Is measuring Share of Search really a silver bullet?

Is measuring Share of Search really a silver bullet?

As with most things, if a shiny new marketing metric seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The Share of Search (aptly abbreviated to SOS) metric seems like the silver bullet for monitoring a brands performance. It can be calculated in-house for free and purports to answer the question so many marketing professionals are cloying to ask: Is our marketing activity working?

The basis of the Share of Search metric, developed by Les Binet and promoted  this time last year, is that by comparing a company’s branded search volume to that of its competitors (in the form of a percentage of the total query volume), the brand can ascertain the digital equivalent of a “share of voice”.

Share of Voice was historically calculated in a similar manner to the above, but using your brand’s advertising spend in comparison to that of competitors instead of branded search volume.

Both of these methods are flawed in their own ways as are many other measurement methods, and the truth is that in today’s disparate marketing ecosystem, perfection can be hard to come by.

Common denominators between channels can be few and far between based on variation in buying methods (for example, cost per view or cost per click), performance metrics (there is no ‘reach’ figure for Search as there is in Facebook for example), and the blind auction means that the breadcrumbs of competitor insight that platforms provide (such as impression share) often lack context and alignment with other media owners.

In the absence of ‘clean’ metrics (for example clicks, impressions, or cost), we are often compelled to develop ‘dirty’ metrics such as engagement rates bastardised from numerous platforms to create a Frankenstein’s monster of measurement. In order to succeed using ‘dirty’ metrics, it’s vital to understand the nuance and potential pitfalls in the calculation. When brands overlook the tainted nature of their insights, huge investments can be made in red-herring trends, or revenue forecasts can go haywire.

Here’s what you should bear in mind if you’re using the ‘Share of Search’ metric, which, by the way, optimistically has its own council.

Shit in, shit out

The SoS calculation begins with a brand choosing the competitors in the market from whom they wish to nab market share. Unfortunately these projects can be doomed from the start with delusion, oversights, or both.

While I’m sure every boutique would love to consider itself a rival of the likes of Etsy, it’s often unrealistic. If you’re going to base your future insights on a set of other brands they need to be chosen carefully and pragmatically to avoid empty analysis or a constant state of dread that you’re not keeping up.

Oversights come into play where brands choose only their ‘main’ competitors. It’ll keep you focussed, but a limited view of data will mean limited insights, undermining the value of the entire project.

It’s a user-led metric, but users are idiosyncratic

Unlike the traditional Share of Voice (SoV) metric which used brand advertising investment as a proxy for market share, SoS is led by user search query volumes. On the one hand this seems to represent a less cash-mad approach, drawing the focus from pouring money into ill-advised marketing strategies for the sake of boasting an increase in SoV. On the other hand however, it’s a little naïve to assume that search query volumes indicate brand advocacy, popularity, or a true share of the market.

You know what makes brand search queries skyrocket? Scandal. Redundancies. A viral tweet of someone who hates your brand. Or your competitor brand. Who knows? All we know is one of the numbers in the Share of Search pie chart has changed and we’re going to tell everyone in the trading meeting it’s because our marketing is great. Hmm…

It’s about the size and how you use it

Let’s use Deliveroo as an example. There are a few factors which would make food delivery a fitting candidate to use this metric:

  • A well-defined, linear offering (order food, get food delivered)
  • A small number of worthy competitors (JustEat, UberEats, GrubHub)
  • Significant branded search volume for both Deliveroo and it’s competitors

This business model would allow the SoS metric to pretty clearly demonstrate whether Deliveroo was gaining traction against the competitors in the market, however if your business plays in lots of different spaces (like a department store), you have a broad range of smaller competitors, or lower search volumes (sorry small businesses), you’ll either end up scuppered or super frustrated.

For non-Deliveroo type businesses, there’s little insight to be found beyond the metric as it’s measured at a brand level.

For example, John Lewis would find it very difficult to gather further insights based on search volumes for ‘John Lewis’ against competitors; was the drop in search volume linked to homewares or clothing? Which set of competitors should be analysed, given these could range from Selfridges, ASOS, Amazon, Marks & Spencer and many others? If John Lewis gets barely any of their market share through their food items, is it right to analyse a competitor who attributes 80% of their market share based on selling foodstuffs?

The volume of data needs to be sizeable to even display on Google Trends and a brand-level measure gives very little insight into how or why.

Based on all of the above, if you’re keen to trial the Share of Search metric, bear in mind:

  • This metric is an indicator – it’s the effect (search volume) of the cause (brand awareness/market status). This makes the metric a little grubby, as it’s one degree away from what you’re actually attempting to measure
  • Whilst the SoS Council have highlighted a correlation between branded search volume and share of voice, higher search volume is not always a good thing. Don’t believe me? Check out Google trends for well-known brands and see if you can guess the dates of oil spills, emissions scandals, or PR scandals based on the graph alone
  • By defining your competitors, you have reduced the scope of the data to just those brands. Remember to use other mechanisms to keep an eye on peripheral competitors, lest they sneak up on you whilst you’re up to your eyeballs in Share of Search graphs

The upshot? Share of Search is another metric we can use to estimate how our brand is performing against others based on the single variable of branded search query volume.

The ‘dirtier’ we make the data (for example by trying to include differentiation between lines of business, various competitor sets), the more assumptions we make, and the less reliable the data becomes.

Remember, there’s nothing wrong with dirty metrics.  But they’re near impossible to polish.

Niki Grant is search director at The Kite Factory

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