What About Search Partner Networks?

SEM managers should be concerned with partner network traffic when seeking to increase efficiencies for a particular account.

I’m not here to outright denigrate the search partner network.  It’s a great solution to a potential problem for all parties involved.  There are a lot of smaller portals out there through which users can search the web, and these users undoubtedly constitute a considerable amount of valuable traffic.

That being said, even your engine rep will probably pitch it to you as a marginal revenue segment of your search spend rather than an efficient channel that stands on its own merit and can be expected to compete on KPI’s with the principle publishers.

Assessing partner network performance, and turning them off when warranted, is completely essential to your entire SEM effort.  Omitting a partner network can do much more than just save you the portion of the budget it’s absorbing.  Switching off a poor performing partner network can cause an uptick in every metric for a given campaign, and this comprehensive array of benefits can lift a campaign into an entirely different tier of performance.  If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you the heights that harmonic interplay between rising CTR, falling CPC, and steadily climbing conversion rate can propel an SEM initiative to.

Before anyone rushes out and turns off every partner network that is currently missing marketing goals, no matter how narrowly scoped the view or by how small a margin they fall short, it’s important to be aware of the potential negatives of such a sweeping measure and decide on strategy with a caution/aggression balance tailored to your efficiency/volume needs.

At IgnitionOne, we tend to err on the side of caution when switching off partner networks, and choose to do so with “mature” search campaigns.  The reason we make this one of the last major optimizations is simple: the search partner network can respond just as strongly to optimization efforts as principle-engine search, and so to cut the network early in a campaign’s lifecycle is to miss out on possible gains that other optimizations that would possibly drive the partner network into profitable territory.  It’s best to think of most optimization measures as paint, and the partner networks as part of the canvas: see what brush strokes the space affords you and what picture you can paint before cutting out part of the picture.

When we’ve decided it’s time to cull the partner herd, we take approach that examines multiple metrics.  The first thing to look for may be partner networks missing a KPI goal such as ROAS or CPA, but that’s just scratching the surface.  It’s important to make sure that the problem is truly the partner network and not some other factor, and for that reason, we look for networks that perform below both client goals and the campaign’s engine search traffic.  If a partner network’s CTR, conversion rate, and ROAS are lower, and its CPA, is higher, we will cut it.  CPC is tricky, as sometimes a partner will provide too many cheap clicks to give up on, whether the rationale is that conversions will eventually have to follow, or that the impressions are good for branding.

A key metric some managers miss is Average Rank.  We don’t like to cut a partner network unless its average rank is around or above the engine search average rank.  If your ads aren’t showing at the same rank on both networks, how can you expect the same performance?  Lower ad rank on a search partner network is something we tend to see get hammered out over time, and so it’s best not to give up yet if you see your partner networks hampered by this effect.

Once you’ve made these changes, be sure to pay close attention to the affected campaigns and verify that you’re seeing the response in the metrics that you expected.  Tricky elements like click-path assists and other unforeseen indirect consequences could demonstrate that the partner networks you cut were providing value that wasn’t immediately apparent to you.

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