Why has paid search been pigeonholed to the bottom of the funnel?

To grow your total business impact from SEM you'll need to invest in upper funnel tactics to drive more consumers into your funnel.

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No one can argue that paid search isn’t a fantastic bottom-funnel tactic. The rest of your marketing drives interest in your products or services which then drives consumers to search engines where your SEM acts as an always-on net to capture engagement.

But, if every click really is a consumer on a purchase journey, then shouldn’t search be used as a full-funnel vehicle?

Under constant pressure to drive better and better results, search marketing has evolved – and has been somewhat relegated – to a bottom funnel channel.

How did this happen?

The great recession’s impact

From a historical perspective, much of the “must convert now,” short-term thinking of marketing performance evaluation was in direct response to the global economic recession between 2007 and 2009.

During this time, consumer spending took a major downturn so marketing budgets were cut accordingly. Offline channels less measurable than digital ones took major blows and many – such as print – never fully recovered. Even though paid search was actually one of the few advertising tactics that grew at this time, there was increased scrutiny over how budgets were spent and the aftershocks of that mindset still exist today.

Every search marketer on the planet has had a boss or a client point to the upper funnel campaigns and ad groups on the monthly paid search report (that often cost more and have a lower return on investment than bottom funnel ones) and ask them: “Why are we running on these?” For non-search marketers, this line of thinking is completely understandable and logical. After all, the goal of a marketing organization is to spend the budget as efficiently as possible, and it would seem to be a bad idea to keep funding efforts that seem to cost more and return less.

Of course, if your brand does a great job of filling the funnel organically, and if your entire marketing budget can barely cover the long tail (specific keywords a consumer uses when they are ready to buy), then by all means just target the bottom of the funnel with your SEM.

However, most advertisers are not in that position.

Just a portion of the budget is needed to cover the cost of the bottom funnel search activity and then comes the hard decision of where to allocate the rest of the marketing budget. Don’t keep cranking up bids on your bottom-funnel terms because you can afford to be just a little less efficient with those high performing terms. Invest in the top!

Even for the experienced search marketer, it can be hard to make the case for funding upper funnel spending because marketing measurement is inherently flawed and it is virtually impossible to track every brand interaction back to purchase behavior. So, even if you know that participating at the beginning and middle of the consumer purchase path is philosophically the right thing to do and will lead to more sales or leads, the numbers won’t always back you up.

And if the numbers don’t back you up, then bosses and clients might have a hard time being convinced that they should support upper funnel spending.

Stuck at the bottom

Let’s face it. Digital marketing and its wealth of data can make even the savviest marketer become myopically focused on bottom line KPIs. Not a bad thing, you say? Maybe not. After all, ROI is why we’re investing in paid search in the first place.

But consider this: When you hyper-optimize every channel to get the best possible Return on Ad Spend, you may miss opportunities to influence the consumer buying process earlier in the cycle. You’re only reaching those consumers who were likely already considering and might have purchased your product anyway. In effect, you are creating a narrower funnel and limiting your overall volume.

There can even be a case made that a lot of bottom-funnel paid search might be just navigational and questionably incremental. Many buyers at this step of the funnel have already made up their minds and are simply searching and then clicking ads to get back to a website in order to take action. They might not have needed a paid search ad at all and would have clicked an organic search listing if there wasn’t ad displayed more prominently above the natural results to take them where they already wanted to go.

Of course, not all bottom-funnel search is navigational, but certainly, there’s less of this behavior on top and middle funnel searches where it can be safely assumed that the ads had more of an effect on the final conversion.

One thing is for sure: if you want to grow your search programs, it’s not about grinding conversions at the bottom but rather filling your funnel at the top and middle because your bottom-funnel search is going to work really well. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need to work hard and optimizing at the bottom—you most certainly should.

The only way you’re really going to grow your total business impact from SEM is by investing in upper funnel tactics to drive more consumers into your funnel. Believe me, your bottom funnel search will always be there to convert them.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Josh Dreller
Josh Dreller has been a search marketer since 2003 with a focus on SEM technology. As a media technologist fluent in the use of leading industry systems, Josh stays abreast of cutting edge digital marketing and measurement tools to maximize the effect of digital media on business goals. He has a deep passion to monitor the constantly evolving intersection between marketing and technology. Josh is currently the Director of Content Marketing at Kenshoo.

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