Given that times are tough and cheap entertainments are hard to find, you might like to try your hand at a game you first read about in this very paragraph: Paid Search Family Fortunes.
Simply gather the family round, choose a topical subject - perhaps the disastrous economic conditions? - and take it in turns Googling the phrases you think canny advertisers are most likely to have bid on, scoring your suggestions according to the number of sponsored links each one throws up. Let's see now, "bank collapse"? Two results. "Robert Peston"? Surprisingly, only one. "Credit crunch"? Jackpot.
The ability of paid search to respond fast to changing market conditions is one reason why many believe the medium is well-placed not only to survive a recession, but even to thrive in such circumstances. Tactically, search is the direct response emergency service marketers call upon when their markets are rocked by external events.
"Basically, one of the good things about search is that it is an extremely reactive medium, so something can happen in the morning and you can be on the landscape immediately," says Gavin Ailes, deputy managing director at The Search Works. "Any big news story will attract terms, and as competitors go bust in the credit crunch, people will be wanting to take up their traffic from them."
According to Tino Nombro, managing director of Edinburgh-based internet marketing consultancy Ambergreen, there are two sides to the issue. "One the one hand, online is the only buoyant area of marketing in the present climate, and companies need to take advantage of that," he says. "Secondly, as consumers are becoming wary during the credit crisis, there is the opportunity to migrate customers from brands that have reputation issues or are no longer trading."
Just as holidays and financial services have been perhaps the two most affected areas in the current economic troubles, so those sectors have seen increasing amounts of opportunistic, short-term search activity. When XL Leisure Group went to the wall in September, rivals wasted little time in increasing their investment, not only on the company's trademarked search terms, but also on topical searches referring to the company's fortunes. These were designed to catch concerned XL customers on the rebound, and many links offered both information on the state of the collapsed company and opportunities to rebook with a rival.
"Most of the switched-on players reacted within hours to the collapse of XL," says Andrew Girdwood, head of search at Bigmouthmedia. "With paid search, if you have got the budget, you can get a campaign running in minutes, and people did."
Much of this hawkish bidding was brought about by Google's recent removal of its policy banning companies from bidding on their rivals' trademarked terms. Many advertisers have quickly become accustomed to bidding on rivals' terms in good times and bad, but others, such as Monarch Airlines, made a particular exception in the case of the XL crash.
"On that Friday morning when it was announced that XL had gone into liquidation, we had a chat with our client Monarch and asked if bidding on the XL terms was something they would like to do," says Pete Oxlade, group account director at the airline's digital agency, Cheeze. "Before, we had only ever advertised under the Monarch brand - we hadn't even used generic terms."
Monarch's strategy was to run a straightforward brand PPC campaign, but some brands will react to such situations with straightforward price offers and others will opt for content specifically offering help to those affected by a crisis.
Lloyds TSB implemented a crisis marketing strategy during last year's floods by creating and optimising a new website (www.helpimflooded.co.uk). The site was completed in 72 hours by Tamar and was designed to provide practical advice to customers and non-customers who had been flooded or felt they were in danger. The aim was to use search to add value to a very specific audience and build a positive brand image for Lloyds as an organisation that could respond rapidly to events. Tamar built the site and constructed the campaign, which relied more on natural search than PPC. While organic search may be harder to influence than the paid variety, Tamar search director Neil Jackson believes consumers are more likely to trust natural search results - in a crisis or at any other time.
"When there is new terminology and new situations, you can create websites that offer particular information and they will quickly start to rank for those search terms, because there is no competition," says Jackson. "Organic search may take slightly longer to develop, but you can get there reasonably quickly and it gives you an element of trust."
Clearly, not all short-term uses of search depend on natural or unnatural disasters. Product launches and high-profile marketing activity from a major player in a given market will also inevitably drive search bidding on related terms, both from rivals and resellers.
"The latest phones in the Nokia Nseries have just come out and they have got some exclusivity, but other vendors can come in, even if they can't sell the phones, and bid for that term," says Ailes. "Orange launched its I Am campaign (in July) and its competitors got all over the term straight away."
While fast-thinking search campaigns can clearly bring huge dividends - Ocean Florida, a competitor to XL's Travel City Direct division, hit the month's revenue target in just one day after using search to target customers of its bankrupt rival (see box) - there are plenty of ways to play a bad hand.
When it becomes apparent that any search strategy is working well, it does not take much time for the market to flood in.
"There is always a phase two in these situations, where so many people go for the opportunity that it drives prices up," says Girdwood. "It's like leaping in after a shiny coin - if everyone else does it, it becomes a bit of a scramble. The clever people go in, do well out of it and get out. Others will get a bit of a clobbering, because what they thought would be a cheap, easy opportunity actually becomes an expensive fight."
