Coupon search clicks: Sweet sound for Web marketers

Consumers have a recession message for marketers: Will click for coupons.

As consumers troll online to save money, searches that include value words such as "coupons" rose 161% in December vs. 2007 to 19.9 million and "discount" rose 26% to 7.9 million, reports tracker ComScore.

As a result, spending by marketers on such search words is up, too. They bid online to tie their brands to search terms so their website appears as a "sponsored link" above the unpaid results or their text ad is to the right of the results. They generally offer to pay from 4 cents to $1 each time someone clicks on the link or ad.

Google, which controls 60% of the paid search ad market and whose AdWords is the largest auction system, says ad spending on value-related words such as coupons rose 30% in the fourth quarter over the same period a year earlier.

"Search is very much a barometer of the times," says John Burke, Google director of industry development.

Coupon distribution and redemption had been flat in 2008 until the fourth quarter, when coupon distribution rose 7.5% and redemptions rose 15% vs. a year earlier, the Promotion Marketing Association says.

"That's when consumers suddenly starting saying this is for real and marketers said we need to react with more coupons to keep our sales up," says Charles Brown, co-chair of PMA's coupon council and a vice president for coupon company NCH.

Brown says the Web is the fastest-growing coupon distribution medium for big marketers, up 80% in 2008.

How they are searching for sales:

•Kraft. Last fall it added "cooking on a budget" and "value" to its search roster. Offers include $1 coupons for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

"We are using some different methods of paid search to reach people," says Basil Maglaris, Kraft spokesman.

•Procter & Gamble. A brand search for Crest Whitening Strips will yield a $7 coupon. "By understanding what search terms to buy we are able to better understand how consumers are searching for our products," spokeswoman Barbara Hauser says.

•Unilever. A search campaign linking coupon terms with Bertolli's Oven Bake Meals boosted clicks for a $2 coupon. It's been "generating a 25% to 30% click-through rate on couponing terms," says Russel Lilly, senior brand manager. Even better, people buy the meals: The coupon has had a 30% redemption rate.