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The Year in Search


In my mind, 2003 will always be the year I remember as the time I lost a red winter Daisy only to discover hope with a Yellow Rose— the year I fought for my life at the beginning and fought to share it at the end. And of course, this year search marketing wandered out of the optimization greenhouse to become a cash crop of ghost orchids.

As fate would have it, 2003 was also the year I achieved the sometimes dubious distinction of industry pundit. In a moment or two between March and December, I graduated from “contributor” to “columnist” thereby forcing the editorial staff at iMedia to graduate from a daily vitamin to a daily Prozac.

This time of year I always get a little sappy. So, in the only way I can, I’d like to extend my thanks to all of you for reading about search at iMedia this year. Here’s a handy dandy access point for the iMedia year in search, what we wanted to accomplish and what has changed in the few short months since then.


I know the year begins in January, but for our purposes here, I’ll ask that you suspend disbelief. Paid search marketing was just beginning to really take off and still had more than a few advertisers a bit befuddled. In Buy Me Some Traffic, we uncovered the world of paid search marketing from its infancy to the modern day equivalent of an ad format. Many of the search sites we saw in the early part of the year became part of other sites as paid listings continued to gain momentum. Stands to reason, since by the end of the first half of the year, revenues from search listing formats had more than tripled since the year before according to the PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP/IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report


Along with showers came the first installment of geographic search in Local Search has Arrived, or Has It? Advertisers needed a way to purchase search listings in a local format but seemed to be ignoring the best vehicles for delivering proximity-based commerce information—the yellow pages online. As is often the case with online marketing, we put the cart ahead of the livestock and little companies no one has ever heard of figured it out before the rest of us. Isn’t that the way it always happens?

By now, big search providers had figured out an entirely new way to play ball with The Game of Contextual Paid Search. Yet, at the close of business 2003, this form of buying search listings has more complications than solutions as we found out in the iMedia Beaver Creek Summit. Big agencies feel that contextual search should be discounted as lesser inventory since success rates are just not as victorious as the tried and true format. Stay tuned for more on this later.


What we traditionally thought of as creative elements in search results seemed to be falling off the face for the earth. By the time the flowers arrived, it appeared that Paid Search Killed the Banner. Big publishers were dropping traditional graphic formats in lieu of paid listings, but an interesting phenomenon had begun to occur. A few genius innovators began to offer hybrid formats. Since then, these formats have begun to pop-up (bad choice of words) all over the Web. Before the revenue reports made the format migration official, you read it in an iMedia newsletter.

In Links Sold Separately, we discovered the confused red-haired stepchild of search. It’s not optimization and it’s not a sponsored listing. Inclusion providers were stepping up to offer a performance-based model in lieu of flat per URL listing inclusion. As the year wound down, inclusion had taken a turn for the unhappy after coming under attack by the press because they are paid listings which are not clearly identified as such. Those poor consumers, unfairly being duped into clicking on paid listings.


When one spends most of a month on a sailboat, one has plenty of time to test, test and re-test the search marketing Tools of the Trade. In Part 1, I looked at what sites offered and how the unique attributes of each delivery model could affect your search marketing initiatives. In Tools of the Trade Part II, I took a closer look at third parties who offered assistance in measurement and management. Only last week, one of the big players in search, GoToast, was purchased by aQuantive's Atlas DMT. In the end, what’s the best tool for keeping abreast of such idiosyncrasies as keyword matching? Aside from hiring a search firm or using the latest comScore search information, look to physicians themselves for healing.

Also worthy of mention in June, the “Mount Rushmore of Search” was born, as depicted in the Ad Tech San Francisco Coverage.


Every online marketer on planet earth at least knew of the big boys in paid search. Yet there are plenty of other options for search as the market started to get a little crowed. Search marketers needed The 411 on Tier-Two Paid-Search Providers and iMedia answered the call. Sure, they had less traffic, but at half the cost. Though this landscape changed a bit over the year with Google’s acquisition of Sprinks, these sites still represent a great way to buy your way in.

