Category Archives: Measurement

To brand search or not to brand search

Last week eBay threw its gauntlet down by publishing its internal study which found paid brand search advertising “ineffective” (to the point of negative ROI) and non brand search to have a very small impact, and even that only on the least valuable customers.

I wouldn’t be overly concerned for Google’s share price. This is just the latest sabre rattling in the SEM market between one of the world’s biggest search advertisers and the dominant supplier (Google) who given their 80%+ share in most markets, and their resulting ability to ‘make or break’ a business are seen as a “frenemy” by many clients and agencies.

Proving ROI for the wide area of non-brand search and the rest of digital is a complicated issue, which I discuss in more detail in my post on digital measurement and attribution, so I’ll save my comments today for the issue of “brand” search and how to tackle it.

The term “brand” search normally refers to the name of the site concerned – often its domain, derivatives of this plus misspellings. To take an example of a well known UK retailer, terms that would qualify as “brand” search for Marks and Spencer would be (I won’t go into match types here & now):

Once upon a time search terms like these were offered some protection by Google’s Trademark policy, meaning that trademark owners could register as such with Google and prevent anyone other than themselves (and their chosen list of resellers/affiliates) appearing in the search results.

Most weeks at agencies we’d spot a cheeky affiliate bidding outside office hours, trying not to be caught; or receive a furious call from a client who’d seen a competitor seemingly bidding on a brand term. We’d dutifully report the instance and send a screenshot to Google and then wait impatiently while they were hopefully removed. It was a constant round of chasing and frustration, and took up a lot of our time.

Google had an entire team of people dedicated to checking and implementing the restrictions, although the offences weren’t always as clear cut as they may have seemed. An advertiser whose brand name included a “generic” term could find that competitors ads would appear against their results through a process called “broad matching” – so “Toys R Us” may trademark the whole search string, but they couldn’t stop competitors appearing who had bid on the term “toys”. Lots of work for all involved, with the added issue for Google that if advertisers could protect their own trademarks, they wouldn’t have to bid on them, so Google made less money. So guess what Google did in 2007?

You’re right.

They removed the trademark protection policy for keywords (it still applies for ad text – so you can’t say ‘We’re better than competitor x’ or ‘We sell iPods’ if you don’t), which made everyone panic and assume there’d be a free-for-all as soon as all advertisers could bid on each others’ brand names.

What had been underestimated was whether it was going to be commercially viable to bid on competitor terms or not. Given that the more relevant a keyword is, the lower the cost (I’ll expand on Quality Score also at a later date) competitor terms tend to have a higher CPC than your own, so each advertiser has its own ROI metrics to decide if competitor bidding made sense for them or not. Not quite the panic that was predicted (Y2K anyone?) but even without competitors muddying the water, whether or not to bid on your own brand is just about the most frequent question that still occurs across paid search.

After much consternation at the time of the change, various factors led to the current status quo, which is that “brand” keywords such as those above make up a large proportion of many PPC advertisers’ spend, sometimes the vast majority. It’s not surprising then that marketers will often ask the question:

If they’re looking for me anyway will they come to my site even if I don’t appear in the paid search results?

and thus

Can I turn off my brand search terms and either save the money or invest it in other keywords or channels that will provide me with incremental traffic and sales?

The answer is …. yes occasionally. But this applies to only a very few advertisers …. and it depends on various things.

Natural search results:

The single most important factor in making this decision is where your listings appear in the natural (organic) results. 70% or more of all clicks on a results page are on the natural search results, so your potential traffic is limited if you’re not appearing.


  • Page 1 in natural? Test brand search on/off across similar seasonality and track combined search plus direct-to-site traffic levels to see the impact. It can go either way, and it can differ depending on your offline marketing activity/seasonality.
  • Page 2 or later in natural? You may as well be invisible. Use PPC to ensure your potential customers find you.

