Paid Search Worthless? The Other Side of the Coin.

June 18, 2014

There’s been some new stories recently about a report eBay did last year claiming that paid search for large brands was pretty much worthless. Many of these stories are focused on the fact that online advertising is not living up to its promise. Obviously this caught my eye because I oversaw digital marketing for eBay – a team of over 300 people back in the day when we built our own systems. This was a question we constantly studied in a number of different ways during my 5 year tenure in the role. We even tested it more explicitly by completing turning off Google for over 10 days during eBay live back in 2007. :)

This quote stood out from the study: “We find that SEM accounted for a statistically significant increase in new registered users and purchases made by users who bought only one or two items the year before. For consumers who bought more frequently, SEM does not have a significant effect on their purchasing behavior. We calculate that the short-term returns on investment for SEM were negative because more frequent eBay shoppers are accountable for most of paid search sales.”

It is important to keep in mind every advertiser on paid search is not like eBay. In fact, very few businesses in the world enjoy the brand awareness and penetration eBay does. However, there are two other factors to keep in mind when looking at this data.
1) The importance of understanding user acquisition and CLV? Too often search marketers get the value of the transaction and not on the value of the acquired user. Notice the part of the statement above that discusses new users. It is important to understand that paid search is a great acquisition channel. When considering the ROI of your advertising spend it is important to attribute some percentage of the Customer Lifetime Value to the acquisition channel. We did that very early on at eBay and it had a large impact on our ROI. This was the right move. However, a company the size of eBay has less Americans to acquire and more of the paid search activity becomes retention related. It is at this point that pure transaction value may not meet certain ROI hurdles when compared to other channels.

2) Search now has a way to solve the retention vs. acquisition problem? With the recent introduction of Audience buying in search through Google’s RLSA feature, this problem can now be solved. Google and companies like Marin allow you to create audience segments for search and adjust bidding and creative appropriately. In the case mentioned above, create a segment for “frequent ebay shoppers” and bid appropriately. We have customers at Marin who create segments for loyal users and choose to bid them down in search knowing that they will find their site directly or through some other organic channel like SEO. This approach can be applied rather simply to brand terms and then you can expand it from there. I know eBay has the capability to identify these users very easily. If you don’t want to risk abandoning your brand terms for fear of competition, you might want to change the creative to take advantage of an upsell opportunity. In the case of eBay, I know the CLV of an eBay user increases when they buy in more than one category. You could go so far as segment frequent users per category and only show them ads when they are looking for something outside of their normal category of purchase. There are many ways to break down this challenge to drive more efficiency in your advertising spend.

Back to the promise of online advertising. It's alive and well. The same tools and techniques that made search advertising such a promising medium have been transferred to other channels. Advertisers now have the ability to combine the intent data of search with the audience data from various sources to move us closer to the goal of true personalization in advertising. While we don’t quite have the ability to fully solve Wannamaker’s conundrum, I feel we are getting closer every day.

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