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Do Impressions Matter in Search Marketing?

For clients new to search marketing, I have often explained the concept to them as "only paying for results."  In effect, the beauty and sales proposition of search marketing has always been that you are only paying for clicks, and impressions are essentially free.  I anticipate for many SEM professionals, this has also led to a somewhat derogatory discussion of impressions.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some clients now have the view that impressions don’t really matter online.  Or at least that they matter less.  But is this really true?  Where does the lowly impression fit with all this recent discussion about clicks, click-through-rates, conversions, and now with even more measurable innovations like pay-per-call? 

For some of our clients, I would argue that impressions are more important than ever.  Take two recent data points.  The first is that search use by the overall Internet population is growing.  The second is that often people cannot recognize the difference between sponsored search results and organic search results.  The conclusion I would put forward from this is that people are paying attention to sponsored search results while they are avoiding nearly every other kind of online (and offline) advertising messages.  And this group is growing.  Of course, a user will probably only click one or two search results (organic or sponsored).  But unlike other forms of online advertising, they read and often absorbed the messages of those sponsored listings they never clicked on. 

That was a "meaningful impression," even though you didn’t pay for it, and you couldn’t measure it.  It even have lead to a future action.  Almost every form of offline advertising (aside from direct marketing) is based on blind faith that this meaningful impression exists. Why is it so counterintuitive to imagine that it would exist for search marketing too?  The problem is, in the minutely measurable world of SEM, the meaningful impression is something that we cannot yet measure.  And as a result, we leave it out of our reporting to clients.  But it does exist, and it is our responsibility to start telling clients about it.  Impressions do matter.    

4 thoughts on “Do Impressions Matter in Search Marketing?”

  1. Hi,

    Very good and interesting post.

    I think “Impressions” matter more or less, depending on the company and the frequency of use of the product or service by the user.

    Take my online business for example ( People looking for a serviced office are not doing this every day. Not even every year. Thus, my focus is getting these people to my site, have them use the service and make them happy.

    In this case, I see a very poor value in generating impressions. Clicks and sales enquiries to my site matter. Converting these online users to buyers is my objective.

    On the other hand, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Apple or any company looking for Branding would see much more value in impressions. The more people see you company logo/ read your company message, the more sales you will generate (this theory has been proven over and over by several big corporations)

    Thus, i would balance the value of impressions vs. clicks by saying:

    Clicks = Selling, great for impulse buy, leads generations…
    Impressions = Branding, great to companies selling products/services that you would need every day or every week

    Have a great day!

  2. When it comes to impulse buying, I think you are absolutely right. But as I’m sure you have seen, the purchasing moment is not always impulse driven. Longer lead times for sales are common, as customers first research a category to understand what to look for, then browse many different products or services, and then conduct a buying search. Keyword marketing in terms of conversions is vital at this third stage – but I would argue for products or services with longer sales cycles, the impressions still hold enormous value in the first two researching stages – even if they don’t generate clicks.


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Rohit is the author of 9 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.


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