To show an example for Marks and Spencer:

marks and spencer brand search screenshot

Marks and Spencer brand search screenshot

Their site takes up the vast majority of the results page because they’ve used all the methods available to dominate the space

  • they are the first result in natural search
  • they have natural site links (the sub links beneath the main result)
  • they have a Google+ page
  • they have their store locations registered with Google places so the nearest store shows up on the local results too

This dominance serves both a practical and a branding purpose. The searcher is offered very few other choices other than to click through to the M&S site; plus they are reassured that they have come to the right place with stimulating social content and useful location information that should help both their online conversion and possibly drive store visits too.

Competitor activity:

As we’ve seen above, there’s nothing but cost to stop your competitors bidding on your brand name, so the levels of aggressiveness in your marketplace will have a huge impact. Some clients will pursue a disruptive strategy to buy market share even if it isn’t profitable at first, in order to either gain future sales from those customers.

I had a large auto client once say to me;

“I’m pretty sure that if someone can afford to spend £50K on a car, they can find my website.”

My answer then is my answer now;

“Yes, I’m sure they can. And they can equally as easily find your direct competitor sites.”

The issue is that with online, everything is easy. It’s not like the offline world where a customer walks into a showroom and then has all the glossy cars and the smell of leather to seduce them, or the fact that it’s a faff to get the kids in the car and drive to the other luxury car showroom to make them stay. All they have to do is click a different link, and the competitor has just as high a chance of sending them a brochure/developing a relationship with them as you do.

Of course people develop emotional relationships with car brands, as they do other high involvement purchases, but there will be many who have a shortlist of more than one brand – and do you really want to take that chance?

An example for Go Compare, the price comparison site:

gocompare brand screenshot

Gocompare brand screenshot

The UK insurance market is cluttered and competitive, with many well known brand name insurers, plus the price comparison sites – many of which are now brands in themselves.

The search above is for the brand name derivative “gocompare” – and in this instance you can see that the competitors and Compare The Market are bidding on the brand term, which dilutes the dominance that they would otherwise gain from their successful natural search results, and the Google+ page.

Confused and Compare The Market won’t do this for fun – they do it for hard nosed economic reasons, and it must be worth their while to pay the higher CPCs their competitor terms will demand. To me it shows that where the products are homogeneous (and/or price elastic) then searchers are highly likely to be tempted elsewhere even if they have expressed a preference in their initial search.


  • Where your market is aggressively competitive, always bid on your brand term, and consider using ad text stating “official site” to give people reassurance and prevent last minute leakage. 
  • Consider a joint search strategy with your resellers and affiliates to help you to dominate the brand term space. You will lose some margin but prevent the click going to an outright competitor.

Branding, business as usual and campaigns:

One of the main differences between paid search and SEO activities is the speed with which you can see results, and for this reason you may consider continuing to use paid search for campaign driven activity, even if an “always on” approach doesn’t pay dividends.

Natural search results are something that take a long time to build. They are based on the authority, readability and quality of the content on your site and as such, shouldn’t be messed around with for a short term gain. The last thing you want is your natural search results saying “Sale On Now!” when it in fact ended weeks ago, as this is a bad user experience and will mean customers do not believe you the next time.

For sales, new product launches – any communication that differs from business as usual, then PPC is the ideal channel.

Example of Thomas Cook:

Thomas Cook screenshot

Thomas Cook screenshot

In this example, Thomas Cook have great natural search positions, location results, Google+ and comprehensive natural sitelinks, but still choose to run paid search ads to promote their  summer holiday deals, and to capture email addresses for future eCRM activity.


  • If it’s worth running a campaign in offline/other media, then it’s worth repeating in PPC. 
  • Increasing dual and triple screen usage (TV, tablet and phone) means that TV spots times are immediately mirrored by brand search trends. Spending millions on TV only for people to get lost whilst looking for that promotion online is a leaky bucket directly to your competitors. Don’t stimulate demand and then fail to scoop it up.

Phone Book versus Yellow Pages.

The examples above have been for e-commerce sites and concentrate mostly on acquiring new customers, but one enormous factor that causes resentment amongst marketers is having existing customers click on the paid search link, when they are visiting purely to log into their account, interact with customer services or heaven forbid – make a complaint!

