Top Search Results Nudge Brand Metrics

NEW YORK Occupying the top spots in the search-results pages, through ads or natural listings, provides a bump to branding metrics, according to a newly released study.

Funded by Google and undertaken by Enquiro Research, the survey found that Honda gained small lifts in brand association, recall and purchase consideration by appearing prominently in search results for “fuel efficient cars.”

The benefits of a page-top listing occurred whether a brand paid for the top slot via an ad buy or ranked there based on Google’s algorithm, the study determined. In fact, when Honda appeared up top in an ad, but not in the natural results, it enjoyed greater increases in brand association, recall and purchase consideration.

Part of the reason might be that most users do not differentiate between non-paid results and ads appearing at the top and sides of search pages. (A Pew Internet and American Life study in 2005 found only one in six users could tell the difference between paid and unpaid results.)

The key seems to be simply getting to the top of the page. Enquiro’s “eye-tracking” with 100 study participants showed that attention is showered on the top left of the screen, while ads to the side are often ignored.

This has broad ramifications not only for increasing clicks but also formulating brand metrics. For example, Honda’s brand association went from 48 percent when it was not on the results page to 59 percent when it occupied the top slot in the natural results. When in the top ad slot, Honda got an even bigger lift, to 64 percent. The side ad listings increased brand association, but not as significantly as those at the top of the page.

Similarly, purchase consideration rose from 57 percent in the control to 61 percent with the top organic result and 65 percent when Honda was in the first ad slot, too. For aided brand recall, the top organic meant a 44 percent increase, combined with the top ad listing yielded a 63 percent bump.

“If you want to increase purchase intent and brand recall, being in that top ad spot will increase those numbers,” said Andrew Spoeth, director of marketing at Enquiro.

It it worthwhile for a brand like Honda to pay for a top ad slot when it ranks high in natural results? It may, Spoeth said. Enquiro found that the extra ad placement yielded only incremental gains in brand association for Honda, but at the same time, it caused a significant decline in association with a competitive brand. In fact, the combination of occupying the top position in both organic and advertising listings meant a 42 percent brand-association gap between Honda and the competitor. Even when the search was for “Honda fuel-efficient cars,” Honda got a 7 percent increase in purchase consideration when it had the top ad position, compared to only the No.1 natural result.

“There’s clearly something, either conscious or subconscious, about the reinforcement of seeing the brand appear multiple times on the results page,” said Josh Stylman, managing partner with Reprise Media, an Interpublic Group search agency that did not participate in the study.

Enquiro ran the study in July with 2,700 people. It only tested results from Google, not other search engines.