What’s the Value of a Paid Search Impression?

I’m a numbers guy. As anyone who has worked with me can attest, I love making complicated Excel spreadsheets to analyze and then over-analyze data.

I’m the kind of guy who actually gets excited about pivot tables. That’s one of the reasons I love online marketing. Everything is trackable. Well, almost everything.

One paid search metric in particular, until recently, was impossible to track. And oddly enough, even though this metric most closely corresponds to traditional advertising, we in the online world assign little to no value to this metric.

If you haven’t guessed from the title of this article, I’m talking about the value of paid search impressions.

Search vs. Display Media

The discrepancy in the value of an impression doesn’t just exist in online vs. offline — other online channels value an impression far more than paid search. Display media in particular holds impressions as a primary metric — just look at the prevalence of the CPM pricing model.

Despite all the recent advances in targeting (re-messaging, behavioral targeting, etc.), display media is still a “passive” advertising channel. The goals of display media are to distract a user from whatever they’re currently looking at and pull their attention to your message. Search, on the other hand, is an “active” channel, sharing your message in response to an engaged user’s query.

So why are paid search impressions given so much less value than display media impressions?

To solve this conundrum, one might draw a comparison between online banner ads and offline advertising. Both are image-based, with a strong visual component, which makes it easy to sell the value of view-through conversions.

However, this current “industry double-standard” has more to do with technology limitations than actual value. Because banner ads have an ad serving requirement, it’s easy to track impression-based conversions — and because we can track these conversions, it’s in our best interest to value them and to sell that value to clients. Note that in a good display media campaign it’s not uncommon to have 85 to 90 percent of all conversions come purely from impressions.

The Branding Value of Paid Search Impressions

I’m not trying to de-value display media as a channel. This issue just shows how young the online advertising industry still is. In the ancient days of Overture, back when we were first scrabbling for budgets from our clients, our main selling point was online’s trackability.

Today, online as a whole is often constrained by this asset. We’re held to a much higher ROI standard than offline investments, and any metric we can’t track (such as paid search impression-based conversions) has been ignored for so long most people don’t even consider its value.

In 2008, Google commissioned a study to determine the branding value of a paid search impression. They found significant lifts in both unaided awareness and purchase intent, and also found that a brand’s paid search impressions had a negative impact on the unaided awareness of its competitors.

As valuable as this study is, I’m reminded of the “Your dog wants steak” memo from Fark.com — that is, while it’s nice to have a study confirming that paid search impressions have branding value, this study doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. While it’s easy to see paid search’s branding value at the macro level, when budgets get cut non-brand paid search is still usually the first channel to go.

Attribution — An Incomplete Solution

The rapid advancements in attribution reporting over the past two years have provided incredible value in determining the true value of paid search. Being able to see every step of a customer’s path to conversion has finally given us a concrete value for expensive clicks on highly competitive “introducer” and “influencer” keywords.

However, we’re still trapped by the same technological limitations. Attribution solutions can track clicks on any channel, but when it comes to impressions, only display media gets credit because that’s the only channel where impression tracking is possible.

Until a few months ago, that is…

Google Provides an Answer

Last spring Google jumped into the attribution game with the Google Search Funnel report. It integrates with Google Conversion Tracking and shows a user’s points of interaction with your paid search campaign before a conversion. Pretty snazzy, but also not that different from what several other companies are offering in their attribution reporting — with one important exception.

You see, Google’s Search Funnel report is the only current attribution tool that shows paid search impressions in the path to conversion. Finally, we can tie impressions to an actual metric that shows their value!

Oddly enough, this awesome new development has gone nearly unnoticed. It seems that everyone is so used to assigning little to no value to paid search impressions that few people are actually digging into this piece of the data.

There’s great value to be found in examining impression data in these reports. One of my clients is a major fashion retailer that runs paid search ads on several designer-name keywords (Prada, Gucci, etc.). These keywords are highly competitive, and when looked at in a last-click model it doesn’t provide the majority of our revenue. We’ve always known that maintaining a presence on these keywords was a valuable way to build our brand and acquire new customers, and the attribution has backed up this claim. But adding impression-based assists to the equation makes these keywords even more valuable.

Looking only at designer-name and non-brand keywords for the past month, we see the following:

  • These keywords drove only 541 last-click conversions. Not bad, but this means we’re typically running below ROI goal on these keywords when looked at on a pure last-click model.
  • For 305 other conversions, these keywords were part of the click path prior to conversion. Now we’re starting to see the true value of these keywords — but this is where other attribution models stop.
  • Now here’s the fun part: a whopping 5,914 conversions were assisted by a paid search impression from these keywords!

Finally, we have a conversion metric tied to a paid search impression. Although this report doesn’t work exactly like display media report (where an impression can trump a click for last touch point), it’s an incredibly useful tool for determining the true value of paid search campaigns.

Also note that this report currently only shows paid search activity in the path to conversion. If Google expands the funnel report to include other channels they will have a distinct advantage over other attribution solutions, because Google is the only source for impression-based paid search conversion data for the foreseeable future.

And now the best part — this added value is free. Because paid search is based on a CPC model, you’re already getting all these valuable impressions at no extra cost.

So spend some time digging into the Google Search Funnel report, and see what extra benefit your paid search impressions are already bringing to your campaigns. And call me if you want to chart this data on an awesome, nerdy pivot table!

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