Most advertisers that have long term customers avoid using brand PPC for exactly this reason (have a look at British Gas, O2, Tesco, Barclays Bank for instance) and as long as their natural search is healthy, this isn’t the end of the world. It is a bit like having the free listing in the phone book or Yellow Pages, you’re there, you’re findable but aren’t going to get the customer particularly excited.

One thing to bear in mind for this approach is that your homepage will need to be easily editable with campaign information, to ensure that any campaigns that do get run elsewhere can easily be followed through rather than lost in the usual clutter. If you have 6 month code release windows, you may wish to run a PPC campaign rather than fight with IT.

A special mention should be made here for those who continue to advertise heavily in brand PPC with a standard message even with strong page dominance, such as Ladbrokes, Sky TV and Expedia.

You can look at their approach in two ways, the purist commercial or the customer centric way:

  • they are blending their (cheap) brand search results with their (more expensive) lower performing parts of their campaign, and this is artificially inflating the incremental value of their brand search;


  • they’re genuinely trying to just make it easier to find them, like having a freephone number

Either way, they have their reasons and as in most marketing decisions, it’ll be a blend of hard numbers, branding, a bit of finger in-the-air and “the boss likes it”.

tape measureOne of the first stories you hear when entering the advertising industry is John Wanamaker‘s famous quote – which has been bent over time but is a variation of

“I know that half my advertising spend is wasted

I just don’t know which half.”

Clearly this wasn’t good enough for John, and certainly isn’t the ideal scenario when the amount wasted can represent millions of pounds so an entire sub-industry has grown in advertising which is that of measuring ad effectiveness.

At a basic level ad effectiveness can me measured in 3 ways:

Direct measurement of sales:

In Direct Response marketing there are various methods of attributing sales to the media that triggered it. In online the bluntest way is the “last click wins” scenario, but there are also tried and tested methods for other media – dedicated phone numbers that will differ by medium or by copy iteration; coupons with codes to be quoted during a phone or store visit. Each has its values but as a general rule quoting coupon codes or source when visiting a store, buying on the phone or online is afflicted with a “tick the first one” mentality. List orders are changed but still there will be errors.

Measuring actions implying purchase intent:

This could be online enquiry forms filled out, store locator searches; phone calls, brochures sent out, appointments booked, actual store footfall – all of which are fairly taken as an indicator that the customer is getting closer to opening their wallet. Again there can be issues as it may be an indicator, but not a true reflection of what happens later.

Branding metrics:

This involves researching potential and actual customers, and asking them what they think. Often there will be a “brand recall” metric – how many people remember the name (prompted or unprompted); a “purchase intent” question and other factors that have been proven over time to reflect consumers’ eventual actions and indicate that a campaign has had a positive impact – recognition of ad straplines/ association with intended characteristics such as “trustworthy” or “good value”. When used with a large enough sample size to ensure statistical validity.

One of the many reasons that digital advertising has grown is its very measurability. Being able to see how many times an ad has been seen (impressions), its response rate (clicks) and the resulting actions (sales, enquiries, online brand research) means that in near-real time an advertiser can tweak the campaign to ensure that creative or ad copy that performs the best is the one that is seen most, and that they get the most out of their ad spend.

But do they?

The problems start with the default model for online ad measurement, which is last-click-wins. There are various factors that undermine the validity of this model, and these are best understood by remembering that the digital world is just one part of any consumer’s methods of interacting with a brand, and even that digital, trackable world is fractured.

The first is the basic assumption that the last thing someone did before a purchase is the most important. In the image below you can see a simple example of how someone researching and buying online interacted with different ad events:

click path

In this instance the brand search would get all the credit for the conversion, but we can see that they interacted with the advertisers messaging in 3 other ways before then – all of which may or may not have had an influence on their later behaviour. A similar metaphor is the football team – although a striker may have scored the actual goal, the rest of the team are crucial in setting it up, defending their own goal etc.

