I’ve always been curious about how marketers use search for branding. Search is such an obviously direct response medium, but whenever we survey online advertising executives, they tell us creating brand impact is one of their top search marketing goals. I’ve actually spoken to marketers who admit they bid themselves into negative ROI on some keywords because they believe the positive brand impact of appearing on those keywords justifies it. The problem is, not one of those marketers has ever been able to quantify for me just how much brand value they were getting from those keywords; this decision is always presented to me as simply an act of faith.

The industry, of course, has done its best to fuel this faith. Through the years we’ve seen a handful of studies claiming that search really can help drive this brand impact — from ancient research published by the US IAB to frustratingly incomplete pronouncements from the company that has the most to gain from search marketers bidding on brand terms. Even we at Jupiter have been saying since at least 2004 that you can brand with search; the problem is that we as an industry didn’t know then — and we still don’t know now — how to assign a value to the brand impact provided by search listings. And without a concrete value, marketers have no idea how to adjust their bids to account for branding.

This autumn I’m going to have a deeper look into this issue, and see if we can’t start down the road of assigning concrete values to the brand impact of search. But in the meantime, I found a couple of analyses recently that touch on the bread-and-butter of search branding: bidding on brand keywords. Harvest Digital searched on 100 UK brands [PDF] and found that, two months after Google started allowing UK marketers to bid on competitors’ brand names, less than 20 percent of brands are being targeted by competitors. (In fact, they found that most of the brands they searched for don’t even bid on their own keywords!) Meanwhile, StraightUpSearch argues (with no evidence but great conviction) that there’s no point in bidding on competitors’ keywords, since the direct response ROI doesn’t work out. If that’s true, then bidding on competitors’ keywords is purely a branding exercise.

As I said, I’ll be looking at this in much more detail in the coming months. If you have any insight or case studies you’d like to share, please drop me an e-mail: n e l l i o t t (at) jupiterresearch (dot) com.