home stretch in the holiday period that has seen the richest and most intensive use of search engine advertising ever, these authorities from the special agencies that devise, place and monitor such ads provided insights to daily life inside the exploding field that remains an enigma to much of the rest of the advertising world.
"Paid search" involves purchasing the terms used by consumers to forage for specific kinds of information on the Internet. The process then matches the search results returned to the consumer with links to marketer's Web sites, thus intersecting a consumer's stated interest with a marketer's relevant product.
Search authorities explain that the process, which is expected to generate $2.6 billion in revenue this year and $3.2 billion next year, requires a different mind-set by the interactive marketing professionals who create, place and evaluate the effectiveness of search engine ads.
'About ongoing optimization'
"It's not about a flight [of standard advertising] and analysis of results," said John Burke, head of technology commerce at Google. "It's about ongoing optimization and adjusting campaigns on the fly."
Search engine advertising is dynamic in a minute-to-minute real-time manner. Competing marketers buy up collections of different search terms and phrases and then watch in real time as consumers respond to them. This also allows terms and phrases to be tweaked, tested and adjusted on the fly based on the actual behavior -- or lack thereof -- of hundreds or thousands of consumers exposed to a specific word configuration in a specific period of time, like tomorrow afternoon.
Because it's the year's most intense sale period, the holiday season has motivated marketers to roll out numerous keyword configurations related to their best-selling brands and products on special sales.
'Open the floodgates'
"We really open the floodgates -- all words all the time," said Les Kruger, senior marketing manager of Cingular Wireless, exaggerating only slightly. "During the holidays, click-through rates and purchase rates will be higher. Seasonal creative has an impact," but marketers should try to select keyword combinations that cast as wide a net as possible.
"You have hours, not days, to optimize search terms," warned Diane Rinaldo, director of strategic alliance at Overture, a Yahoo company.
All agree that specific holiday terms are worth testing. Indeed, "corporate gift" and "gift certificates" are among the most popular words this year. General phrases like "gift ideas" and "stocking stuffers" and "Chanukah gift" are effective only when shoppers are trolling for ideas. So these words are better at branding than selling. "When you use a broad phrase like 'holiday shopping,' you need to have a broad enough menu of products to impress those coming to your site," cautioned Andrew Wetzler, president of MoreVisibility.com.
Best 'Treo' terms
In general, the more you modify terms, the better qualified your visitors. The word "Treo," for instance, is a popular term. But superior leads are being derived from "Buy Treo 600" and "Treo 600 for sale." "Those permutations help appeal to more people," said Tom Dugan, president of search agency NewGate Internet.
A majority of marketers are offering short-term sales and incentives to drive as many quick hits to their e-commerce sites as possible, search industry insiders report. Cingular Wireless, for example, had a special of $49.99 to help promote its introduction of Ogo -- a messaging device that sends instant messages, e-mail and text -- for a week in December. Ogo sells for $129.99 in stores. After a week, Cingular changed the creative.
Interestingly, the price does not appear in the ad results. "We message the excitement around the product -- not the price," said Mr. Kruger of Cingular. However, the price is front and center on the landing page.
Vital landing page
The landing page -- the Web page the searcher arrives at after clicking on an ad link -- is vital to making the sale, experts say. Sometimes, marketers don't want the consumer to land on the product page. "If there's an upsell, or a broader range of related products somewhere else, the marketer may not want them to land on the product page," Ms. Rinaldo of Overture said.
Say, for example, a consumer was searching for cashmere sweaters and had a $10-off coupon. "That $10 off doesn't help very much with cashmere, but if you take them to the page with all your sweaters, the $10 off can really help," Ms. Rinaldo added. "Just be sure there's a clear path to 'cashmere sweaters.'"
Now that 80% of consumers have broadband at work, according to JupiterResearch, much shopping occurs during the business day. So marketers have learned to bid highest for terms in daytime slots.
Creative for at-work crowd
Creative must be crafted to the busy professional. "If someone is doing their holiday shopping at work, they want to get a gift quick and easy," said Mr. Burke at Google, which, along with Overture, offers search strategy services for clients. "We would target the creative around 'quick and easy' or 'delivered to your home or office' or 'overnight shipping.'"
As important as landing pages for clinching the sale are check-out pages -- the pages on which the consumer completes the sale transaction. Search agencies say they often must advise clients to make sure the check out is as streamlined and simple as possible, and that everything visible fulfills the promise of the initial ad.
An exception to the shopping-at-work buyer is when consumers are thinking about buying expensive items. An example is the $270 Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, sold by gadget purveyor Hammacher Schlemmer. "When customers are buying items that are more costly, they spend more time [considering them] and that occurs on the weekends," said Tom Dugan, president of Hammacher Schlemmer's search agency, NewGate Internet.