Paid Search predictions are common this time of year—but the circumstances around 2020 make it a bit harder to see what’s coming. The biggest and most dominant channel in digital advertising wasn’t safe from the COVID-19 pandemic. As we reported in our Skai Q3 2020 Quarterly Trends Report, Paid Search spending grew just 2% from Q2 to Q3.
While the channel saw an uptick towards the end of the year and strong signs of recovery during the end-of-the-year holiday shopping season, 2021 will be an interesting year to watch. Overall, we predict big things for the channel.
We sat down with some of our SEM experts to learn more about what’s to come.
Five Paid Search Predictions for 2021
Paid Search Prediction #1 – Automated publisher bidding continues to take over
This is one of the easier trends to predict, given the continued rise of automated publisher bidding in 2020. The share of total search spend for auto bidding from the search engines increased from 19% to 47% over the last five quarters.
Google Smart Bidding and Microsoft Advertising’s Automated Bidding use machine learning and an analysis of a broad range of signals at the auction level to select the bid that is most likely to achieve your desired volume of conversions or conversion value. Marketers have tested this approach and have found that it can deliver consistently better results than other methods.
And, during the pandemic, when historical data was less relevant and useful than usual, marketers relied on automatic publisher bidding to help guide their way—as search engines were able to leverage their wealth of real-time signals to bid towards a value curve that was changing every week across different regions.
Don’t be surprised if, at some point, the only bidding option available to search marketers is publisher automated bidding! We’ve already recognized that it is the future of SEM and have been building solutions around it so that Skai Paid Search clients can maximize its value. Some of those existing features include:
Budget Navigator helps search marketers forecast, optimize, and monitor with ease. It leverages machine learning technology to manage budgets and adjust spend to achieve your business goals. Automated publisher bidding can handle the bids, but marketers must set it up for success by ensuring that budgets are allocated correctly to campaigns.
Signal Enhancement lets marketers upload valuable first-party data to the engines so that publisher automated bidding can optimize their campaigns using the right data. For example, an education client might want to optimize via custom metrics or a blend of conversions using custom weighting.
Skai’s advancements in Testing and Measurement enable marketers to build better insights into how they could build the best search accounts in terms of keywords, ads, targeting, and other settings. This way, publisher automated bidding can extract the most value with an already optimized program. Skai Experiments adds advanced functionality to existing search testing frameworks and our Impact Navigator product is an incrementality solution for marketers to truly understand the value of any channel or tactic.
To jump from 19% of SEM spend allocated to automated publisher bidding to 47% in just five quarters speaks to just how much value search marketers have found with it. Look for 2021—and probably early in Q1—to push that number even higher so that the majority of Paid Search investments will be spent this way. You can also count on Skai Paid Search to keep building features and functionality that helps marketers make the most of this new approach.
Paid Search Prediction #2 – Cookieless marketing elevates the original value proposition of SEM
Some of the highly discussed consumer data privacy changes that have been discussed this year—namely Chrome to limit third-party cookie tracking and Apple’s iOS14 to make tracking an opt-in feature—went into effect in 2021. Some industry experts have stated that if it weren’t for the global pandemic, this would have been the most concerning topic for marketers in 2020.
While these changes represent a dramatic shift in the way digital marketers will be able to target, measure, and optimize their campaigns, Paid Search marches on, leaning on what made it such a successful channel out-of-the-gate in the early 2000s. With Paid Search, the targeting is the keyword itself—meaning, an internet user who searches for a brand’s top keywords is inherently already someone a brand would like to reach. When you combine the fact that the user must read an ad and click it, that traffic is probably going to be pretty good.
Reaching a consumer at the moment they are interested in learning more about a topic or product has fueled this channel for just over two decades. And that value will even be more differentiated when marketers can’t simply load a third-party audience into their media buying platform.
At some point in 2021—when the switch on these changes is flipped—marketers will have some hard decisions to make about where they spend their budgets. Paid Search will remain a viable option when marketers need to rely on what they know works.
Paid Search Prediction #3 – Marketers start building best practices to coexist with intelligent machines
As marketing—and other industries—continue to be transformed by AI and machine learning, the question arises on how best to approach this working relationship. Because Skai has already been building with this technology for years, we know what marketers like and don’t like about it, where they are hesitant to embrace it, and what they want partners like us to build so marketers can best take advantage of it.
Some of us have either been burned—or heard the stories—by automation going off the rails, so one consideration with intelligent machines that marketers have is how they can make sure it stays within the boundaries they set. Another consideration is transparency. Marketers like the idea of turning repetitive tasks over to automation, but they still want to learn from campaign performance so they can craft better campaigns at each iteration. And, with each new innovation, how can marketers fill in new gaps that are created so that they can embrace these features and rely on them.
Skai Paid Search clients already have access to AI and machine-learning features that are enabling this partnership to work better:
- Auditing features to monitor search accounts and ensure that all settings adhere to marketing best practices
- Smart tags that perform common marketer analyses and highlight out-of-the-ordinary results—either good or bad—so that practitioners can take action.