If you planned your advertising spend based on the last click model the risk is that your ads wouldn’t be showing in the places that do help the process along, and therefore would sell less. In recognition of this the industry has spent the last few years discussing methods of sharing out the credit to “attribute” influence more fairly and have a more effective media strategy.

Some of these models are laid out below, showing from the top

  • “first and last” – where an advertiser believes (or the data shows) that the first and the last interaction carry the highest weight, the sale value is shared amongst them
  • “all but last click” could apply when the last click is proven to be a navigational brand search, and the credit for influencing the sale is shared amongst the interactions that had a harder job of persuasion
  • “shared” is where all the events get equal weighting as it’s proven that the sale relies just as much on each element
  • “last click” is the traditional model that is blunt but still the fastest data to access

attribution modelsEach model has its pros and cons, but they are infinitely better than last-click-wins, right?

Well, yes and no.

Firstly to work out the one that works best it requires an enormous amount of data crunching – the first days of Exposure to Conversion (or E2C – Doubleclick’s version of attribution modelling) required a data dump that broke excel. Just the discussions of which model to use can take days of discussion and each time you’d settle on a model there’d always be a “It just doesn’t feel right” comment from one stakeholder or another, and you’d have to re-assess the whole thing with a different cookie window. Try doing that every day and making hundreds of creative and channel optimisation decisions on the fly.

Secondly, it’s still only a partial view of the data. Remember that one person in this instance actually means “one device with a cookie on it”, and the last two years in particular have broken the desktop stranglehold for good; add to this the fact that most sales are still conducted in retail stores or on the phone, and you have a multi device and cross channel world:

multichannel path

Even if you can match a user across multiple digital devices (which you often can’t), tracking that same person as they watch telly, pick up the phone or walk into a shop adds complexity that reduces your chance of getting robust enough data in enough time to be actionable during the advertising campaign.

So what to do?

Firstly, realise that you’re not going to get a perfect answer. The beauty of digital is often seen as  its trackability although this has lulled us all into a false sense of security about its accuracy; in the real world people always have been influenced by more things than you realise, so you have to cast the net as widely as possible. To see the bigger picture and treat the consumer as just that, as opposed to a cookied device, you really need to jump into the realm of econometrics, which research companies and large agencies have used for decades to apply some kind of cause/effect on their advertising activities and assess the true impact of each part of their marketing activity.

Put simply econometrics takes a vast amount of data and tries to find correlations. For the marketeer it can show the impact their media has on their sales (or any other known metric); how store location impacts success; and how weather/external market factors influence the overall base line of sales that you could expect without any other stimulus. The results from econometrics for a marketeer are often a) a sand diagram showing the influencing factors over time, and b) a Cost Per Acquisition hierarchy showing the difference between the linear (last click) tracked CPA, and the one inferred from the econometric models.

sand diagram

Example sand diagram as you may see from econometrics showing impacts of different media types over time, the left axis could be volumes of sales, leads, or currency values. 

What often happens is that media that occurs in the earlier stages of a research/buy process proves to have been more influential than could be seen from the usual attribution model, which gives them credit for more sales. The difference between the linear sales and the modelled sales becomes a “multiplier” which is then applied to the linear results to show the true value of each media, and to aid in effective budget allocation.

The solution, ish.

My approach is always to use all the data I get get my hands on, in the most appropriate way.

Planning annual/quarterly media budgets needs the input of econometric multipliers to ensure that the stimulus media that kick off the consideration process get enough juice to start the pipeline off. Handily this kind of data is also a great help to show the FD that there is in fact a value in the media that otherwise struggles to prove its worth.

All this is well and good, but I have never met a marketeer or planner, brand or direct who doesn’t have to justify their weekly or monthly plans based on last click data, or at best a “last click plus “assists” model, so we have to face facts that the measurability of online is also a stick with which it can be beaten. For great context, look no further than this quote (often erroneously attributed to Einstein, but actually the work of sociologist William Bruce Cameron.)

Not everything that can be counted counts,
and not everything that counts can be counted.

In other words, we’re human.