What Brands Need To Know: Search & Display Advertising In 2023

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From changes in data availability, to the growth of new platforms, to shifting customer behavior, digital advertising today isn’t what it was just a few years ago. This series of articles will tell brands and retailers what to consider as they plan marketing strategies across search, display, video, social, affiliates, and more. It also will cover decision-making processes, such as efficiency goals and mixed media modeling.

Marketing conference chatter, or even a quick Google GOOG search, will tell you how confounding search engine optimization (SEO) can be. Why? Chris Rodgers, CEO and Founder of Colorado SEO Pros, which lists Spectrum as a client, explains, “There have been sizable shifts in the effectiveness of certain SEO strategies and tactics. Focusing too much on keywords definitely has diminishing returns… Quality of content, audience targeting, and intent alignment is much more important to your content getting visibility than adding in more keywords. Today, you need to be creating truly valuable content for humans first, and then following SEO practices to help search engines connect the dots.” He adds, “Another outdated tactic is creating all of your pages top-level with no folder structure in website URLs… Your website should have a logical hierarchy and folder structure that makes sense to both people and search engines.”

Dmytro Sokhach, Founder of Admix Global, shares three approaches that have stopped working in SEO. First, longer-form content is disfavored, underperforming shorter, quality content in the 1,500-2,000 word range. Likewise, while backlinks remain important, easy-to-build backlinks of lower fidelity (e.g., web directories and article comments) are less valuable than relevant links from authoritative web sites with which brands should try to partner. Third, and also reflective of search engines’ increasing intelligence, is the waning influence of - and increasingly penalties for - overusing keywords. “Instead of focusing on keyword density, it's better to use natural language, leverage industry terminology, and incorporate keywords strategically only where they make sense,” offers Sokhach.

However, “AI can be incredibly helpful for SEO strategies,” observes Michelle Songy, CEO & Founder of Press Hook, which works with brands including WHOOP and Athletic Greens. “AI-powered tools can assess large amounts of data quickly and accurately to identify the most relevant keywords and topics and even help brands optimize existing content for the best search engine results,” she says.

Also on the positive side, brands today can use targeted search adds to more precisely reach their desired audiences. For example, Google Ads now offers more robust audience targeting based on demographic data, interests, and behaviors, which increases the likelihood that consumers seeing a given ad are ones who are interested in a particular brand. Additionally, Google has introduced new ad formats, such as responsive search ads and shopping ads, which claim to be more relevant and effective than other search ads. Bing, too, has improved its ad formats and targeting capabilities.

Paid search has been a strong channel for DigitalWill, where Joe Karasin, Chief Marketing Officer, has seen better success with transactional-intent keywords than in years past, where keyword intent wasn't seen as being as important. He explains that these campaigns outperform Google’s Performance Max Campaigns, rolled out less than two years ago, that deploy across all Google properties; the latter, despite giving very little control to the brand, are helpful in being visible on all channels.

Craig Brown, Head of Delivery at Incubeta, with clients such as eBay and Saks OFF 5th, describes himself as an “old-school pay-per-click (PPC) buyer.” He notes the ongoing shift to more automated campaigns removing an element of advertiser control and says he no longer sees outsized success with manual-bidding strategies that worked three years ago. “The introduction of [Google] Performance Max campaigns now means that all your keyword and shopping campaigns are combined, as well as search display and YouTube. This makes influencing performance harder, as there is a lack of available data and fewer targets to manipulate. Search advertisers are having to become more creative-focused, understanding which text ad elements, images, and videos drive the best performance and why, not just digging into keyword, device, and geographical data to hone in on the right clicks,” Brown says.

Eli Mirakhor, Associate Media Director at Blue Sky Agency, which works with Coca-Cola, sees algorithmically determined search campaign placements as efficient, and helpfully alleviating some of the manual work of the past, but cautions, “It’s more important than ever to have proper attribution in your accounts so your campaigns can drive true value and effective optimizations.”

While not brand new, native ads, those that are integrated into web site or mobile app content in an effort to be less intrusive, demonstrate clear success and have staying power. Research by Wyzowl and Magna suggests video and interactive ads may have an even greater incremental impact across engagement, brand recall, and purchase intent. (84% of consumers have been convinced to buy a product or service after watching a brand's video. According to a study by Magna, interactive video ads generate 47% more attention than static ads, and they also lead to higher brand recall and purchase intent.) And Ion Interactive reports 88% of marketers said interactive content, such as creative centered around games and surveys, is effective in differentiating their brand from their competitors.

Baruch Labunsky, CEO at RankSecure, a Google Partner, concurs: “As media becomes more sophisticated, display ads are being forced to adapt in 2023. That means they will be more interactive, using 3D and other high-end graphics, and will be in new places like in the metaverse or seen while you pause an on-demand movie. A touch of the remote makes the purchase.”

Combined with custom targeting, the evolution of creative solutions will continue to make display an effective full-funnel tactic for brands focused on awareness through action. Charlie Legg, SVP Media Director at Blue Sky Agency, adds that clients continue to make gains here and, “The continued evolution of AI and dynamic creative solutions will continue to make display a viable ad format for advertisers to include in their channel mix.”

“We almost exclusively use video ads for our display investments. We focus on a cost-per-completed [15-second] view and we insert against not just audience data, but highly relevant contextual alignments as well. Through this, we have seen engagement results that sometimes exceed that of lower funnel channels like paid search,” said Cavan Chasan, Head of Growth - Brand Exposure & Analytics for GURU, which counts Patagonia as a client. He cautions he won’t buy display units unless the publisher or programmatic component filters 100% of its inventory pre-bid through ad fraud solutions.

Voice search, too, has been trending. Mirakhor points to a Google study indicating 41% of US adults and 55% of US teens use voice search daily. But, “How these searches match up with your keywords is also changing,” he says. “There’s the extinction of the older phrase match type for keywords, with broad match modifier taking over as the new phrase match, giving advertisers less control over how specific they can target keywords. Platforms are also experimenting and figuring out how to integrate AI with users' searches, and how they match certain keywords and searches.”

For their part, business-to-business (B2B) brands are moving away from standard display advertising in favor of native advertising, including content syndication programs. Matt Mudra, VP of Planning and Performance at SCHERMER, an agency that works with Best Buy BBY and U.S. Bank, also says about display, “The introduction of clean rooms combined with B2B businesses continuing to invest in their own first-party data means we’ve seen a significant shift away from third-party purchased audience data to more reliable first-party data activations — but overall, programmatic media’s share of the B2B marketing budget has declined.”

Back to search, Mudra says, “While Google Search remains the primary paid search channel for B2B marketers, we are seeing Bing Search close the gap in terms share of wallet, a trend we expect to continue with the introduction of AI into search… For SEO, [the focus continues to be] to produce highly relevant search-friendly content, as we all brace for a major shift in organic search behavior to come.”

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