Later in the month, a News Spotlight: Yahoo! Buys Overture opportunity presented itself as two powerhouses in search came together. The popularity of search is both a burden and blessing with agencies, search firms and site vendors going for a land grab. Can’t We All Get Along? Aside from an exploration of the joys of search and the subject of the most emails I have ever received in response to a column, this one almost cost me my day job. Once again, you read it here first and I accidentally coined an industry phrase.


In the grand Seinfeld Festivus tradition, we offer Search for the Rest of Us: Yellow Pages as the local search option of the day. Later in the year, we saw these providers coming together with paid search providers to capitalize on the highly lucrative and yellow pages publisher-owned sales channel.

Another iMedia first, Interpreting the Redundancy Nightmare explored advertisers’ Excedrin-orientated search for calculating reach and frequency in search marketing. As the year progressed, it seems the world of search was solving the problem for us by limiting the landscape through acquisition.


Search popularity brought less sophisticated advertisers who may or may not ask the question, What’s a Click Worth? The only problem in being happy with a click-through as a metric is that it often precludes one’s ability to generate positive return. Unfortunately, there are still way too many advertisers paying way too much for a click.

In the category of sites that work hard to make a difference, the Search Site Profile: Lycos offered an inside look at one of today’s hardest working search sites.


A lot happened as All Hallows Eve approached. For one, I decided to run for California governor and lost. Two, I wanted to end the keyword positioning disputes by Dialing in on Channel Conflicts. I lost that one as well, but online marketers got another first look at one of the biggest issues facing search marketers. While this piece served as the inspiration (read: rip-off) for a few unnamed online marketing pundits, the debate on channel conflicts can be efficiently settled with the communication of guidelines. The trademark ownership issue, however, will be settled by a federal judge at the behest of Google per its early December request for assistance in matters such as this.

Speaking of Google, we discovered a smart approach to entertainment in search with the Digital Hollywood Coverage. Just Another Day in Search Marketing passed as MSN expelled Looksmart listings from syndication and my optimism for the provider’s future may have been a bit too much as it laid off a big chunk of its staff at the end of the year. With a little egg on my face, I digress.

At long last, Local Search Comes of Age with big announcements in measurement and product offerings while I once again inadvertently coined another multi-syllabic online marketing phrase.


Right before everyone headed out to celebrate gluttony day, a few of us headed to Virginia to make sure Local Search Gets Its (3) Day(s). The end result? Search providers had officially begun to jump in the sack with Internet yellow pages portals and the tools we discovered last month a “need to have.”

Search moves pretty fast. It seemed only appropriate to team up with the good people at eMarketer to show The Chronology of Search, which offered profiles of the major events in search history that shaped this category as we know it today.

The Pay or Not-to-Pay Conundrum was the runner-up piece of the year in terms of reader response when I offered to the possible exception that a marketer could skip paid search or optimization in a search program. Traditional optimization firms dismissed the assessments as blasphemy while agencies cited the exclusive benefits of paid search. Still, my favorite response was a Marketing Wonk post from an angry optimization guru suggesting that I remove my “head from my arse.” To that I can only respond with the immortal words of our Executive Editor Lee Watters in response to a similar suggestion, “I would, but then I couldn’t see your perspective.” Cheers, mate!


When I began collecting data for the iMedia Beaver Creek Summit breakout session on search, I ended up asking the question, What's Up with Search? Top industry gurus answered the call for opinions and conjecture on search marketing. Key responses provided fodder for the session as influentials around the industry sounded off. The conclusions provided a tremendous amount of feedback and, while I’d love to fill you in now, you’ll just have to wait until next year to see it.

As I embark on a long holiday to my homeland (that’s Ireland to you and me, Russ) I bid you all a joyous holiday season and happy searching in the New Year.

Coming up in January—by popular demand: iMedia Beaver Creek Search Marketing Session consensus and “How I survived a near-death (sort of) experience in a Humvee built for six.”

iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. He is currently Director Market Development of IPG’s Wahlstrom Interactive, where he provides guidance in directional online marketing to Wahlstrom’s prestigious list of clients and sister agency brands.