Likewise, for companies looking to capitalise on activity in the market, it is important to be honest about your own product's real relevance to the people who are likely to be searching.
"It has got to be really relevant and highly targeted," says Tanase Rivers, PPC account manager at search specialist Just Search. "You can't have an advert that says 'cheap' or 'low-cost' if you are actually not."
As the economic situation worsens, no media channel can be guaranteed that its revenues won't drop, but there are positive signs for search. In October, a quarter of travel companies polled by destination and events information provider Whatsonwhen said they would increase search engine marketing by up to 50 per cent, with two-thirds of respondents citing search as their current top priority.
"Brands currently have an increased focus on quantifying the return from their advertising budget," says Georgie Harmel, head of search at Zed Media. "Search marketing is recognised as being the most transparent and cost-effective direct response channel, so we expect to see robust budgets during this period."
In some cases, she adds, budgets are actually on the increase. "One reason for that is that brands want to get more sales through search, in order to make up for a drop in footfall and in-store sales levels."
The singular strength of search, according to Tino Nombro, is that when people are searching, you already know what they are interested in. "In the current environment, that kind of information can be vital to getting all the customers you can possibly get," he says. "Every new customer is absolutely essential to any business and using search to ensure you keep your fair share and capitalise at a time when competitors are struggling just seems common sense.
"In today's climate, search is one of the few areas that can actually make a significant difference to your business," he adds. And, with the caveat that no marketing channel is guaranteed to rescue a marketer in grave trouble, this is the essence of the ongoing relevance of search as a direct medium. All good business sense suggests a recession is no time to cut back on marketing, direct or otherwise. But wholly accountable channels that measurably result in sales are surely among the most secure bets in a time of crisis.
- In the current economic climate,there is an opportunity to migrate customers from suffering brands
- Organic search is harder to influence but it can help to maintain trust
- In a poll taken in October, a quarter of travel companies said they planned to increase search engine marketing
SILVER LINING - How rival profited from travel firm's woes
Objective: To develop a PPC strategy, driving to a tactical web page
Target audience: Customers of Travel City Direct who had been affected by the company going bust
Nick Beck, director of search engine marketing at agency Tug, remembers vividly where he was when he heard niche tour operator Travel City Direct had hit the skids. He was out for dinner with his client Ocean Florida, Travel City's direct rival.
"My client was buzzing with excitement," says Beck. "We immediately created PPC ads to drive to a friendly, fair landing page that we worked with them to develop, offering people advice on what to do if they had booked with Travel City."
The campaign employed a heady combination of remorseless commercial tactics and concern for the plight of consumers. On the one hand, the search strategy deployed terms such as 'travel city gone bust'. On the other, the site that Ocean Florida had set up was tasteful, helpful and struck the right tone.
"It is nasty," Beck concedes, "but I think this example shows it is a win-win. They did a month's revenue on the first day and they got a lot of new customers and emails saying, 'You are the best, thanks so much.'"
As the campaign went on, the inevitable laws of search bidding kicked in, Beck recalls. "On day one, we were paying something like 50p a click, and by day three or four, people were putting maximum bids of £5."
The PPC push yielded a click-through rate of more than 20 and the landing page saw a conversion rate of more than 50 per cent during the 72 hours after the XL bankruptcy hit the press.
"While it is aggressive, while it is capitalist, if you couch it in a helpful fashion and that drives through to a satisfying consumer journey, everybody benefits," says Beck.
BIG ISSUE - How can brands be sure search is delivering?
Garrett Dearey, associate director, Positive Digital
"As an integrated digital firm, this is a question that we constantly ask ourselves. How is search actually going to affect the outcome? Could the money that is going there be spent in a smarter way? We try to impose best practice on our clients and say: 'Before you start getting the chequebook out for PPC or display, have a look at what you can do on your site to make sure it is working as hard as it can.' Everyone considers search as something of a rocket science, when in fact, Google, Yahoo! and MSN all come out and go, 'Do this and you will be 90 per cent there'. You are looking at architecture, you are looking at age construction and how the copy aligns with the metadata you put in. You need to think smartly about SEO at the outset and not retroactively fit it."
Neil Jackson, search director, Tamar
"As a natural search specialist, this is the cornerstone of what we want to do - demonstrating that we are the best route to market for the areas that we are in, compared to traditional media, direct marketing or whatever else. The only way you can actually gauge your spend on search is to speak the same language as everyone else: what is the cost per acquisition, what is the ROI? It is not easy, actually, in natural search, but we are confident with most of our clients that we can demonstrate our costs and success compared to all their other channels. The next step after that is understanding the touchpoints, which is a question of analytics. We are getting to the stage where that is do-able and we are getting a lot more accurate."