Rise Of The Lowly Search Ad

When it comes to the pecking order of advertising, the search ad ranks slightly below "classified ad" and slightly above "poorly Xeroxed Herbalife (HLF ) flyer stapled to a telephone pole."

But only slightly. In many cases, search ads -- those cryptic text come-ons that run around Google (GOOG ) or Yahoo (YHOO )! search results -- embody the hucksterism associated with less savory ad forms.

(If you don't believe me, try Googling "hair loss.") Nevertheless, search is a defining media behavior of the here and now, and so the search ad itself occupies valuable real estate. This is why savvy big-name marketers are now tying search ads into more traditional campaigns. They're buying up highly trafficked keywords -- like "Oscars," in the case of Coca-Cola (COKE ) -- aiming to redirect searchers to sponsored sites. They're paying for keywords that have little to do with the product itself, like "platypus" and "possum" in the case of Honda, which is trying to lure Web surfers to a site promoting its Element truck. "The creative element of search rears its head," says Ron Belanger, senior director of global advertising strategies for Yahoo Search Marketing. The onscreen version of junk mail may prove a more versatile marketing tool than you'd think.

SEARCH ADS work very simply. You buy the search terms; they appear in a specified sponsors-only area near the search results for that phrase; and you pay whenever a Web surfer clicks through to your site. But search ads' value still escapes many otherwise savvy media executives. In a public appearance last year, Vanity Fair's Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter noted that while he used Google often he never remembered the ads nearby. But recall is not what search ads are about. They're about enabling a more direct link to commerce than a TV or magazine ad. The pay-per-click model gives marketers an easy metric to calculate a price per lead. It also explains why demand drives up the cost of adjacencies to certain search words. The classic example is mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, which search ad executives say can cost more than $50 per click, inflated by law firms sniffing massive asbestos-related settlements.

By the same token, low-demand keywords cost less, so some search-term tack-ons provide bang for little buck. The current Element campaign features the vehicle "talking" to sundry animals -- a platypus, a possum, a burro, and a crab -- in cartoony spots. Honda's agency, Rubin Postaer & Associates, bought those keyword terms and uses search ads as invitations to "see the platypus in its Element." That link leads consumers to elementandfriends.com, which features Element ads and a related game. RPA also bought variants of "funny video" and "funny commercials," which, says Mike Margolin, RPA's vice-president/associate media director, are search terms that have demographic profiles compatible with likely Element buyers. In many cases, the search terms cost just 10 cents or 15 cents per click, he says, and drew about 40% of the Element's Web site traffic. "It seemed a little quirky, but the more you thought about it, the more it seemed to resonate well with the campaign," says Tom Peyton, Honda's senior manager of marketing.

For the Honda Ridgeline truck, which was advertised during the Super Bowl, RPA bought what Margolin identified as a "few thousand" search terms somehow related to the Super Bowl (as in "Super Bowl ad"). Those terms, he wrote in an e-mail, generated over 3.5 million online impressions from just Yahoo and Google on the day after the Super Bowl alone. Margolin suggests such approaches are only the beginning. "The search ad impression probably gets a little too easily overlooked," he writes. "I think we'll see more research this year related to the value of the search ad that doesn't get clicked." Some aren't waiting for that research. The Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a nonprofit think tank, began placing its grades of New York legislators' records alongside search results whenever a New York state legislator is Googled. Now, could that work with an Herbalife flyer? Didn't think so.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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