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Two Years Into The Search Alliance: Optimizing Paid Search On Bing & Yahoo

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Synopsis — The Rimm-Kaufman Group (RKG) has worked closely with search reps from Yahoo, and has helped Bing engineers develop and evolve the platform. With a penchant for studying data and the ability to quantify experiences with the platforms, each quarter, RKG releases the RKG Digital Marketing Report, which provides relevant data and analysis.

In an article from our Summer 2012 issue — “Two Years Into The Search Alliance: Optimizing Paid Search On Bing & Yahoo” — George Michie tells us what RKG considers the four keys to getting the most of the Bing-Yahoo Search Alliance and why it is important to stay on top of best practices and keep pace with changes. Is the Alliance of these two working out well for those involved in paid advertising or is another aspect getting the better of the deal?

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Two Years Into The Search Alliance: Optimizing Paid Search On Bing & Yahoo

The Bing-Yahoo Search Alliance will turn two years old this fall. As adCenter evolves, it is important to stay on top of best practices and keep pace with changes. Through this period, the Rimm-Kaufman Group (RKG) has had the privilege of not just working with great search reps from Yahoo, but also directly with the Bing engineers developing and evolving the platform.

The Bing engineering team values our comments and suggestions because of our penchant for studying data and the ability to quantify our experiences with their platform. Each quarter, we release the RKG Digital Marketing Report, pulling together relevant data and analysis. So, without further ado, let’s dive into what we consider the four keys to getting the most of the Alliance.

1.  Recognize the size of the opportunity and be careful with budgets.

Reading industry data from ComScore, Hitwise, and others suggests that the Alliance commands a nearly 30% share of the market. However, it’s important to understand the difference between search volume and advertising revenue. Bing has been unable to match Google’s efficiency in monetizing search. Advertisers who set budgets based on reported market share will have major ROI challenges on the Alliance. Yet this seems to be a common practice.

We’d argue that budgeting search in general is a mistake. If the return on investment in paid search is measurable and immediate, why would anyone set a budget? Let’s think about this: I pay Bing for traffic because the traffic is valuable. If I can measure that value and my accountant can put that value in the bank pretty quickly, then I should be willing to buy that traffic as long as the price of the traffic is in line with the value.

However, the quantity of paid search traffic available at an affordable price is variable and essentially unpredictable. I don’t know how many people will search on words related to my business next month. I also don’t know how much I will have to pay to get any given percentage of that traffic. If my competitors all go insane and bid like drunken sailors, the price of traffic may exceed its value. Should I buy it anyway? On the flip side, if the search engine traffic brings my business $1.50 for every $1 I spend, why would I stop spending money?

Budgeting by engine is particularly odd. Understanding that the auction dynamics, behavior, and economics are different between Google, Bing, and their respective networks, why would an advertiser care which search engine a person uses, anymore than they care about what browser they use? Why would an advertiser tolerate different ROIs on Bing versus Google? “I need a 10% ROI from Google, but I’ll take 5% from Bing” — really? Why is that?

RKG practices engine agnostic buying. Doing so shows that for advertisers who buy media rationally, the share of spend going to Bing and Yahoo has actually declined over time.

However, while the estimated 15% for Q1 of 2012 isn’t 30%, it also isn’t chopped liver. The important thing to recognize is that while the Alliance may be commanding a smaller slice of the pie, the pie is still growing rapidly enough that the overall opportunity for ROI-positive marketing on the Alliance is growing.

It is an important channel, so let’s turn our attention to optimizing performance.

2.  Measure and react to the variation in quality from the search partner network.

The art of optimizing performance in search is the ability to match what you’re willing to pay for traffic to the value of that traffic. The value of traffic varies by keyword, by category, by geography, by day of week, by time of day, by device, and many other variables that go into advanced bid management systems. Importantly, the value also varies by source.

At the beginning of the Alliance, almost 30% of the traffic driven by Bing ads came from domains other than Bing.com and Yahoo.com.

