Gord Hotchkiss wrote an article for Search Engine Land that expresses the matter in terms of who owns the search page, or really controls the process. He focused on those running text ads in the search engines, but some of his points rang true for organic search results as well. If you’re a marketer or advertiser who wants to differentiate your company from its competition, you’re not going to like what you’re about to read: depending upon how you go about it, you might be doing your organization more harm than good.
Hotchkiss used airlines as his example, but any competitive industry in which a large company known for certain advantages (or even a single advantage) casts a long shadow would serve. If this sounds anything like your industry, pay attention. Everyone who flies knows that Southwest competes on price more than any other airline – and what’s more, price looms large in the minds of potential airline customers. Many airlines try to distinguish themselves on factors other than price, but they need to fly the same routes as Southwest, and they need to fly them at prices that won’t make customers automatically choose Southwest instead.
Say that a searcher wants to find cheap airline fares to Phoenix. She types “discount plane tickets Phoenix” (or something similar) into her browser. She finds Southwest. Your airline flies to Phoenix. Does she find you? No. Why? Your marketing department is so focused on getting out the word that Your Brand Airlines is never late and has the best safety record in the industry, that it forgot to mention you also fly to Phoenix at prices that compare favorably to Southwest’s. They’re focused on branding your airline, but our hypothetical customer doesn’t care that you’re “not really about” discount airfares. Maybe if she knew about your safety and on-time record, she would care – but how is she going to find it when price is the first thing she’s looking for? She won’t – and you will have lost a customer.
Photo by Cubbie_n_Vegas; use permitted via Creative Commons license.
I could hardly blame you if you want to throw something at your monitor after reading that. All of your branding was supposed to differentiate you from your competition! Am I now telling you that you have to make yourself just like him to get the searchers to notice you? Before I answer that question, ask yourself this: would Southwest have tried to differentiate itself by price if people who fly weren’t concerned with price issues – if, in fact, price wasn’t one of the first three things they consider?
When it comes to the search engines, it’s not your competition that defines the conversation; it’s your audience. So your marketers may be trying to push your brand as offering them one thing, but if they’re searching primarily for something else, they’re never going to notice. And at the point when they first express their need – by putting key words into a search engine – they are in total control of the conversation.
If a brand marketer tries to get control of the conversation at that point, however, they’ll never hear the customer’s needs. Hotchkiss explained this in terms of pay-per-click search ads when he pointed out that “By not bidding on a keyphrase, the marketer is also removing themselves from the conversation…they’ll have no opportunity to fulfill the need.” When you say you aren’t X, or that your brand is positioning itself as an alternative to X, you’re choosing to not participate in the conversation – because you don’t control it at that point! Your potential customers do – and they think they need X. You’re not going to convince them that sure, you can give them X, but you’re really about Y, and that’s what they really want, if they don’t see you when they look for X in the first place.
I’m not saying you should be trying to rank for keywords like “shaving cream” when you do dog training, or fine jewelry when you sell food gift baskets, but if you offer both beading supplies and jewelry-making classes, you should consider trying to rank for both, regardless of which one you consider more important. Do your keyword research, and you’ll find out which one your customers consider more important – then, when they click through your search ad, you can try to sell them on your brand and show them why getting your Y (and your X) is better than getting your competition’s X.
In short, by launching a search, a web user expresses a need; by displaying a search text ad, you’re saying, via your search campaign, that you can fill that need. That’s all. Anything else comes later.
Photo by jaymacweb; use permitted via Creative Commons license.
So when you’re starting a search campaign, you need to get the idea of branding out of your head. Search text ads will not serve the purpose of branding well. In order to brand something, you need to be in control of the conversation, and you aren’t in control at the beginning; “The search page is defined by the searcher,” as Hotchkiss rightly points out. Search text ads are not about branding; they’re “about starting a dialogue with a prospect,” according to Hotchkiss.
If you manage to convince the prospect to continue the dialogue, then you can start – cautiously – promoting your brand. Stated in terms of a pay-per-click campaign, you’ve succeeded in convincing the prospect to continue the conversation when he or she clicks through to your landing page. I’ve written on the topic of landing pages before (and will again, soon), so I’m not going to recover that ground here.
Even on a landing page, however, your prospect always maintains the option of clicking away. You still don’t fully control the conversation; at best, you share it with your prospect. This means that you had better address her needs first on your landing page, or she’ll click away to find someone who does. As Hotchkiss explains it, on your landing page, you regain full control over your message, but you still must keep the anticipated needs of your prospect in mind as you get that message across. Your prospect knows that you’re going to try to sell them, and they consented to that when they clicked through, but they can change their minds in an instant. “It’s a delicate dance of permission to be persuaded, a dance that can end abruptly with just one click,” Hotchkiss explained.
Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives; use permitted via Creative Commons license.
Getting your search campaign right, and not trying to force it into a branding box, leads back to one of SEO’s more basic aspects: keyword research. Again, you can find many articles on that very topic right here and elsewhere on the web, so I’m not going to rehash everything. There’s a wide range of tools that will tell you how frequently searchers use particular keywords, and how many websites are competing for those words. If you see very few web sites competing for a particular keyword you want to use, well, that could be a good keyword to try for – or it could be that no one is searching for it.
You must consider three aspects of any particular keyword before you use it in any search campaign. The first one, as I hinted above, is its popularity. There is no point in using “on-time airline” as your key phrase when no one is searching for it. Your ad will never turn up in the listings, and your target audience won’t find your site.
The second aspect you must consider is relevance. Here is where you can really blow it if you’re not careful. You don’t want to choose a phrase that is totally unrelated to your offering; on the other hand, if you go with your branding instinct, you’re going to end up on the wrong side of the popularity aspect. So if you do offer low fares, don’t be afraid to say so, even if it isn’t part of your brand identity. For example, a Mercedes may be a “luxury vehicle” and “the best example of German engineering,” but guess what? It’s still a “car,” too.
The third aspect you must consider when choosing a keyword is the competition for the phrase. Yes, you should keep in mind the keywords which your target audience puts into Google; you should also realistically consider what you can afford to pay for those clicks. Again, it’s a delicate balance, but if you want to get clicks, you must find the best way to show your prospect that you call fill his or her stated need. Branding can come later. Good luck!