"Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night" - Bette Davis, All About Eve

Debt ceiling debates, S&P downgrades of U.S. credit ratings, wild swings in stock market levels and a global economic crisis drifting back towards recessionary conditions. The last month has been nothing short of a seat belt-necessary roller coaster of a ride. And with continued European instability, debt panel negotiations and waning consumer confidence, one cannot be certain if the tunnel light is that of daylight or an oncoming train ready to crash into the struggling global markets.

That said, the intensive activity and consumer interest have created a unique opportunity in the biddable marketplaces online, specifically in the search markets. With any event, whether it's entertainment, sporting or political in nature, there is bound to be increased query activity as users search out the topics of interest. Unlike entertainment-type activities where plans can be made and budgets can be allocated in advance, these economic market shifts create opportunities that advertisers still seem unable to act upon.

August 2011 proved to be the tenth most volatile month in the past 75 years, whereas the Dow Jones industrial average swung an average of 1.9% each day of the month. Research by GroupM Search in recent weeks shows a substantial increase in search query volume and advertiser visibility when the stock market takes a hit. In the days around the 4% stock market dip across the major indexes on August 4, searches for the Dow and S&P 500 increased by 231% per Google Insight for search data. Not surprising as everyone watched their net worth plummet then yo-yo off those lows to their current resting place. But what happened next is a cautionary tale for large advertisers and an opportunity for other advertisers if buying habits do not change.

In a normal search buying cycle an advertiser has months of historical data by which to set their bid strategy, including their daily budgets. When crisis hits, the spike in queries means excess opportunity which is desirable unless the crisis appears to have massive financial implications for your brand – just as stock market volatility has proven to have for the finance category. In a situation like this, the excess queries mean budgets are spread thinner and what may have been 100% share of opportunity coverage suddenly becomes a lot less. With less coverage, gaps are created for smaller advertisers – those with poorer quality scores or lower max bids – to enter the mix.

In the two weeks of stock market volatility and heightened debt ceiling chatter in early August, a combination of increased queries and fixed budgets from the primary advertisers led to a substantial increase in appearance of a secondary tier of advertisers. On average, there were 70 unique advertisers who found their way onto the front page of Google for core financial terms – an opportunity that didn't exist prior to the market decline.

Weeks later, as the Dow Jones industrial average and S&P 500 index dipped again on August 18, our research revealed a strong and statistically significant correlation between total stock price change on a given day against their Google index for search volume. Since the first market drop, the average number of search advertisers to-date remains stable and high, having peaked again during the second market dip in the back half of the month.

What does this mean if you're a brand in the finance sector – or for any advertiser at large? If you are a brand that struggles to crack through the green ceiling of well-funded major advertisers, a crisis or noteworthy topic capturing widespread attention such as this is a rare opportunity to gain exposure on key terms, even if it comes at the bottom of the page. If you are an advertiser whose first reaction is to hold the line, or worse, cut spending, then you must do so with the knowledge that consumers don't stop when things go bad. As seen during other events of significance or widespread news, they flock, en masse to the web, and will seek out the brands willing to share valuable content.

If you are a big brand, you cannot run from search, ever. You must double down because the opportunity to get your message into the hands of people who find it relevant is even greater in these moments. If you have struggled to crack the first page of a Google search engine results page, then these opportunities are gift horses to be ridden, not stared at, and you should be prepared. Consumers have an unending need for more information. Moments like these show which brands understand the true power of relevancy in search.

Chris Copeland is CEO of GroupM Search for the Americas. Chris can be reached at chris.copeland@groupm. You can also follow Chris on Twitter @SearchBoss.

Read all Chris' MediaBizBloggers commentaries at Musings from GroupM.

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