When Bing and Yahoo struck the deal to create the Alliance, a key issue in the negotiations revolved around how Bing should view the Yahoo Syndication Network. Bing had no syndication partners and wasn’t clear on the value proposition they presented. Yahoo made the case that the extended reach provided a valuable and growing stream of ad revenue.

RKG held that the Yahoo Syndication Network was worse than nothing — not just for Bing, but for Yahoo as well. On average, the quality of the traffic driven by the network was significantly worse than traffic from Yahoo.com. Advertisers who didn’t pay attention to the details would therefore bid less for the traffic en masse than they would for the Yahoo.com traffic by itself. We believed Yahoo was like old-time doctors adding more and more leeches and wondering why the patient’s health kept getting worse.

Conversion rates can vary significantly depending on whether the user sees the ad after searching on Yahoo.com, or the Bing toolbar, or Dogpile, or any of a number of syndication partners. As the data below demonstrates, some of the partners drive suspiciously low quality traffic.

Yahoo did allow the exclusion of network partners that we identified as particularly bad, but this binary choice of on/off was not a great solution. The traffic was worth less, not worthless. The ability to bid the right amount on each was what was needed.

For a happy nine-month period, Yahoo actually gave advertisers some control over how much they were willing to spend on Yahoo traffic versus syndication partner traffic. By allowing advertisers to create bidding differentials to depress bids by a certain amount, they could bid the correct higher amount for Yahoo.com traffic and the correct lower amount for the partners as a whole. This wasn’t the perfect solution because we still couldn’t pick out the great partners from the awful partners and treat them each separately, but it was still better than lumping them in with Yahoo.com traffic. When Bing assumed ownership of the search business for Yahoo and its network, advertisers lost that ability to segment traffic by partner. This was a big loss for advertisers who care about results, and a big loss for Bing as well.

Understanding this background story helps emphasize the importance of exercising the controls that advertisers do have. Bing gives us the ability to exclude sites, and exclude them we must.

Advertisers need to study referrer information from user search queries to identify which partners provide good-quality traffic and which provide poor-quality traffic. Unfortunately, with the worst actors in the space, this often turns into a game of whack-a-mole. Sites that are excluded by many often disappear and reappear under a different domain name, circumventing the process and forcing advertisers to remain vigilant.

But blocking sites that drive low-quality traffic has a number of positive benefits. Saving the click costs on poor-quality traffic is an obvious win — robots don’t buy much, nor do people who inadvertently click on ads that don’t relate to what they want. Less obvious is the longer-term benefit of being able to cull the traffic. As the average quality of traffic rises, the advertiser is able to afford higher bids, which in turn gets them more high-quality traffic in exchange for the low-quality traffic they originally got.

To their credit, Bing has been much better at limiting service to the bad actors than Yahoo was. The result is that the fraction of traffic driven by the Alliance’s syndication partners (other than Yahoo) has fallen significantly.

We’re hopeful that Bing will eventually give advertisers control over these partners to allow us to either create inclusion lists (to avoid the whack-a-mole game) and/or give us individual bid controls to target bids appropriately to the quality of traffic each partner brings to the table.

3.  Bing’s different handling of match types impacts management strategy.

Consider the follow example where a user searches for “Gold Adidas running shoes” and an advertiser has these ads that the engine might choose to serve in response to that query:

Keyword

Bid Expected CTR How it matches
Gold Adidas running shoes 0.50 3.0% Exact
Gold running shoes 0.75 2.5% Phrase
Adidas running shoes 0.75 2.5% Phrase
Adidas track shoes 1.00 2.3

Broad

Adidas basketball shoes

1.00 2.0% Broad

Which ad should the search engine choose to serve? Or more correctly, which of the advertiser’s ads should compete in this auction?

There is often tension between the ad that most closely matches the user’s query and the ad that will make the engine the most money. How the engine chooses to strike that balance is important, as is the mechanism they use to estimate clickthrough rates (CTR). In the example above, the engine makes the most money serving “Adidas track shoes,” even though an exact match to the query is available. Does the engine go for relevance or revenue? How accurately can the engines gauge expected CTR on relatively low-traffic terms?

