Search engines remain a dominant part of the online ecosystem, with over 80% of global internet users ages 16 to 64 indicating they searched for a product or service in 2021. In January 2021, Google had an average global market share of 92% across all devices. Bing came in at a not-so-close second, with 2.7% market share, followed by Yahoo, and Baidu.
While many businesses temporarily paused their paid search campaigns back in March 2020 as a direct result of pandemic-related shut downs, it quickly became apparent that businesses needed to plan and run media if they wanted to avoid further losses in sales, leads, and conversions.
Consumer behavior shifted rapidly in response to the coronavirus, with activities that were formerly done offline (e.g., work, food shopping, B2B selling) pivoting to the online space. As a result, paid search spend and clicks increased in Q2 2020, with clicks spiking by 38%, up from 10% the previous year. The increased volume was driven by click growth in retail, consumer goods, and financial services. B2B ad spending also increased by 8% in 2020.
It’s clear that paid search still has a strong role to play in the digital media landscape. In 2021, paid search strategy must consider several things including shifts in consumer behavior, changes to Google’s ad platform, and pandemic-driven uncertainties that can have an impact on overall business (and media budget).
COVID-19’s impact on paid search
Brett Gutzmer, Ashworth’s resident paid search expert, notes that after an initial dip in search activity, Ashworth’s clients continued to get a good return on investment from their campaigns.
Says Gutzmer, “Our healthcare clients were impacted by an initial shut down in elective surgeries across most states. We paused ads promoting elective procedures, but once they were permitted again there was increased demand for these procedures from people who had postponed them.”
Businesses that have campaigns ready to go can adjust to rapid changes in consumer demand caused by pandemic-related shutdowns and re-openings. Preparing for different scenarios gives businesses an advantage over competitors who paused their campaigns indefinitely (or decided to put off launching paid search campaigns in the first place.)
In our post-pandemic world, consumer demand can rapidly wane and surge, so planning for any contingency is the best way to mitigate search campaign downtime. Planning ad and landing page copy also helps leverage ad messaging, enabling customers to get important information about your business quickly.
“If you are a business or retail store open to the public, your hours should be listed on the landing page,” explains Gutzmer. “You can also include guidelines for entering and exiting a facility, setting appointments, and include relevant information for people who are planning a visit.”
Consumers need to hear from businesses during crises. They want to know what policies and procedures you have in place to keep them, and your employees, safe. They also want to know what new services you offer to make life easier for them (e.g., curbside pickup, local delivery, online ordering, etc.), what’s in stock, how to schedule an appointment, and anything else related to how they can do business with you.
This information can be communicated in search ad copy or on landing pages (or both). It can even be addressed in the keywords you’re bidding on (e.g., “curbside pickup home depot”). The flexibility of search means that you can scale your search budget up or down based on consumer demand, business shutdowns, and virus infection rates in your area.
Planning search for multiple contingencies
It’s much easier to scale your campaigns up or down if you plan ahead. In other words, don’t wait to set up your campaign even if you don’t plan to launch the ads until Q2. Businesses can create variations in ad copy that address mandatory shutdowns, provide information about product ordering and curbside pickup, and provide instructions for setting up an appointment or virtual meeting.
If you’re a physician’s office or service-business (dog groomer, vet, hair salon, etc.) driven by appointments, you can promote virtual visits in your ad copy and list check-in protocols on your landing page. Having several variations of ads and landing pages that address different scenarios enables you to quickly pivot to the most appropriate messaging at any given time.
Gutzmer notes that if your campaign has been down for a while, now’s the time to do an audit to prepare for relaunch. “If you paused your campaigns in 2020 and are now ready to relaunch, you should review everything and restructure as appropriate. For example, online retailers should create buckets of top-performing keywords or categories, breaking them into the top 30% of sales, the middle 30% of sales, and the bottom 40%. This enables you to focus on the top 60% of what sells to get the most out of your search budget.”
The importance of ongoing management
Google is constantly changing the rules for paid search. Just last week, they announced the removal of “modified broad match” – a keyword match type that was introduced in 2018. Modified broad match terms will now be treated as “phrase match” terms. The difference between the two match types is significant.
With modified broad match, all terms in a query string must be present when a user searches, but the order of the terms doesn’t matter. With phrase match, all terms must be present in the order they’re bid on. So, for example, the phrase match term “blue suede shoes” would trigger an ad with the following searches:
“blue suede shoes”
large “blue suede shoes”
women’s “blue suede shoes”
While the modified broad match term +blue +suede +shoes would trigger an ad with any of the above, plus:
“suede shoes blue”
“blue shoes suede”
“mens shoes suede blue”
“What this means,” says Gutzmer, “is that you’ll need to migrate your modified broad match terms to phrase match or broad match. After July, the broad match modifiers will be obsolete. This will impact how ads are matched to keywords. It will be important to monitor CTR and ad performance.”
A dedicated campaign manager helps ensure that ads, keywords, and landing pages are as optimized as possible, despite platform changes. Google’s perpetual push to automate the paid search landscape can often cost businesses more money than it should. In addition to monitoring and keeping up with platform changes, skilled campaign managers can recommend the best campaign types based on your business goals.”
Says Gutzmer, “There are many different campaign types available depending on your goals. With the launch of native Discovery ad campaigns this past May, Google got into the social scrolling game. Discovery ads include images and appear in YouTube’s home feed, Gmail social and promotion tabs, and Google’s Discovery feed on mobile devices. Discovery campaigns can be leveraged to engage consumers with a brand while they’re scrolling various Google apps on their mobile device.”