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RKG is a digital marketing agency providing data-driven solutions to online marketing challenges.


Facing the Firehose: An Intern's Summer in SEO

28 Sep 2016 7:47:07

You are shopping online for a new sweatshirt. Seconds after typing a brand name into Google, you’re browsing through hundreds of hoodies. Do you consider how that content is created and organized for such easy access? I surely didn’t, until my Merkle internship.The average users of search engines, as with any seamless product or service, tend to be unaware of the complex systems occurring behindthescenes. For ten weeks, I worked as a Merkle Search Engine Optimization (SEO) intern in my hometown of Bend, Oregon. I sought practical training in SEO, because exposure to this field is hard to come by in college. In just a few months, I went from a rudimentary understanding of how search engines work, to having completed an SEO audit for a local business. My Merkle internship began with intensive SEO training. During the first three weeks, new hires and interns face a “fire hose of information,” as someone in my office accurately described it. I learned the core concepts and terminology necessary for a foundation in SEO. This training period was challenging, but the pieces of the puzzle quickly started to fit together. To share the most valuable aspects of my experience, I incorporated an SEO tool used on the job. Here are the top five opportunities this internship provided, SERP style (SERP=Search Engine Results Page): Of these opportunities, the most beneficial one was the Summer Project, which was an SEO site audit for a local business. Much of my time was dedicated to this project, which resulted in a 60-page document and supplemental spreadsheets. I did the majority of the audit work independently, with support from my mentors and account director. I also had the responsibility of leading our meetings with the local client during the course of the summer, as well as giving the final presentation. As the youngest, least experienced person on the team, this posed a unique and challenging situation. But this opportunity pushed me to really understand the SEO process, the recommendations I was making, and to take ownership of my work. Fortunately, my local client was a pleasure to work with. Their staff was very receptive and appreciative of the feedback we provided on how to improve their website. Merkle’s SEO internship provided the work experience I was looking for — made all the better by a great group of coworkers. I saw that a 9-to-5 job doesn’t have to be all work and no play. Social outings and spontaneous Nerf gun fights are regular occurrences in the Bend office. My time at Merkle has given me valuable skills that I look forward to building on in the future.  [...]

Examining Whether AdWords Bid Headroom Leads to Higher CPCs on Brand Keywords

26 Sep 2016 16:19:20

In the digital-first world of 2016, protecting a brand name and reinforcing customer loyalty has become increasingly important to employing a successful marketing strategy. But even as companies are learning how to better reach their customers and target audiences, their top competitors are fighting to win those same audiences with a stronger offer. In paid search, this marketing challenge is frequently demonstrated through competitive brand bidding. According to one report, advertisers lost roughly 45 million clicks to competitive trademark bidders in Q2 2016 alone. As you consider the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with your customers online, it can be critical to uphold a prominent position on your branded terms so that your customers aren’t swayed by competitive offers. Testing Bid Headroom Maintaining top position on brand terms is a combination of quality score (which should be very strong on brand keywords) and keyword bids.  Concerned about inflating their click costs, though, some advertisers may be hesitant to set a keyword bid much higher than the average cost per click (CPC) they pay. This difference between max bid and CPC is often referred to as bid “headroom”. Anyone who has spent significant time managing a PPC budget knows that sudden changes in the competitive landscape are not uncommon, and bid headroom is used to prepare for these sudden changes. The willingness to “open your pockets” and trust Google to charge appropriate CPCs must be balanced with the need to protect your important brand search terms when your competitors start to enter the landscape. An account team at Merkle ran a test to determine whether Google’s auction would arbitrarily inflate CPC as a sole result of bid headroom. We wanted to know: would lowering bids drive down average CPC, without sacrificing position or impression share? The 20-day testing period focused on six high volume exact match brand keywords. These keywords faced steady, but modest competition and consistently maintained position 1.0. Our team created new ad groups to mitigate any issues of historical performance and quality score, and all other factors were held even to ensure a clean 50/50 split in traffic. Each weekday, bids on the experiment ad groups were reduced proportionally dependent on the starting bid of each keyword. At the end of the testing period we could then determine if lowering bids reduced our average CPC without sacrificing site traffic. Results We found no evidence to suggest that a relationship exists between headroom and CPC for top brand terms that appear consistently in position 1.0 at the top of the page. The test results show that, despite having a significantly lower max bid, CPC remained unaffected and position remained steady. This proves Google is not arbitrarily inflating the cost paid for any given click based on greater headroom alone. Importantly though, if the bid fell low enough to begin losing position or impression share, lower CPC will naturally follow. Merkle has also shown in the past that Google sets top of page minimum’s that can impact CPC in some auctions. If your bid falls below this minimum threshold, even for a small percentage of auctions, you may see CPC decline as ads will begin showing in less prominent areas of the page for some results. This decrease in CPC, however, will come at the expense of brand clicks that are potentially shifting to your competition. It is also important to note that competition on the keyword shown above remained steady throughout our testing period. Had a new competitor entered the space with an aggressive bid, CPC likely would’ve been higher on the control ad groups. But position and impression share, and ultimately brand traffic to the site, would’ve been lost on the experiment ad groups. In this situation, higher CPC is a function of competitive pressure, and not bid headroom. Ad Extension Availability and Impression Share Correlated with Bid Ad extensions are a critical component to any successful paid[...]

