Who Owns The Search Page?

We have a recurring argument with clients. See if this sounds familiar:

Us: You have no search visibility for “keyword”

Client: We don’t want visibility for “keyword”

Us: Why?

Client: Because that’s not us. We don’t use “keyword” to describe ourselves. That’s not what we’re about.

Us: Yes, but that’s what the searcher is looking for. They’re using “keyword” to express their need.

Client: But we don’t offer “keyword”. We offer an alternative.

Us: But they’re not searching for the alternative. They’re searching for “keyword”.

You get the idea. If I combined all the time spent in having this circular argument over the past several years, I’d have enough banked to spend a good portion of the next year in some sunny location, preferably with a beach.

I realized that central to this argument is the question of ownership of the search results page. This requires a bit of a shift in thinking, so bear with me. Perhaps it would be easier if I used a more concrete example than the one above.

Flying in the face of marketing

Consider an airline, a topic I’m familiar with because I spend a good part of my life on the flying metal of one airline or another.  In today’s hypercompetitive world, all airlines are struggling to differentiate themselves, but price is always an overriding concern. So although they might not advertise themselves going head to head with a low cost operation like Southwest, they have to be competitive on the same routes that Southwest flies. Price is the given. From there, airlines distance themselves from Southwest based on frequent flier perks, cabin amenities, friendliness of staff or some other factor.

Now, let’s assume one of these competitive airlines decided to embark on a search campaign. A keyword discovery analysis would turn up significant volumes of traffic for keyphrases including  the words “lowest” , “cheap” and “discount”. The search agency would recommend gaining visibility for these phrases and would run smack into this objection: “But we’re not a discount airline. That’s Southwest.”

From the brand-centric perspective of the airline, this makes sense. Consistent brand messaging and brand integrity is their job and this runs directly counter to that. It sabotages all the work they’re doing to build a brand that doesn’t rely solely on price. I understand that. But here’s what I would say to the marketing people – “Imagine that someone walks up to one of your ticket agents at an airport and says they’re looking for a discount airline to fly them to Phoenix. You fly to Phoenix. What would you do? Would you show them to the Southwest counter, saying you’re not a discount airline? Or would you say that your prices are competitive with Southwest’s, and in addition you offer preferred seat selection?”

Stepping over the ownership line

This scenario is not really so different from our search scenario. The question is, where is the ownership line between what the prospect is asking for and what you have to offer? In the face to face example, the transference happened when the prospect expressed their need, giving the ticket agent the opportunity to respond, understanding what the need was.

An online search is no different. It’s a prospect expressing a need. But it gets fuzzy when we look at where that transference happens and where it’s appropriate for the brand to respond with how they can fulfill the expressed need. By not bidding on a keyphrase, the marketer is also removing themselves from the conversation. They’ll never hear the need expressed, so they’ll have no opportunity to fulfill the need. The marketer doesn’t own the search page. All they can do is choose to participate or not to.

The search page is defined by the searcher. From there, the search algorithms go to do the bidding of the searcher, doing their best to match the expressed need. The search page is certainly not part of an advertiser’s turf. All they can do is intercept need and convince that they’re a viable fit with the need. This is not about brand integrity. This is about starting a dialogue with a prospect. Brand integrity comes later, once you get the prospect on your turf.

Staking out your ownership boundaries

Let’s go back to our airline example. The airline marketer is thinking control of brand messaging, which implies ownership. In this case, all the market can own is the 95 characters allocated to them by Google for their search ad (let’s leave organic out of the mix for the moment). And in that ridiculously short message, they have to meet the need, differentiate and convince the user to invest a click. They are one of multiple candidates trying to do the same thing. And through it all, the user is in absolute control. They have ownership.

This concept of search page ownership requires a fundament shift in our beliefs about who has control and who doesn’t, which is why marketers have such a struggle with it. Their lives are centered around control. But when it comes to search, they have to take one step back. Let’s look at where they can regain control, where that transfer of ownership happens. Once the search is launched, the user has transferred control over to the search engine, which in turn has gathered a page full of results which its algorithms have determined are potentially relevant matches. The user then scans the page to pick the best candidates. The goal of a search ad is simply to anticipate need and provide some indication that it meets that need better than all the other candidates on the page. That’s it. Search ads are not there to define a brand. If the characteristics of a brand resonate with the need of the user, that’s great, but realize, this happens in the mind of the user, another place you have no control over. You can mention your brand and hope that brand label connects with a favorable impression of the brand in the prospect’s memory that aligns with their current intent.

Search = Anticipation of Intent

So, search ads are not brand messages. They’re successful anticipations of intent. And, if they serve that role well, they’ll capture a click through to the landing page. It’s here where the marketer and the prospect share ownership. Now, the prospect is on the marketers turf and understands that they’ve moved from a space (the search results page) that was defined by their need to a place where a marketer will try to convince the prospect that they’re the best match for that need. Here, the marketer has regained full control of their messaging, but they must understand that they still have to do so with an understanding of the anticipated need of the prospect. They must persuade the prospect to continue to be persuaded. It’s a delicate dance of permission to be persuaded, a dance that can end abruptly with just one click.

To return to my original argument with clients, search activity is in the sole ownership of searchers, not search advertisers. To effectively leverage search, you must understand this as a given. Searchers will define their needs in predictable ways which will show up in keyword volumes and trends. You can’t change this on the search page. In some cases, you can use other advertising vehicles to alter the mindscape in a particular category, planting intent which will translate into search volume for phrases largely defined by marketers, but this requires either a very successful viral campaign or massive amounts invested in other marketing vehicles. For the most part, search marketers have to work with the existing inventory. And from there, the choice is a simple one. Do I want to play or not? Do I shut down my ticket counter at the airport, replacing it with a sign with directions to the Southwest counter, or do I stick around and start talking to potential customers?

Gord Hotchkiss is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research. The Just Behave column appears Fridays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability

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About The Author: is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research.

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