Brand: BigFix

Agency: Rassak Experience

Sample coverage: The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Scobleizer

Campaign: Exploiting America's obsession with last year's presidential race -- and perhaps offering a humorous tonic for those bored with the election -- BigFix offered up Ray Hopewood, a fictional candidate who mocked the absurdity of non-stop political ads while subtly touting the virtues of the company's enterprise software offerings. Hopewood had his own Facebook page, videos, and merchandise. And as the real presidential race heated up, BigFix kept pace with new "developments" from its candidate.

What set it apart: During last year's election season, there was no shortage of campaigns that sought to use the political event to their own advantage. But what made the difference for BigFix was the genuine nature of the campaign, says Barak Kassar, president of Rassak Experience.

"A key mistake is to lose sight of the actual digital human experience you are creating for people," Kassar says. "We climbed into the skin of our viewer, and we sweated every detail of how this campaign would first appear to a person, and how it would unfold. Was the first eighth of an eighth of a second going to feel just right? And would it get better and better along the way?"

That strategy paid off, according to Kassar, who says some European users who weren't closely following the American election actually believed Hopewood to be the genuine article after seeing some banner ads. But more than that, Kassar insists that the key was that the campaign offered real touchpoints (including a Facebook page, Flickr photos, and a blog) that enabled people and reporters to engage on their own terms.

Advice: "Never bank on media coverage and never, ever bank on viral," Kassar says. "Both are gifts, and if you believe you deserve them, you will get hurt. All you can do is make something as good and human as you can. Treat the audience as human beings and treat reporters as human beings."

Brand: BBQ Addicts

Agency: None

Sample coverage: The New York Times, Akron Beacon Journal, Toronto Star

Campaign: After receiving a Twitter challenge to do something with bacon, BBQ fanatics Jason Day and Aaron Chronister set about creating the now infamous Bacon Explosion. But what began as a recipe disseminated through their website, BBQAddicts.com, and a few tweets, grew into a full-blown media frenzy, aided in part by America's obsession with outrageous Super Bowl snacks. The campaign helped drive traffic to the duo's blog, which has helped Chronister and Day turn their passion for BBQ into a full-time job.

What set it apart: There are a lot of crazy, pork-filled recipes floating around the internet, but according to Chronister, the Bacon Explosion took off because of three critical factors.

The first factor, Chronister says, was timing. With a launch date so close to the Super Bowl, BBQ Addicts gave legions of foodie football fans an exciting new dish to bring to their halftime party.

The second factor, according to Chronister, was the name, which even he admits is a little over the top. But, he says, one can't deny the power of an over-the-top name when it comes to grabbing the attention of an internet audience.

But the third factor -- which one could easily define as guilty-pleasure syndrome -- is what made Bacon Explosion, well, explode. "In reality, the recipe is very good (in moderation, of course)," Chronister says. "People were thinking, 'Who on Earth would eat that?' But in reality, they actually wanted one."

In other words, Bacon Explosion offered the shock value of something absurd, but behind the unusual recipe was a dish many people secretly wanted to try. That combination offered a kind of one-two punch, enabling BBQ Addicts to lead with a zany concept while delivering something of substance.

Advice: To push the campaign, BBQ Addicts relied heavily on social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. But, according to Chronister, many brands often misuse those platforms.

"Many companies haven't embraced the real nature of social networking and are hesitant due to fear of backlash," Chronister explains. "What they need to understand is any feedback at all is good, even negative responses. It's an instant survey and one of the fastest ways to improve whatever it is they're offering. All markets consist of human beings who like to be involved, and many times companies are pushing too much of a corporate message instead of a human message. They need to stop being afraid of their customers and start building relationships."

In BBQ Addicts' case, that relationship led to a conversation, which turned into a challenge, which in turn became a recipe that put the blog on the map.