Google Revamps Its Merchant Center Interface, Providing Some Improved Functionality

13 Sep 2016 10:32:16

Google recently rolled out a new version of their Merchant Center, an interface that allows merchants to check on the overall health of their product feeds as well as diagnose issues with specific products. As our team recently discussed in The PLA Playbook, having strong data quality in product feeds is critical to running a successful PLA program. Changes are Mostly Aesthetic and Structural The appearance and organizational structure of the Merchant Center are the main aspects that Google upgraded. Aside from moving to a darker look, the biggest updates come on the left-hand rail. Previously, the Diagnostics tab (where you can see errors and warnings listed for individual SKUs) had its own place on the rail. You now have to go into the “Products” section in order to get to the Diagnostics tab. The “Products” header also contains the Feeds and List sections (somewhat confusingly, the List tab was called “Products” in the old Merchant Center). The same logic applies to the “Promotions” header, which also houses “Feeds” and “List” pages. The way that items are grouped on the menu will take some getting used to for experienced users, but it ultimately makes more sense than the previous setup. Some Diagnostic Functionality Improved Despite the slight annoyance of having to make an extra click to navigate to the page, the functionality of the Diagnostics tab has been greatly improved. Prior to this update, the Diagnostics tab only updated twice per day, which was frustrating if you were pushing a new feed to fix errors or warnings. This is because, in most cases, you wouldn’t be able to see the impact of changes until the next day. The Diagnostics tab now updates in “near real-time,” which allows us to see the impact of changes in feeds promptly.   Areas of Opportunity Still Exist While the new setup is more intuitive for the most part, there are a few changes that would simplify the user experience. For example, API diagnostics cannot be accessed using the left-hand rail anymore. Instead, you now have to click on the three dots on the top right of the page to get to API diagnostics. We use this frequently and it would be nice to have this included within the “Products” menu. A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t find something that used to exist in the Merchant Center, check the top right of the page. Additionally, some of the section names can get confusing. For example, it would be easy to absentmindedly click the Feeds option within the Promotions tab and think that you are in the Product Feeds section. Adding a small clarification within the naming convention could alleviate this issue, something like “Promo Feeds” and “Promo List” would work well. The biggest annoyance has been the fact that if you are checking Merchant Centers for multiple clients, it will not allow you to seamlessly log out and log back in for a different client. Google displays the following message when trying to log in: To overcome this issue, all you have to do is go back to the Merchant Center login page after receiving this message and it will allow you to log in successfully. I would be surprised if this ended up being a longstanding problem. Rather, this seems like a bug in the code that I’m sure Google will fix in the coming weeks. The biggest benefit by far is the fact that we are able to see the Diagnostics tab update in real time. Despite a few minor changes that we would like to see, the new Merchant Center is certainly a step up from the old. [...]

