As business owners, we’re all aware of the power of search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Their prominence, convenience, and popularity make search engines a key factor when it comes to customers finding your golf course online. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) has helped countless local businesses, including golf courses, improve their customer acquisition capabilities and grow revenues.
However, there are some serious issues with the current state of SEM in the golf industry. Third-party tee time aggregators and other affiliates use advertising tactics that allow their ads to be displayed on search engines for keywords pertaining to particular course brand names (ie. Eagle Hill Golf Club). Typically, these ads will boast “Save XX% Off Tee Times at ------ Golf Club”, with a link that goes to the third-party’s website, not the actual facility’s. These advertisements typically show for golf courses that have chosen to partner with the third-party at hand, but we have seen them show for courses with no affiliation as well.
Why This is a Problem
The issue with what is occurring is that branded keyword searches are used a lot. In fact, they are the #1 contributor of traffic to a golf course’s website. Since search engines have virtually replaced the phone book, golfers search these branded keywords like “Wolf Hollow”, “Wolf Hollow Golf Course”, and “Wolf Hollow Golf”, rather than memorizing the website URL. We all do this these days. Since these branded keywords are widely used by your current and prospective customers, these ads could be diverting customers that would have gone to your website, to the third-party.
As a GCO, this is the last thing you’d want to happen. It goes without saying that you’d prefer the golfer to pay rack rate, through your website or over the phone. However, these ads have great appeal to potential customers, as they offer discounted rates.
Third-party tee time aggregators have their place, without a doubt. The whole idea behind partnering with a third-party tee time aggregator is that they will send you new business. However, the people searching directly for your golf course on search engines are not likely to be new customers. In fact, they’re probably your regulars. To make matters worse, these third-party ads typically use your brand name in the ad copy, which can be misleading to unaware users.
What’s Ethical & What’s Not
With the use of search engine advertising platforms, such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Yahoo Gemini, these third parties have the capability to serve ads for just about any keyword they’d like, including your golf course’s branded keywords. There are no rules or regulations against another business targeting your branded keywords unless coordinated between the two parties. However, there are some ethical discrepancies when a business that’s a partner of your golf course starts competing with you for search engine real estate that would typically belong to your brand.
Third-party tee times aggregators are businesses too. They need to acquire more customers to grow, and they have every right to do that. It is 100% acceptable for these third-parties to target non-branded, golf-specific keywords, like “golf courses in Orlando”, “golf courses near me” and “tee times”. When golfers are unsure of what course they’d like to play, these are the type of keywords they use on Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Targeting these golfers is fair game.
Things become unethical once these third-party advertisements start displaying for branded keywords, such as “Cobble Creek Golf Course”, as explained previously.
Why Do These Ads Appear
It needs to be explained that just because a third-party’s ad is showing for your facility’s branded keywords, does not mean that they are doing it intentionally. While oftentimes they are clearly targeting a specific golf course, it’s common that these ads show unintentionally. Let me explain.
Keyword Match Type
Per Google’s own documentation, Keyword match types help control which searches can trigger a given ad. There are 5 categories of keyword match types that you can choose from, all which can help an advertiser reach the appropriate audience.
When broad match keywords are used, advertisements can show for synonyms, misspellings, and related searches to the targeted keyword. For instance, a third party could be targeting the keyword “golf course”, which would allow for their ads to show for the search “golf courses near me”, as well as “YOUR BRAND golf course”. One of these instances is acceptable, while the other is not. While the latter may not have been intended by the third-party, it may still be affecting your business. It’s very easy for the third-parties to prevent this from happening, which we’ll get to later on.
Broad Match Modifier
This keyword match type allows you to designate which keywords must be included in the search for an ad to show. These specific keywords a designated by adding a “+” in front of the keyword. For instance, “+golf +course” would show for any search with “golf” and “course” both included in it, including “YOUR BRAND golf course”.
Phrase match keywords allow advertisers to target a specific phrase (ie. “golf course”), but will also trigger an ad if other words are used before or after the targeted phrase. For instance, targeting the phrase match keyword “golf course” could still trigger a third-party’s ad for “YOUR BRAND golf course”.
Exact match is the most targeted keyword match type, used when an advertiser only wants to show an ad for a very specific keyword. For example, targeting the keyword “golf course” with exact match parameters would only trigger an ad for exactly that or the plural of “golf courses”.
Negative match keywords exclude an ad from showing for a given keyword. For example, if the negative match keyword of “YOUR BRAND” was added to a search engine ad campaign, an ad would not be triggered for “YOUR BRAND golf course” or any other keyword containing "YOUR BRAND".
As you can see, there are certainly a few ways a third-party’s ad could be displayed for your branded keywords by accident. However, this doesn’t change the fact that an entity besides your own is showing up. With the use of negative match keywords by the third-party, this conflict can quickly and easily be eliminated.
How to Protect Your Branded Keywords
Anytime you enter into an agreement with a third-party that ultimately wants to sell the same inventory as you do, guidelines need to be put in place to avoid a conflict of interest. The travel, automotive, entertainment, and affiliate marketing industries have all faced this exact same dilemma in years past, which I personally have experience in dealing with, prior to getting into the golf industry.
GCOs need to do the following to avoid/stop third-parties from displaying ads on their branded keywords:
- Trademark your brand - Once trademarked, you can prevent other parties from using your brand within their ad copy by submitting a Trademark Complaint with Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
- Reach out to the third-party – If you notice this is happening to your golf course, reach out to the third-party and ask them to stop. If they claim that the ads are displaying for your branded keyword unintentionally, ask them to use “YOUR BRAND”, and any variations of your brand name, as a negative keyword.
- Review your contract – It’s unfortunate, but you probably agreed to allow this to happen within your contract with the third-party. It may be time to review that contract with the third-party and ask for verbiage to be added that explicitly states that branded keywords are off the table.
- Find a new provider – If the third party at hand is not willing to work with you on this topic, it’s probably time to shop for a new service partner. The golf business is tough enough already. You don’t need a third-party to make it even more difficult to reach your customers.
This has been going on in the golf industry for years now, but with the advent of the Golf USA Tee Time Coalition and their partnerships with the NGCOA and PGA, branded keyword bidding has been under a microscope as of late. While some of this may not be news, we hope this has provided further insight as to what is happening and what could help prevent it from happening to your golf course.