According to our research, Bing is almost twice as likely to choose a phrase match term over an exact match or broad match. Below, we show the ratio of the Alliance to Google’s propensity to match.

We can only speculate as to the reasons for this. Perhaps with only a quarter of the data Google has, Bing has a harder time estimating the CTR of low traffic keywords, and thus is more reliant on finding the closest match for ads with significant data. Perhaps it’s a processing speed issue? Looking for broad matches requires more processing time, so they default to phrase if they can find one that fits? All speculation, but the differences are remarkable. It’s hard for me to even say these words, because it is so contrary to what I have said about Google, but I would really like to see Bing’s broad match be less restrictive.

There is an odd side effect to this. Low traffic “tail” keywords tend to get much less visibility with Bing than they do in Google. For one sampling of our clients, the breakdown looked like this:

Conventional wisdom holds that the art of winning in SEM lies in constructing and managing a fairly exhaustive list of keywords, thematically organized to capture the benefits of targeted ad copy, and then bidding smartly so that the most precise match to user query is made. A smart use of dynamic creative — injecting the very keywords users searched — increases CTR, and a wise choice of landing pages means the user ends up at the right depth in the website. Long tail keywords individually don’t add much value, but collectively they can make or break a program.

However, it seems that low traffic keywords can actually hurt performance on Bing. Advice on the adCenter blog, and other anecdotal evidence, suggests that ad groups laden with low traffic tail terms may receive less traffic than the same ad group with those terms deleted. This goes against all logic and the general practices in SEM, but try it on your program to see if eliminating the lowest traffic keywords actually increases traffic volume.

We have also seen an increase over time in the degree to which brand ads are broad matched in the Alliance.

Often this reflects a potentially damaging use of brand ads on non-brand user searches. If someone searches for “flowers,” serving the 1-800 Flowers brand ad won’t hurt CTR or conversions, but will badly confuse bidding systems and one’s perception of non-brand search performance. I recommend studying the user search query data and adding negatives to brand ad campaigns to prevent this type of behavior.

4.  Keep pace with the changes and adopt what works.

The adCenter platform continues to evolve, and advertisers can expect to see Bing and the Alliance adopt new ad formats similar to those available in Google AdWords. For example, Bing tried seller ratings for a time, and while material improvements occurred on Google when AdWords adopted them, Bing seems to have dropped them.

Bing has also rolled out a deep links product that is similar to Google’s sitelinks, but different in that it’s technically a rich media ad that requires a fair amount of work to set up. These have been worth the set-up time for many of our clients so we recommend them, but speculate that a simpler text link version of sitelinks may be in the offing soon.

For ecommerce firms, Google’s Product Listing ads (PLAs) have been an enormous success. RKG has seen the sales volume on PLAs increase from about 2% of the AdWords total for participating clients to over 10% as of the beginning of 2012. Moreover, our research suggests that the presence of PLAs does not seem to cannibalize traffic from text ads to any great extent. As such, we expect to see Bing move in this direction as well. We would strongly encourage companies with product feeds to participate in any such program Bing develops. Indeed, it may help solve the challenge we’ve found with their tail keyword ad serving.

We have to believe that location extensions and other AdWords-style features can’t be far behind.

Conclusions

Advertisers the world over pine for the next great advertising vehicle that can deliver large volumes of ROI-positive traffic in the way paid search does. However, many of these same companies have paid too little attention to maximizing their results on Bing.

The Bing-Yahoo Alliance may or may not grow to rival Google in size, but even as it stands, the importance of the opportunity is significant and growing. Getting the most out of the opportunity requires most of the same tactics used in optimizing AdWords:

  • accurate tracking of success metrics;
  • well-developed and tested keyword-copy-landing page combinations;
  • ROI targets that make sense across the complete array of offerings;
  • sophisticated bid management techniques; and
  • a keen attention to detail.

In addition to these fundamentals, incorporating the adCenter-specific advice detailed in this discussion of the Alliance can help you raise your program to the next level.

Image: Alliance from Shutterstock

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