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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

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.

Let's find out why...


The difference between branded and non-branded search

Branded search is any search query that includes your company's brand name, or variations of it. Keywords that do not reference your brand name or any part of it are considered non-branded searches.

For example, searching for "rain boots" is a non-branded search query, but "Hunter rain boots" would be considered branded search.

Why agencies recommend branded search

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 wanted 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

Does branded search improve results, or inflate 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.

How to measure real branded search results

If you still think that branded search is ineffective, 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

Here's a good blog post that explains how to change your attribution model in Google Analytics:

  1. In your Google Analytics dashboard, click Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Attribution > Model Comparison. This lets you view the various default models offered in the platform if you’re considering one of those models. Use the comparison tool to see how the data offered by each model affects your understanding of each channel’s effectiveness.

  2. Visit your first Campaign page, and then click in the Keywords tab to view the reporting table.

  3. Click on Columns, Custom Conversions, and then the Google Analytics button.

  4. Click Create to build a new column. This is where you select an attribution model and have campaign performance data filtered through this perspective.

  5. From a list of options, choose your metric; this will be the attribution model used to contextualize your data.

  6. Click Save to use this model going forward.

Secondly, compare your Google campaign traffic to Organic Search traffic before and after pausing your branded search campaigns.

Does look something like this?

What you'll likely see in your Attribution reports is that Branded Search traffic and conversions have now transferred to Organic Search. If there isn't a significant drop in your overall conversion rate, you're wasting a lot of money showing ads to people who are going to buy from you anyway.

Ebay found this out the hard way a couple of years ago after they temporarily stopped bidding on branded keywords.

Annually, eBay was burning a good $20m on ads targeting the keyword ‘eBay’... Three months later, the results were clear: all the traffic that had previously come from paid links was now coming in through ordinary links. - The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising

If your overall traffic and conversion rates remain the same after stopping branded search campaigns, that also tells you that branded search isn't driving incremental sales.

In addition, without the branded search campaigns your overall paid Search campaign conversion rates 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.

Is branded search worth it?

This article sparked a good debate on Twitter. Here's some common questions, with answers.

If I had a client and their competitor ignored branded search, then we'd be able to take market share from them via SEM

There's a research paper called The Effects of Search Advertising on Competitors: An Experiment Before a Merger that shows that this isn't true.

The researchers reckon the results ‘strongly suggest’ search queries for specific brand names tend to be ‘navigational’, rather than ‘prospective’. In plain language, this means that people often enter company names into Google because they’re already on their way to visit their website but can’t be bothered to type the full URL, not because they’re interested to learn more about the brand. So, buying ads against searches for your own brand name (or buying searches against a competitor’s name) isn’t a strong protective (or predatory) tactic.

If simply seeing an ad for the competition when someone is actively searching for a specific brand is enough to sway them, then you have a weak brand. Defend your market share in the short term, but the long term solution is investing dollars into building a stronger brand, not branded search campaigns.

There is some truth to this however: Google's online shopping behaviour report shows that introducing a new brand into a customer's exploration and evaluation phase is enough to persuade ~30% of people to change their mind. Read about it here.

Branded search results in incremental sales

Branded search campaigns typically do drive some incremental sales - you probably won't keep 100% of your traffic and conversion rates will drop slightly - but the last step is to compare the cost of your branded search campaigns to the incremental sales it drives. If you are spending $1,000 per month on branded search and only getting $500 in incremental sales, it's not worth doing it.

If you can prove that the incremental sales outweigh the opportunity cost of not pursuing new customers instead, then use branded search by all means.

Isn't it better to control where people buy your product?

For some businesses this is true. Branded search can push people towards preferred websites where you can collect first party data, enable re-marketing, and control the after-sale service.

Again, I ask: at what cost?

Businesses grow through market penetration, not retention and loyalty.

If the long-term cost of consumers buying something on your preferred site outweighs the opportunity of reaching more potential consumers as a whole, then go for it. However, if all you care about is the sale then don't bother with branded search.


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