Despite the ever-growing number of new digital advertising technologies, paid search continues to be one of the most effective and quickest ways for brands to gain new customers. Whether your ad budget is in the multi-millions or just a few thousands, the dominance of Google in the market is forcing companies to rethink their strategies and distribution of search ad spend for more cost-effective conversions that are less reliant on the tech giant.

In the U.S. alone, Google has 86.74% of the market, followed by Yahoo! and Bing at 6.85% and 5.25%, respectively. This stronghold on search has raised red flags about possible antitrust violations and companies that feel forced to pay inflated click prices for keywords whose conversion rates do not offset or justify the increased CPC rates. Basecamp’s Founder and CEO, Jason Fried, now famously referred to Google as a “shakedown,” equating the experience of paying a ransom just to be seen in the results.

How much companies must rely on Google search depends on their brand recognition and keyword strength. Search outside of major search engines has proven effective for companies with a strong brand name. For example, we see far fewer conversions for small to mid-sized businesses because consumers must learn to trust an unknown brand prior to a purchase. Self-evaluation of brand strength can lessen the hold Google Adwords has on the paid search budget to improve Return On Ad Spend (ROAS).

Are You in the Business of Discovery or Conversions?

A small company no one has ever heard of that offers products in a saturated market is going to have a drastically different search strategy than big-box retailers, such as Nordstrom or JC Penney.

A small company must go through a very long discovery phase, where consumers must learn about the product prior to trusting it, before it finds the cost-per-acquisition (CPA) goal that works within its marketing metrics. Initially, the company’s search strategy should rely heavily on video search ads on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, since the video ad is placed directly into relevant feeds and has visual representations of the products and its use case. There is also a need for a high rate of engagement and interaction to validate and gain confidence with potential customers before they will pull the trigger on purchasing. In fact, 62 percent of people say they discover new products and become more interested in a brand or product after seeing it on Instagram; these numbers go up to 73 percent when it comes to teens. Further, the potential advertising reach for the platform is 849.3 million users. Facebook and Instagram’s large communities establish a point of interest and typically provide more qualified leads than alternatives. After these social media campaigns go live, retargeting interested users in search engines with display ads will lead to a higher rate of conversion.

If a lesser-known brand is selling seasonal products with a longer cycle of consideration, such as a grill for July 4th or a wedding venue for the spring, Pinterest is an excellent place to leverage an abundance of ad spend for good results. Pinning the product and building on it with relevant content is an effective way to steadily build consumer interest. A typical search on Pinterest is top-of-the-funnel and will indicate intent, such as “home remodeling ideas,” in which they may not be looking to purchase a specific product but over time could come to love the product included in the pinned items and purchase eventually.

Advertising with Outbrain, a content discovery native advertising platform, is also excellent for brands that are still in the discovery phase. This allows companies to catch the eye of potential consumers through provocative listicles that provide information on products or services. Outbrain has a very high click-through-rate (CTR) but is best for discovery or pay-per-click (PPC), rather than CPA. The best way to approach Outbrain is to try out many different images and headlines for the same product and create new campaigns instead of adjusting existing ones.

Unlike lesser-known brands, big-box retailers have less friction convincing consumers about the product being sold, especially if it’s a basic retail item such as a designer handbag or jacket. They can be laser-focused on the lower-funnel to simply reach the right user at the right time.

Big Brands Should Be in the Mindset of Convert or Bust

Google is excellent for top, mid-funnel and lower funnel targeting, however, there are additional digital marketplaces for big brands to spend ad dollars to get conversions for a much lower CPA.

Newer search technologies leverage a combination of audience targeting and keyword searches to help bring the search results to the right person with the right message at the right time, making them far more likely to make a purchase at the key moment of decision making.  For example, if an advertising platform knows that in the last few days a customer has searched for “best red carpet purses,” and visited a “Coach” website, it is much easier to drop an ad for a high-end purse on sale at a retailer and expect a conversion. As with all search strategies, Google Adwords still has an important place in the marketing funnel for well-known brands, but they can save a lot of ad budget seeking conversions elsewhere. It’s a good idea to leverage those search ads for mid-funnel and then attack with cheaper, intent-driven and long-tail keywords outside of search engines.

Amazon is another great CPA/PPC ad network because it is the go-to site for customers with intent to purchase. This allows brands to hit more frequently on ultra-targeted, long-tail keywords. It is one of the reasons that eMarketer projects that Amazon will gain 12.9% of paid-search market share in the U.S by the end of this year. However, Amazon is not without its own controversies, including an instance where the company promoted its own products over a paid search ad. Although automated targeting is preferred for most modern search advertising, it is better to manually target for Amazon and test automated targeting in concentrated instances to see the effect.

Ultimately, a brand’s paid search strategy begins and ends with their existing foothold in the market. Relying too heavily on Google as a prestigious brand might still yield great results but does not necessarily maximize the ROAS in the same way as converting outside of major search engines.

By measuring your own company’s brand awareness and analyzing the specific products that you’re interested in promoting, it can help to avoid falling victim to Google’s “shakedown” on the digital advertising market and double or triple customer conversions.

Jon Waterman is the founder and CEO of, an advertising marketplace that uses intent and audience-based targeting to help Fortune 500 brands acquire new customers outside major search engines. His leadership elevated to become a dominant force in search advertising with more than 10,000 successful campaigns and a 90% customer retention rate. Jon is a YPO member and an EY Entrepreneur Of The Year honoree.

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