Team USA Sponsors Excelled at Expanding Ad Campaign Reach through Digital

25 Aug 2016 13:52:46

The 2016 Summer Olympics proved interesting for advertisers for a couple of different reasons. With updates to the much reported on International Olympics Committee (IOC) marketing restrictions, we expected the playing field to open up and see more companies advertising during the Olympic Games. On top of that, as noted by IOC marketing guidelines, with the increased digital viewership, social activity, Olympic app downloads, and online news sources, we anticipated advertisers - global IOC sponsors, Team USA sponsors, and non-sponsors alike - to up their digital efforts to match increased digital coverage for a fully integrated marketing effort. To measure digital investment relative to traditional marketing efforts, we, with the help of media technology company 4C Insights, looked at top TV advertisers over the course of the Games beginning with the opening ceremony August 5th through the closing ceremony August 21st. The charts below feature the average number of TV ads and social posts (on Facebook and Twitter) for advertisers of each sponsorship type. As you can see, we found an inverse relationship between level of Olympic sponsorship and investment in TV advertising, while we saw US National Sponsors leading the way in social content produced. Top level IOC sponsors averaged 520 socials posts and 60 TV ads; Team USA sponsors 960 social posts and 140 TV ads; and non-sponsors 640 social posts and 225 TV ads. We were initially surprised that the highest level of sponsorship did not correlate with the most produced TV and social content. However, after watching the Olympics, the dividends of being a global sponsor were clear. Brands and logos received exposure in televised events and NBC shared clips online. For example, as the Official Timekeeper of the Olympic Games, Omega’s brand was inherently tied to the success of Katie Ledecky and Usain Bolt. With so much visibility, IOC sponsors could rely more heavily on user generated content and content pushed by other third parties like NBC. Nevertheless, as audiences continue to move online, we believe digital efforts across all channels are increasingly crucial for capturing the demand created. It will be interesting to see how brands adjust their marketing strategies in future Games as more advertisers enter the space. On the other hand, non-sponsors had to take a different approach by focusing on both TV and digital content to bring their brands into the Olympics conversation. Knowing that their brand names weren’t layered into the actual broadcast of the games and balancing the fact that they couldn’t use Olympic intellectual property, non-sponsors compensated with content volume. Team USA sponsors fell somewhere on the spectrum between the two as they reaped some of the benefits of an IOC sponsor, but not enough to rest on their laurels. Given IOC sponsors made a large investment by simply being a sponsor, it is a more interesting assessment to compare each advertiser type by the breakdown between digital and TV marketing. In comparing TV advertisements to social posts generated (Facebook and Twitter combined), it appears that IOC sponsors under indexed in social compared to the rest of the field, which is particularly surprising given how open the content and imagery restrictions were for IOC sponsors. Conclusion Given the amount of time, effort, and monetary investment that goes into advertising during the Olympics, as well as the immense audience size, we were surprised that advertisers weren’t consistently matching their digital efforts to their TV ad time. We look forward to seeing how digital advertising evolves by the next Olympics. In the meantime, check back in with us for our next big sports report covering advertisers' digital efforts during the Super Bowl. [...]

PLA Playbook Is the Guide to All Things Shopping

19 Aug 2016 11:32:31

We are excited to announce the release of the PLA Playbook. This detailed report includes best practices and advanced strategies for managing Shopping campaigns. 

Shopping grew significantly over the past few years with PLAs now contributing 46% of all Google paid search clicks for retailers in Q2 of 2016. Find out how to capture shoppers within the changing search space by laying a strong foundation and continuing to find opportunities for incremental growth with tactics from our PLA Playbook. 

In this report, our Shopping experts explain how to use tools and features like campaign priorities, custom labels, and product type, to structure campaigns that are tailored to retail business. Readers will learn how to find incremental growth opportunities even in existing and mature accounts and how to practice query-based targeting and people-based targeting to optimize Shopping campaigns, both from shoppers’ motivations and from previous interactions with your brand. 

Another clear trend that has strongly influenced e-commerce and Shopping, is the growth of mobile. Mobile spend on PLAs grew 135% in Q2 of 2016. Retailers can now capture incremental value from mobile by setting data-driven bids and considering the cross-device and in-store influence that it has on their program as a whole. 

For more trends in the Shopping space, and for proven strategies to optimize your campaigns, download the PLA Playbook now.



