Why You Should Pay For Your Brand Terms: A ‘Go Dark’ Campaign Case Study

March 7, 2016

Paid search has been a core digital ingredient for many advertisers and marketers, but we also know that the environment has undergone tremendous change over the years. And so, it’s not uncommon that we receive a lot of questions about it – like, “Why are my CPCs rising, what’s going on with my mobile traffic, or how can I get the best visibility on the SERP?”

One of the questions we receive most often is, “Do I really need to pay for my own brand terms?”

Here are the underlying assumptions that often exist alongside the question:

My organic results cover enough of the SERP to get my customers’ attention, plus I also have a robust SEM program on mobile.

When someone types one of my brand terms in the search box, like the name of the company for example, chances are their intent is to in fact find and navigate to my brand’s website. So, the searcher would likely bypass any paid results at the top of the page because it’s ultimately not what they’re looking for.

My organic listings are enough to keep my site traffic and revenue up.

But, here are some important counter arguments to the above:

Your organic search results are not enough to cover the SERP – you now compete with the presence of paid text ads, local listings and PLAs from other brands, in addition to those of your retail partners. Both on desktop and mobile, the existence of these other ads causes organic listings to be pushed further down the page.

While someone could take the time to find your organic result, the attention span and patience of today’s consumer might say otherwise. If there are other paid listings on the SERP, and you’re not included, your organic listing could be altogether missed.

Paid listings have higher conversion rates than organic. So even though clicks on your organic listing may cause an initial increase in traffic and revenue, that increase likely won’t be enough to recoup the losses from paid brand terms.

Since we receive this question a lot, we decided to dig into the numbers and execute a real “Go Dark” test with several core brand terms. The test was done on a wholesale, direct to consumer brand that has a high level of competition on its terms from retail partners.

For the Go-Dark, our plan of action was to: pause core brand terms for two days, include those same core brand terms as negatives in all other campaigns to prevent cross traffic (Brand Plus, PLAs), and ultimately determine the impact on conversion and revenue for both organic and paid programs.

And so we let Project Go Dark begin….

Changes to the SERP

On the first day of shuttering all core brand terms, the change in the SERP (desktop) was not all that surprising. When we typed the name of the brand in the search box, their website (organic listing) got bumped down from the top slot to slot number two, second to the ad of a competitor. While occupying the second space on the results page isn’t so bad, the brand’s position worsened on Day 2 of the test. Their website got bumped down to slot number four, following 3 paid text ads and a PLA from competitors. On mobile, the brand’s organic listings slid all the way to page 3 of the SERP, below two ads and some maps for local stores. And if we were to conduct an experiment on the number of pages someone is willing to scroll through on mobile to get to what they need, chances are that number would not reach 3!

Immediate Impact on Overall Program

The brand’s position on the SERP was very clearly affected by the Go Dark, but more importantly, we needed to analyze the impact on revenue and on the collective effort of the other channels. While there was a boost in organic revenue, that increase was minimal when paired against the revenue and traffic gap created by pausing the SEM branded program. Specifically, our results were as followed:

Day 1:

Observed a 50% decrease in traffic, 74% decrease in orders and 77% decrease in revenue from the paid search program.

The organic listing saw a 41% increase in traffic, 77% increase in orders and 76% increase in revenue.

Overall, revenue from search driven traffic (paid + organic) was down 30%.

Day 2: The trend seen on Day 1 continued and intensified, with Paid SEM decreasing further and Organic increasing further.

Paid SEM saw a 65% decrease in traffic, 79% decrease in orders and 81% decrease in revenue. The organic listing saw a 54% increase in traffic, 98% increase in orders and 94% increase in revenue.

Overall, revenue from search driven traffic (paid + organic) was down 31%.

There was an overall decrease of 4% in the Average Order Value (AOV) from all search traffic, and an average of 12% of total revenue was lost per day.

Post Test Impact

Revenue and traffic were very clearly and immediately affected by shuttering the core brand terms. After analyzing these results, the retailer began paying for their brand terms again, and the program was back up and running. Though they reinstated their paid SEM brand program as immediately as possible, there were concerning post-test effects. Competitor ads maintained a strong presence on the main part of the SERP, causing the brand’s organic listings to slide down. Topline CPCs also increased by 38% directly after the test due to the increased competition and decreased quality score. Though these numbers may normalize over time, shuttering brand terms did in fact have a longer term effect than the brand had hoped.

What We Learned

While we were not at all surprised by the results of this Go Dark test, it only further validated our understanding of how Google ultimately functions. Yes, you must (or at least strongly consider) pay for your brand terms, because while organic traffic may give the appearance of standing strongly on its own, we learned through the Go Dark campaign that this is not the case.

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