Let Me Google That Sweater For You

I’ll be upfront about two things in this blog post. One, I don’t know the first thing about search engine marketing. Two, I sadly do not have my own ugly Christmas sweater. But if you put a discussion of both of these things together in one blog, I’m probably going to read it. This morning it actually happened when I came across an article from Multichannel Merchant about paid search results and ugly sweaters.

A little background – the closest thing I have to a holiday sweater is a dark green wool one I bought back in 1998. I love this sweater. Despite the worn spots on the elbows and the random holes in it, I’ll probably wear it until my wife insists I burn it, or someone furtively sneaks into my closet and makes it “disappear” Godfather-style (think of waking up one morning with just a sleeve in the bed). Beyond that, my holiday-sweater experience is limited to what Hollywood believes flyover country people wear everyday in the winter, my mom’s appliqué holiday sweatshirts, and that freaky clown sweater Wil Wheaton was photographed wearing. An informal, yet scientific poll of the three people on Twitter who responded to my inquiry reports that 66% of people own ugly Christmas sweaters because they get invited to ugly sweater holiday parties. However, 33% of people do seem to enjoy the sweaters simply for their festive nature.

To get back to the point at hand, Google search activity for “Christmas Sweater” and “Ugly Christmas Sweater” has increased since 2008, which may be when American hipsters decided that you could wear festive sweaters ironically with skinny jeans. Because of that, different companies have come up with web advertising search strategies to take advantage of the annual spike in interest. In particular, the article discusses six companies using paid search to target those looking for such a sweater. Four of these companies then link to their Christmas sweaters. The other two don’t link to a googly-eyed Santa staring out into the holiday expanse; in fact they don’t even sell something in a wool or poly-cotton blend. The strategy of the latter companies not even selling Christmas sweaters is what interests me. For the person searching, it must be like going to the vending machine for a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and finding only off-brand bags of party mix. Or even worse, looking for a new and amazing brunch spot in the Twin Cities and getting ads for a gas station breakfast sandwich — a somewhat acceptable substitute, if you are willing to leave your pride at home. Is the short term benefit from purchasing unrelated search for non-existent products worth the long-term potential hit of turning off customers?

This leads me to the essential question the author, Tim Parry, asks: “Is this a good practice because it blocks retailers that sell Christmas sweaters from getting visibility, or is it a bad practice because the consumer clicks and doesn’t get a Christmas sweater?”
Most of my holiday shopping is done at the panicked last minute. I can just imagine my frustration if I were to use Google to search for that much needed holiday sweater shipped second-day air, but instead was led to one of these companies that had no holiday sweaters at all. I highly doubt that my heart would grow three sizes that day. Rather, I’d probably hurl a few choice words about these companies at my cat, who would just shrug and continue to groom herself. In other words, paying for ads with search terms not specifically related to what you are selling seems a bit disingenuous.
I don’t know that I’d call this paid search tactic deceptive, but it certainly isn’t the type of thing I’d want to experience as I make a mad dash from website to website trying to find the perfect mix of functional, festive, wooly and ugly. But if it actually works, I doubt you can blame companies for using the marketing tactic.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a bright red tie that plays Jingle Bells.

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