September 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Google takes the wraps off

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Still, Yahoo “hasn’t made any major advances specifically for search marketers” to put it on par with Google’s performance, says Lee. Yahoo does, however, offer a sizable amount of search volume, even if a distant second to Google. The impetus behind Microsoft’s interest in purchasing Yahoo earlier this year was in large part an effort to combine Yahoo’s volume with Microsoft’s ability to provide and continue developing new search technology to provide advertisers more options in reaching consumers, such as with a greater level of demographic data, Lee says.

Microsoft continues to make advancements in search technology-i.e., it acquired Powerset earlier this year for its natural language search technology, and its adCenter service offers information on how to improve rankings. “Make sure landing pages and sites give end-users something to do on your site: purchase something, make a reservation, sign up for a service, etc.,” a Microsoft spokeswoman says.

In the meantime, however, marketers say they get the most value out of Google.

‘Broad match’

Google has enhanced its service for marketers with a program it calls “broad match” that places ads against search terms that an advertiser has not bid on, but that Google deems relevant to the marketers’ purchased keywords. These terms include misspellings, synonyms and related products.

Google provides reports on how the additional keywords perform, and VistaPrint has used them to uncover new keywords it should be bidding on, Kenney says. “We may find 50 new terms that perform well, and 50 that perform poorly. So we can concentrate on the good ones and block the poor ones.” Kenney notes that he has not seen other search engines offer a similar feature.

But the Google broad match program can create more work for marketers by forcing them to check that they’re not paying for unwanted traffic from people searching on terms unrelated to what the marketer sells, says Dave Rosenblatt, associate search director of MindShare Search, part of the GroupM division of WPP, a global marketing and communications company. The marketer can use Google’s search management tools to identify such terms and block them, but that can take time, he says.

In fact, data overload has become the biggest challenge for search engine marketers, says Didit’s Lee, who is a former chairman of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization. “Marketers get so much information, they often don’t know what to look at.”

Checking the score

Overall, however, Rosenblatt says the extra work pays off in the long run. A good example is Google’s new Quality Score system that ranks a retailer’s search ad-and lets advertisers know how much they likely must bid to appear on the first page of Google search results.

For many retailers, managing the Quality Score Google places on ad content is their most important marketing task. Marketers have long complained that Google doesn’t make clear how it ranks search ads and how the relevancy of the advertiser’s content affects bid prices.

The new Quality Score program provides more information by ranking on a scale of 1 to 10, rather than as “poor, average or good,” as in the past. “Those terms were very vague,” says Kenney of VistaPrint.

Google is also offering more details on what might penalize a marketer and drop its Quality Score, says Kevin Amos, vice president of strategic planning at search engine marketing firm Impaqt. “It will tell you some penalties that, say, dropped a search ad rank from 6 to 2, though it’s still general information, such as you have duplicate content on your landing pages.”

Although that gives marketers more information to work with, it still requires them to dig into characteristics of web page and ad content and run tests to see what might improve their scores, experts say.

Still a guessing game

Once a marketer starts running multiple keyword campaigns for digital cameras, for example, she can check how Google is scoring each keyword, then check the attributes of each campaign-such as keyword phrases, ad content, click-through rate, landing page content, landing page load time-to see which of these attributes must be improved to boost the Quality Score.

But it’s still a guessing game, experts say, because Google still doesn’t let on which of an ad campaign’s attributes may be throwing off a score.

“A marketer may think a campaign’s landing page is relevant, but Google may not agree,” Lee says. “All the marketer can do is continue to run experiments with modified landing pages to see if they improve the Quality Score performance.”

Marketers with many Google campaigns will have to set priorities. “Maybe you don’t try to improve the Quality Score on a keyword campaign that only gets 200 searches a day, but instead focus on the campaigns with several thousand searches a day,” Lee says.

Google announced further changes to its Quality Score policies last month, including scoring an ad at the moment of the query, instead of based on historical data about the advertiser. That, Google says, will allow it to place more relevant ads-for instance, placing ads that Canadians tend to click on when the searcher is coming from Canada.

In another change, Google will give an advertiser an estimate of what it would have to bid to get onto the coveted first page of search results. That’s good for advertisers to know, but also will be good for Google, because it will tend to drive up pay-per-click ad prices, says Mark Simon, vice president of industry relations at Didit.

“With the transparency that everyone has been urging Google to display, marketers will now be able to see what the required bid needs to be to get first-page placement,” Simon says. “Of course, that will immediately create a more competitive marketplace based on advertisers pushing that first-page bid.”

Flash dilemma

Marketers must also take into account Google’s ranking policies when designing ads, balancing the type of content that will make ads and landing pages alluring with content that will push up an ad’s position and reduce its click price, Rosenblatt says.

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