Recapping the Biggest Google Shopping Changes So Far in 2016

17 Aug 2016 10:13:07

Whether you’re a rookie to the world of Google Shopping or you’re an experienced veteran, every SEM analyst knows the landscape can and will change at any minute. Just this year, Google has pushed across many changes—some affecting all advertisers, some affecting only a few. This article is intended to help you decipher the updates announced by Google so far in 2016. GTIN Requirement Of the announcements made this year, by far the most earth-shattering was made on February 2 when Google said they would begin requiring GTINs for all products that have one in the US. GTIN stands for Global Trade Item Number, and includes an item’s UPC, ISBN, EAN, or JAN. Hopefully this isn’t news to you since the deadline to provide GTINs was May 16, 2016, and advertisers which fail to pass these codes stand to have products disapproved. However, if you’re still feeling the wrath of GTIN-aggedon, there are lots of resources out there to help you reduce unwanted product disapprovals, but start with our (shameless plug alert) blog post chronicling where to find your product’s GTINs. Showcase Shopping Ads More related to the look and feel of PLAs on Google is the announcement about a new mobile ad format called Showcase Shopping Ads. How it works: Rather than showing a single product for a broad search such as ‘summer dress’, Showcase Shopping Ads show multiple brands with the ability to click into each brand and see a variety of their products related to the specific search. Google is calling this an ‘immersive.’ All merchants running shopping campaigns are automatically entered into the basic version of this beta, where Google charges for clicks in the immersive. In the premium version, merchants are able to upload their own immersive images, create targeted campaigns in AdWords, and select exactly which products they’d like to show on the various searches. Google charges on a “cost per experience” basis in premium, with experience meaning how long the consumer spends in your immersive. Contact your Google rep if you’d like to be whitelisted for the premium version. Many of our clients are excited about this new ad format, but there are still many unanswered questions by Google about this beta. One of the biggest questions revolves around the CPE model for the premium version. What if someone clicks into your brand and steps away from their computer for 10 minutes, never leaving your brand’s page? From a strategic point of view, it would make sense to show top selling products regardless of what industry the advertiser is in for most of the broad searches. However, one thing to keep in mind is price point. For example, it may not make sense to feature your most expensive guitar option at the top for a search like ‘cheap acoustic guitar’ even if it is a top selling item. Expanded Feed Requirements Announced on May 25, Google made the following changes to data requirements:                 Deadline of September 1, 2016: Non-apparel products must have images at least 100 x 100 pixels in size (formerly 32 x 32 pixels) and will be disapproved if not adjusted by the deadline. Depending on how you host your images, you may be able to add the size onto the end of the image link. If that’s not possible for you, consider sending an alternate image already in the feed that does meet the size requirement. Added requirement to submit a Google product category for products in ‘Apparel & Accessories’, ‘Media’, and ‘Software’ for merchants targeting any country (new for Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, India, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Turkey) ‘Color’ and ‘size’ are now required for apparel products in Germany, France, Japan, and the UK                 Deadline of February 14, 2017 GTIN required for merchants targeting any country (new for Austria, Belgium, Canada, India, Mexico, Norway, P[...]