Agency: None

Sample coverage: Fort Worth Business Press, Star-Telegram, ABA Journal (print)

Campaign: Hollywood it's not. But North Texas is home to one of the more unusual and risky bank campaigns anyone has ever seen. Rather than spending money on a traditional print and radio buy to advertise the bank's latest programs, Worthington (a regional bank) made four short films for YouTube, including a finale that mimicked a Western-style bank robbery. The mock robbery -- something most banks would shy away from -- was foiled by the bank's employees, who used their customer service skills to charm the thieves into submission.

The campaign relied almost entirely on local press coverage to drive customers to the bank's website and YouTube page.

What set it apart: While the numbers on the campaign were small (North Texas isn't the same as going national), Worthington Bank CEO Greg Morse says the YouTube videos were a success because they took risks few brands in the space ever dream of taking.

"We were at a bank conference two years ago and noticed that the advertising for smaller banks was pretty lame," Morse says. "The videos were made purposely to incorporate situations one wouldn't necessarily associate with a bank, like a day at the beach. They were made to showcase as much personality as possible (again, something not generally associated with banks). We aimed to make the campaign as unexpected as possible because people always talk about the things that surprise them."

That tactic worked, and many local reporters took note of a bank talking -- albeit in jest -- about bank robberies. According to Morse, that buzz helped energize existing customers and bring in new clients who were looking for a more personal relationship with their local bank.

Advice: While Morse attributes much of the campaign's success to the surprise factor, he also believes that using employees as actors in the ads made a big difference. "Using real-life employees added a bit of human interest and upped the news value of the story," Morse explains.

The use of employees also helped sell the bank's message of personable customer service, something Morse believes is best kept out of the hands of paid actors who are less likely to appear genuine.

Brand: Honda

Agency: RPA

Sample coverage: Salon, The New York Times, Advertising Age (subscription required)

Campaign: If an award-winning director made three short films that just happened to include passing reference to Honda, the result would likely be the "Dream the Impossible" campaign, which asked consumers to join the automaker in an exploration of themes that reflect the brand's core values. One video, which touched upon the company's mission of transportation, speculated on what a car brand might mean in the year 2088. Another video, which highlighted Honda's passion for innovation, took the unusual tact of probing the role of failure in achieving technological breakthroughs.

What set it apart: While a number of car brands have dabbled in short films (most notably BMW), few have taken the bold step of making an earnest documentary that barely features the brand name at all. But that's exactly what J Barbush, RPA's VP and associate creative director, wanted to achieve with "Dream the Impossible."

"We liked the feel of the documentary," Barbush says. "It allowed for a very soft message, which was important because we didn't want this campaign to be about Honda, we wanted it to be about the philosophy of Honda."

According to Barbush, the focus on Honda's philosophy -- and how it relates to stories of regular people -- helped get bloggers and reporters writing not just about Honda the company, but about Honda the brand and, more importantly, what it meant.

"It wasn't just about presenting feel-good stories," Barbush explains. "People responded the most to the film about failure, and that makes sense because that's part of reality."

Advice: While Honda's bold creative (notably its decision to confront failure) may not be palatable for every brand, Barbush does believe that one takeaway all marketers can use has to do with the vast size and scope of the web. According to Barbush, one of the keys to the campaign was that Honda didn't try to keep the conversation confined to its site.

"We used the full web; it's a big place," Barbush says. "For this campaign, we pushed comments to YouTube because they just didn't fit on our site. Marketers shouldn't be afraid to take people away from the destination. That may mean you're soft on metrics, but you need to look at the bigger picture to see where people are going and engage them there."

Brand: Colt 45

Agency: Cole & Weber United

Sample coverage: MSNBCLA Weekly, LiquorSnob.com

Campaign: Looking to focus on a young, hip demographic, Colt 45 (perhaps best known as Billy Dee Williams' preferred malt liquor) used a microsite http://www.workseverytime.com/home/default.aspx, an underground comic book aesthetic, a painfully honest tagline ("Works every time"), and a partnership with Vice Magazine to share stories that revolve around the beverage. 

