Why you shouldn’t spend another penny on branded search.

What Google and digital agencies don’t want you to understand

Photo credit: Henrik Berger Jørgensen, Flickr


Picture this: a woman walks into the beauty section of a large department store. She goes up to the counter, and asks if they have the newest Chanel perfume.


The employee reaches under the counter, pulls up an ad for Chanel’s newest perfume and says “You mean, this perfume?”


“Yes,” the customer replies, “that one.”


The employee shows the customer the perfume, and 5 minutes later the sale is complete.


Would you say that the ad shown to the customer before buying the perfume was responsible for her purchase?


Google would say “yes” – any sane person would say “no”.


Yet if you’re running branded search campaigns, you’re agreeing with Google.


Let’s think this through...


In the scenario above, the woman in the store:

  1. Knows the brand Chanel exists (awareness)

  2. Knows she (probably) wants to buy their new perfume (interest)

  3. Knows how, or where, to buy it (intent)


Is it really necessary to show her an ad for the product or brand at this point in time?


To claim that the ad she was shown after making her request was responsible for the purchase is ridiculous, yet this is exactly how most Google Search campaigns are set up.


Every digital agency recommends building branded search campaigns in addition to generic keyword campaigns. Google themselves encourages you to do this “to get a more accurate understanding of how your brand and generic keywords work together to drive conversions.”


Why do they push branded search so hard?


It’s a problem of attribution.



To claim that the ad she was shown after making her request was responsible for the purchase is ridiculous, yet this is exactly how most Google Search campaigns are set up.


You’ve been sold the idea that digital media is a more effective advertising method than channels like TV, radio and print because you can target customers with more precision. There’s less “waste”, and more bang for your advertising buck.


In order to support this claim, Google needs to show you that their platform is driving sales.

A branded search campaign, where a brand bids on their own brand name or products, is the easiest way to achieve this.


A person searching for your brand name is in the bottom of the marketing funnel, and much more likely to buy than someone who isn’t. If the first thing they see is an ad for your brand, of course most people will click on it. If they end up buying something, Google claims credit for the purchase.


This is also why Google pushes you to use first click or linear attribution modelling over last-click.


"As a media seller, I want to make sure that marketers were attributing as many sales to the advertising I sold them as possible. Why would I care as a seller of advertising? There is one major reason; so I could get a larger share of their ad spend." - Jaffer Ali


Inflating results, or improving them?


Taking credit for the purchases of customers who were likely going to buy something from you regardless of whether they clicked a Search ad or not is a really good way of inflating the success of your advertising platform.


A common rebuttal to this is that brands needs to maintain awareness and digital share of voice – if you don’t bid on your brand key words then your competitors will, and they’ll steal your customer!


That’s possible, but unlikely.


Again, a woman walking into a store asking for the new Chanel perfume is unlikely to suddenly change her mind and walk out with Givenchy instead.


Yes, the sales person could offer her other brands. Yes, she might unexpectedly see something else she likes. But if she’s walking in looking for Chanel, nine times out of ten that’s what she’ll buy.


Searching directly for a brand or product on the internet is the equivalent of asking for Chanel at the perfume counter. Being shown an ad before seeing the goods is highly unlikely to have an impact.


I strongly suspect the sales gained by running branded search campaigns pale in comparison to the cost of the campaigns themselves.


You might lose a few sales to your competitors, but the money you save on not running branded search will more than make up for them.


Prove me wrong


If you disagree with any of this, try the following experiment:

  1. Change your attribution model in Google Ads to last-click

  2. Pause all your branded search campaigns

  3. After a day or two have a look at your Search conversions


In my experience, your paid campaign conversion rate will plummet and your cost per conversion will skyrocket.


Without the easy attribution of branded search, your Search campaigns will look a lot less effective than before. It might even make you question spending so much money on Google.


That’s something both Google and your ad agency definitely don’t want you to consider.


Update: This article sparked a good debate on Twitter.




Still think I'm wrong about this? Let me know...

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© 2020 by Ian Barnard.