IOC Advertisers Underwhelm with Digital Efforts in Early Goings of Olympics

12 Aug 2016 10:46:49

With the Olympics kicking off in full swing just over a week ago, our digital marketing teams began tracking IOC sponsors’ digital campaigns beginning with the U.S. airing of the Opening Ceremonies in an effort to judge which brands did the most to amplify their message online. While there were a few bright spots of brands putting real effort into their digital communication during the Opening Ceremonies, many seemed to have ignored some key digital channels. Here are some thoughts from our display advertising, SEO, social media, and paid search experts. Display Advertising One of the biggest digital opportunities brands have to amplify their TV investment during an event like the Olympics is to buy display ad space on sites relevant to the event. For the most part, the IOC sponsors did not do a great job in this department, with two major exceptions: Procter & Gamble owned prominent placements on YouTube for the entire evening of the Opening Ceremony to showcase its subsidiary brands, and Bridgestone promoted its “See How the Best Are Built” campaign on major sports and news sites with rich media ads featuring U.S. athletes. However, IOC sponsors’ loss was other brands’ gain, as a number of other advertisers—particularly the Team USA sponsors—took advantage of the door being left open. Ralph Lauren, designer of Team USA’s opening ceremony apparel, won impressions on Olympic-related search terms on YouTube throughout the night, and TDAmeritrade and Budweiser scooped up roadblock placements to dominate the page on sports-related websites. SEO On the SEO side, we expected to see cohesive campaigns with dedicated, evergreen landing pages that would be promoted in IOC sponsored commercials to enhance the audience’s experience and solidify the brand message. Across sponsors, only one reused a landing page from previous games, some ranked only for press releases, and the majority did not advertise campaign website URLs in their ads. Panasonic, Samsung, and Visa used targeted landing pages that provided additional content to keep visitors on the site, making those brands the top organic performers for the Opening Ceremony. On the flip side, Bridgestone had a false start by advertising a website URL that could not rank organically due to a meta robots “noindex” tag. Overall, none of the brands fully capitalized on bringing the large viewership of the Opening Ceremony to campaign websites. Social Media We didn’t expect to see the same level of activity as the Super Bowl, but we did expect official IOC sponsors to take advantage of their unique position and the shared experience. Given the much publicized draconian rules around even tweeting about the games, IOC sponsors effectively had an entire social conversation cordoned off to themselves. By the time Team USA paraded out, #OpeningCeremony and #Olympics were trending high on Twitter with nearly a million mentions. And yet, the brand activity on social was little more than a whisper. Always tweeted about female athletes, tying them to its #LikeAGirl campaign. Bridgestone and Omega both posted photos from the Opening Ceremony to Instagram and Twitter. By and large, the IOC sponsors were passive on digital, but there are a couple of things to consider. First, Perhaps NBC’s now-derided tape delay factored into the decision to remain quiet. (Indeed, it was possible to see a lot of the Opening Ceremony on social before it aired on NBC.) Brands also may have simply chosen soft starts to weeks-long campaigns. Either way, we’ll be checking in throughout the course of the games to see if IOC sponsors hit their stride in digital to back up their colossal sponsorship and media buys. Paid Search In order to effectively leverage paid search within an Olympic sponsorship advertisers should 1) capture search traffic from interest in their sponsorship and 2) [...]

Merkle Q2 2016 Digital Marketing Report Released

26 Jul 2016 9:54:28

We are excited to announce the release of the Merkle Q2 2016 Digital Marketing Report for download. Highlighting trends and changes impacting the digital marketing space, the report provides data and commentary across SEO, paid search, display advertising, paid social and more. This edition of the report also includes analyses on the rising search partner share of Google Shopping traffic and the early performance of Google’s Expanded Text Ads. Download the report here. Here are a few of the major trends analyzed in this report. Paid Search Google overall Y/Y spend growth fell slightly from 25% in Q1 to 22% in Q2. The search giant faces tougher year ago spend comparisons heading into Q3, as Google added its third text ad above organic links on phones in July of 2015, spurring strong Y/Y phone text ad growth ever since. Google Product Listing Ads continued to grow at the fastest rate of any ad format with a 73% increase in clicks Y/Y. Search partner traffic, including clicks Yahoo and Google image search, contributed ten points of overall growth to Google Shopping for the quarter. Mobile share of paid search traffic held steady from Q1 to Q2, with phone and tablet traffic shares remaining at 39% and 14%, respectively. Organic Search & Social Organic visits fell across all devices and 7% overall Y/Y in Q2, as Google updates made features such as ads and the Local Pack much more prominent over the past year, to the detriment of organic visits. Overall organic visits were up 11% last Q2. Among the major search engines, only Bing registered positive organic visit growth Y/Y in Q2. Heading into its acquisition by Verizon, Yahoo organic search fell 14%. Social media continues to account for roughly the same share of all site traffic as at the beginning of 2015, with 2.8% share in Q2. Comparison Shopping Engines Advertisers drove 23% and 33% more revenue Y/Y in Q2 out of comparison shopping engines Connexity and the eBay Commerce Network, respectively. These two networks account for 97% of CSE spend. Connexity and the eBay Commerce Network combined to account for 9% as much revenue as Google Product Listing Ads in Q2 for advertisers using all three platforms. Display Overall display spend grew 62% Y/Y, with 62% of Q2 2016 spend allocated to retargeting efforts and 38% to campaigns aimed at prospects. Mobile devices accounted for 28% of all Google Display Network traffic in Q2, with 16% of all GDN traffic coming from phones and 12% from tablets. Download the Q2 2016 Digital Marketing Report for more. [...]