What set it apart: "If you talk to people who drink Colt 45, one truth immediately comes to the surface -- they always have a story to tell," says Britt Peterson, partner at Cole & Weber United.

While those stories often involve a kind of drunken debauchery not commonly voiced in most alcoholic beverage ads, Peterson says the campaign worked because it didn't get in the way of how people actually use the product or try to force an artificial image. But the story-based approach also gave the campaign a life of its own because it asked people to share their experiences, which in turn prompted numerous reporters and bloggers to joke about their own memories of drinking Colt 45. While that may have made for some tongue-in-cheek coverage, it did garner press nonetheless, which helped make the brand relevant for a hipper demographic.

Advice: Stories aside, one critical factor for any campaign seeking to get press coverage is its ability to exploit something happening in social culture right now. "If you're tapping into something that's really happening, you have a good chance to get some media attention," Peterson says.

In Colt's case, the beverage resonated with budget-conscious hipsters because the low price was an implicit part of a highly stylized message, rather than overt offer of savings. The result was a message that was more of a genuine cultural contribution than an ad, at least as far as the target audience was concerned.

Michael Estrin is an editor at BitterLawyer.com.

Screw your head on straight and jump in

If you're looking to be highly effective, you need to jump head-first into your job and fully immerse yourself in the online marketing world. So what does this mean?

First, it starts with your attitude toward your job, company, and performance. Winning can be the only outcome that crosses your mind. Once your head is screwed on straight, you've conquered a big part of the battle. It seems like common sense, but having the right attitude is often overlooked as one of the most important traits of highly effective marketers. When I think of the people in the interactive industry that have been highly successful, they all have one trait in common: They all share an unbelievably positive winning attitude that can't help but breed success. It's a contagiousness that attracts and draws results.

Second, you need to love what you do. Effective marketers don't look at what they do daily as a 9 to 5 job. They view their daily work as part of their passion, and it fuels their lives. When you're passionate about the work you're doing on a daily basis, it brings a sense of calm to your well being, no matter how hectic, stressful, or crazy your projects become. If you can't think of any other type of work you'd rather be doing, you're passionate about your job through all of the highs and lows; no matter how nuts it can become, you are fully immersed.

School is in session

Online marketing is a moving target. It's a constantly changing landscape that requires you to keep your thumb on its pulse every day. As soon as you get comfortable with your knowledge and skills, the online marketing community will change all around you. So, with all of this shifting soil, how is it possible to stay on top of what's going on?

First, develop your list of weekly reading material. This material can come from websites, newsletters, RSS feeds, or blogs. I recommend starting your day with the RSS feed from iMediaConnection.com and a couple of other blogs to get a good feel for the daily industry "happenings." It's 15 minutes well spent before your days gets into full swing.
Second, audible media is increasingly becoming a better weekly learning source. The great thing about audible media is that it's highly portable, and you can fit it into several aspects of your daily life that are otherwise considered dead space. In addition to podcasts, books on audio are a great way to consume new information and general business knowledge. Check out Audible.com to build up your library of audio books on a variety of business subjects. These audio books, in conjunction with various business podcasts, can turn your iPod into a mini university, and your car, airplane seat, and treadmill into your classroom. A few years ago, podcasts and audio books turned my last marathon into five hours of class time! 

Finally, do not forget about visual media. On many business sites, including this one, there are videos that provide a good amount of quick insight, and usually in 3-7 minute blocks. YouTube has become a video learning medium for many, in addition to the more traditional entertainment aspects.

Document it

Your job as an effective online marketer is to be part marketer, part storyteller, part CFO, part analyst, and part historian. Remember, it's just as important to document your failures as it is to document your successes. Otherwise, how do you expect to learn what not to do as well as how to craft your future plan of attack?

