First Click, Last Click, and Everything in Between: How Attribution can Affect Your Search Strategies

June 1, 2011

Attribution may not seem like the world's most interesting topic for a blog post. Or, really, an interesting topic, period. It's not as glamorous as a blurb on new features, or as essential as a discussion on search strategy. I thought so, myself, I must admit. But, in considering attribution, I realized it is exactly that: essential.

The other day, I had a discussion about data issues, primarily the reason behind conversion numbers of the past changing between viewings. Of course, several factors were involved, but I was ultimately shocked when I was asked a simple question: what is the difference between day of click and day of conversion? They never considered latency, or rather that a click from 2 weeks ago might result in a conversion today.

So if you do have that kind of latency, how do you go about deciding how to look at your data? Do you consider the conversion as attributed to today or to the last click of 2 weeks ago? What if the click was 2 months or 6 months ago? I have no clear-cut answer, but I do have a couple of items you could meditate on.

Online marketing is becoming more and more sophisticated. It's no longer about building out massive sheets of keywords, in hopes of capturing the interest of people browsing the web. SEM and SEO are now just pieces of a grander strategy, a larger playing field. The proof? 2 years ago, AdWords didn't have much meaning outside the industry. Now, you have to look no further than the front page of the New York Times (Search Optimization and Its Dirty Little Secrets, a fascinating read) to see just how pervasive search marketing has really become. Marketers now think of display ads, of re-targeting, of social networks, as integral parts of their marketing strategies.

How, then, do you give credit in an environment where the process of conversion may take up to a year with multiple touch points within and across channels? Is the ad that first moved a user to consider a product or a service deserving of the majority of the credit? Or is it the ad that finally pushed them to convert, to commit? (Here, of course, I mean “revenue attribution” when I say “credit”.) Some marketers use a spectrum approach - doling out the credit between the elements. Some, with larger latency windows, prefer to know exactly when the revenue is coming in, instead of when the process was started. It's a business-level decision that always has implications beyond a spreadsheet full of data. How do you give credit where credit is due? And why even bother trying to figure it out?

Because you need to know where you're spending your money and what you're getting in return. Attribution changes the way you look at your end result. And isn't that the whole point? Understanding an end result and leveraging that knowledge to improve future strategies/budgets? And therein, as the bard would say, lies the rub. It may not be a glamorous subject, but it definitely is a necessary topic for consideration.

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