- Data integrations that can feed a client’s first-party data and third-party signals into automated publisher bidding solutions to guide meaningful optimization.
In 2021, search marketers are going to be using more automation than in any previous year. It will become necessary to gain a comfort level with these innovations and build a holistic marketing practice that combines the best of both humans and machines.
Paid Search Prediction #4 – A new focus on local search will help set brands apart
One of the biggest challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic is that the impact on consumers was quite varied from region to region. At first, New York was the epicenter while most of the country was somewhat less affected. Then it was California and some of the bigger city centers that were hit. Eventually, the entire country felt the impact, and even some of the areas that had already cooled down began to spike again bringing on a new wave of lockdowns.
For global brands, marketing across countries was similarly chaotic and challenging.
In 2020, SEM marketers that were used to broadcasting singular national campaigns had to rethink their approach and take on a more localized SEM strategy to push the most relevant messaging out to each region.
The good news is that 2021 is looking positive in terms of life getting somewhat back to normal. But the wind-downs of the pandemic will be staggered and not uniform across regions. In order for brands to move the needle with customers, they will need to continue to rely on a local search approach to help them market to each region in the best way.
Paid Search Prediction #5 – Search engines continue to evolve ad formats…slowly and deliberately
In an objective comparison of the creative ad types in channels such as programmatic display and social advertising, Search’s text ads can seem a bit limiting. Video ads, carousels, interactive banners, and other ad formats can be useful tools for marketers to connect with consumers. Richer ad types can help tell stories, explain complex product offerings, and engage users in ways that are superior to text ads.
Of course, the search ad has certainly evolved throughout the years. It started as just a three-line text ad and now it can have rich information in the form of snippets and extensions.
This evolution took nearly decades to evolve. Why? Because Paid Search works too well!
Marketers like the channel. They understand it. Reach internet users at the moment they are most likely to engage in brand messaging, perfect! There’s a reason why Paid Search continues to be the largest channel in digital marketing: the ROI is fantastic.
So, why fix it if it ain’t broke?
But, if you take a step back and think through the many, many changes in SEM just over the last handful of years, it has clearly been evolving. Responsive Search Ads (RSA), Dynamic Search Ads (DSA), the multiple iterations of Shopping Campaigns, Audiences, and more. It’s just that these changes came slowly and deliberately so that the engines could adapt and grow their offerings without negatively impacting the core strength of Paid Search.
So in 2021 this will continue. The search engines will keep up with the changing times, but in a way that may be so carefully rolled out that you may not even feel it.
What you will see from Skai Paid Search in 2021
Skai Paid Search is the leading platform for marketers to manage their SEM programs. In 2020, we evolved our vision for this technology to a Total Search Intelligence mindset, helping search marketers to make better data-driven decisions around performance and measurement to take their Search programs to the next level.
You can learn more about this exciting and innovative direction in our recent report, Beyond the Bid: Skai’s Total Search Intelligence, to learn more about how this vision is being manifested in Skai Paid Search today and in our future roadmap.
Besides Search Intelligence, some of the other areas that the Skai Paid Search team are working on for next year are:
Solving deep, category-level SEM challenges. The native search engine ad platforms are built for millions of search advertisers, so they need to be somewhat wide to offer the most features that most would need. However, for Skai Paid Search clients—which are some of the largest SEM advertisers in the world—the native tools simply don’t cut it.
For example, retail marketers have different challenges than financial service marketers or those in CPG, travel, or automotive. And agencies have a variety of needs that brand-side marketers don’t—and vice versa. In 2021, expect Skai to continue innovating on how we help to solve the unique issues facing certain categories.
Cross-channel capabilities. The advantage for Skai clients is that our suite of products addresses the biggest channels in digital advertising—Search, Social, Ecommerce, and Apps. Although channels are often siloed as a business practice, marketers have definitely been asking for more ways to leverage insights from one channel to another. Skai’s broad view is perfectly suited for this mission, and we have innovated in this area for years.
Take for instance our award-winning Cross-Channel Audiences which enable a website visitor that arrives via a click on a Google or Facebook to be automatically added either as a website audience for the other channel.
What is your SEM practice’s competitive edge?
With 14 years of leadership in the industry, Skai Paid Search has delivered best-in-class workflow efficiencies, automation, and performance-driving bid optimization for marketers to successfully manage their paid search advertising programs. For most of those years, marketers could gain a competitive advantage with savvy, superior bidding strategies across keyword portfolios to squeeze every bit of efficiency and performance from the search investment.
Today, that may no longer be enough.
Native search engine-provided tools have advanced considerably, making automated publisher bidding accessible at low or no cost to all search marketers, effectively leveling the playing field.
If you haven’t seen Skai Paid Search in a while, you might want to check out a quick demo to see all of the innovative new features we have to give you a leg up on your competitors in 2021. Reach out today!