What's the best approach when it comes to documentation? Everyone has their own methods, but what's important is to capture key elements. For example, whenever we run an advertising campaign, I want to know the type of ad campaign, payment metric, rate, duration, date run, dollars spent, impressions served, click-through rate, site conversions, the ultimate sales performance of the leads generated, and the resulting profit or loss. I prefer to group documented results weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually. Your preference might vary, but I recommend documenting monthly at the very least.

Once you have your documented results, you can create a summary scorecard for yourself, your team, and for the purpose of transparency sideways, upward, and downward throughout your organization.


Nobody becomes a highly effective marketer without developing a strong network. There are many smart people in the interactive industry. Find them and learn from them. The network that you create will allow you to be more effective in your marketing strategy and tactics. Simply being able to pick up the phone or send an email to other successful marketers who have experience in a certain tactic will save you from the same pitfalls that others have gone through. In addition, it will allow you to put your best foot forward and increase your success. In addition to reaching out to your network and reaching out to others for advice, it's key to make it a two-way street. Effective online marketers know the importance of being there for your fellow marketers just like they will be there for you. It's a key element of the collaborative fabric that fuels the passion many of us share for the interactive industry.

In one of my early articles, I recommended some helpful tips to be more effective while networking at conferences. If you're generally not a social person, you'll need to force yourself to get out of your comfort zone and talk with others. Some of my most valuable and longest lasting business relationships started simply by extending a handshake and saying, "Hi [name on nametag], I'm Sean, and I'm with AccuQuote. What do you do for [company on nametag]?"

Focus on objectives, not shiny objects

Effective online marketers are just as intrigued by the newest technology and tactics as everyone else. The key differentiator for these marketers is that they ask themselves a simple question as a shiny object filter: "Will this tactic or technology effectively help me reach my key business objectives?"

This filter question is one that seemed to get lost over the past few years. Instead of focusing on business objectives, many companies engaged in social media and/or emerging media tactics because they were a lot of fun and had a "coolness" factor. Unfortunately, they didn't advance their key business objectives. However, many companies are now evaluating social media tactics with their business objectives in mind.

Innovation is at the cornerstone of the interactive industry, and it drives the continued success of many businesses. Therefore, it's easy to get distracted and caught up in all of the innovation. You should try the "latest and greatest" technology and marketing tactics and stay on the forefront of technology by continually testing. However, the key is to apply the shiny object filter and really examine your proposed strategy in terms of how it will advance your business objectives. If you can't answer the question, then start looking for another tactic that is a better match for hitting your business objectives.

Take calculated risks

Nobody ever got ahead in business by always playing it safe. Take calculated risks by going out on a limb. Playing it safe can and might be much riskier to your career than actually taking risks. The key factor that separates the effective online marketers from the careless ones is taking carefully calculated risks as opposed to taking blind risks.

So what does it mean to take a calculated risk? As a direct-response-focused marketer, I get instant feedback on how all of my advertising campaigns are working. It's definitely a blessing, but it means that many of our advertising campaigns don't produce a positive ROI for us and need to be turned off. This means that I'm always testing. Some of these media tests fall into the safe category, such as media buys that mirror similar buys that have worked for us in the past. Others, though, are buys that are different from what we've typically done. This has sometimes meant targeting in a completely different way we were used to, testing video, social media, or myriad other methods. In each of these tests, I leaned on my bank of knowledge and experience, as well as feedback from others in my network, to determine whether or not I would move forward with a test. It still doesn't mean that each of these calculated risks is a home run, but some are. At the same time, I've easily used this approach to rule out many risks I didn't feel were worth it.

Work your ass off

Every effective online marketer has this trait. It's the backbone of their successes. They all bust their butt continuously and display a tremendous work ethic with everything they do.

This means that they often have to sacrifice other aspects of their lives. They are able to distinguish between when it's time to have fun and when it's time to buckle down, grit their teeth, and have laser focus. This is why this habit gets the distinction of being the seventh habit of effective online marketers.

Sean Cheyney is the VP of marketing and business development for AccuQuote.

On Twitter? Follow Cheyney at @scheyney. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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