Roller Coaster Brand CPCs Come Back Down to Earth

25 Jul 2016 15:34:17

Just two weeks ago we reported on increases in average brand CPC on phones that began impacting many advertisers’ spend in the last week of June. Just as quickly as CPCs increased, however, they’ve fallen right back down to earth, and over the last couple of days have actually been about 10% lower than what was observed in early May for the median advertiser.


What Just Happened?

Since there was no obvious cause of the initial increase in mobile brand CPC, it’s a bit hard to say what changed to totally reverse the trend.

I’d love to think Google read our blog post and identified some issue unintentionally causing CPCs to rise which they’ve since remedied, given that CPCs began falling almost immedately after our post was published. A research analyst can dream, right?

The timing of the increase oddly aligned fairly well with the apparent roll out of a fourth text ad on phones in late June, as evidenced by a significant increase in the share of non-brand phone text ad traffic coming from ads in the fourth position.


The rollout of the fourth text ad was very unlikely to have had any impact on brand CPCs, however, so it seems to just be coincidence.

Either way, yay lower brand CPCs! We’ll be sure to publish any updates to this trend in the coming weeks and months.


Google Increasingly Showing Four Text Ads Above the Organic Results on Phones

19 Jul 2016 16:44:01

Almost exactly a year after they began increasingly showing three paid links above the organic results on phones where there used to be only two, Google appears to have further expanded its paid search inventory on phones with the addition of a fourth text ad at the top of the page for a greater share of searches. The share of non-brand phone text ad traffic coming from ads featured in the fourth position began rising considerably at the end of June, and daily share is now regularly over 3% after coming in at lower than 0.25% for the first few weeks of June. While Morgan Stanley observed the fourth text ad primarily for travel and finance advertisers, our brands are primarily retail and are also seeing it. In turn, phone share of non-brand text ad traffic has also increased: As there are now more text ad positions available on the page, first page and top of page minimum bids provided by Google have fallen since the increased rollout of the fourth text ad. Google Appears to Have Made Multiple Changes at the End of June These trends coincide with a rise in brand text ad CPC on phones for many advertisers. While the addition of a fourth text ad likely has nothing to do with this CPC increase, the additional ad does appear to have impacted brand average first page and top of page minimum bids, which also fell over the same time frame as non-brand. Thus, it appears Google has quietly rolled out changes which are impacting both brand and non-brand performance on phones, though the cause of the increase in brand CPC is still a mystery. Outlook The fourth text ad was not formally announced by Google, much in the same way that the third text ad was not confirmed last year until a Search Engine Land column of mine exposed the apparent impact. While the addition of a fourth text ad isn’t likely to drive the kind of massive growth observed on phones following the addition of the third text ad, we are already seeing a rise in non-brand text ad share attributed to phones, and it’s unclear if the fourth text ad has been rolled out to as many searches as will end up featuring them. As organic links get pushed further down the page, organic visits will likely suffer, much in the same way they have over the past twelve months with the addition of the third text ad. In Q1 of this year, mobile organic visits declined 1% Y/Y compared to 63% Y/Y growth in Q1 2015. Thus, marketers should expect increased mobile paid search growth over the next few quarters with a corresponding decline in organic visit growth. Conclusion It’s becoming increasingly common for Google to roll out fairly significant SERP changes silently, and marketers must be on the lookout in their own data for signs of change. In the case of the fourth text ad, there’s not much advertisers can do except to brace for additional paid search traffic from phones and fewer organic phone visits. For rising brand CPCs, advertisers can attempt to prevent their own CPCs from going up by lowering bids. As always, stay tuned to our blog for more analysis on these and other trends impacting search performance.   [...]