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Important Doings from SES 2006

Kevin M. Ryan
Important Doings from SES 2006 Kevin M. Ryan

The search industry's biggest show lived up to the hype last week as a cast of thousands descended upon the Hilton New York for Search Engine Strategies, (SES) 2006. Maybe it's me, but I still look around at these crowded shows and wonder how the search business got so big, so quickly.

In the category of "need more information about search," SES offers a four day, multi-track, action packed agenda for everything that ever touched search. From the basics of search friendly web design and paid search campaign optimization to the latest in video and buzz measurement technologies, it's all in there and more. 

Barry Diller wants to be evil; bloggers find video search something less than useful and -- not surprisingly -- some new stats on search usage indicated that search is bigger than ever. The biggest event in search certainly packed a punch this year, and there was a lot happening both on and off stage.
Farewell to the Butler

SES kicked of with a few words from Barry Diller, chief executive of IAC/ InterActiveCorp and steward of the search site formerly known as Ask Jeeves. The new site officially dropped the butler as its mascot and introduced a new look for the re-branded Ask.Com.

Among the pearls of wisdom provided by Diller in his interview with SES host Danny Sullivan, Diller joked about Google's mantra and suggested that Ask's tagline could become "be evil." Diller reminded the show audience that Ask is brand that came to play and compete and further assured that while IAC-owned sites will not receive preferential treatment in the ranking process.

The new Ask has quite a bit to offer. Free of competing sponsored listings and now completely on its own, the new search layout boasts a cleaner look, strong tool box on the right rail with interactive driving directions, mapping (aerial views instead of satellite) and an encyclopedia function. The business of search is still young enough to have leadership contenders, and we can expect great things from Ask.

Out of the mouths of pundits

The Pundits on Search discussion on day two of the show (perhaps more appropriately named wildly popular bloggers on search) included Robert Scoble (a.k.a. The Scoblizer), David Vise, author of "The Google Story," Matt Cutts and Jeremy Zawodny from Yahoo.

Whenever you get a bunch of industry watchers together, you are almost guaranteed some uncensored, un-PR-sanitized fun. Among the comments that fall into the category of "what everyone is thinking but would never say in an open forum" was Cutts' thoughts on video search. Cutts suggested that he has better things to do than watch people's home video and until the digital rights management issues are sorted out that video search will not become mainstream.

Tagging is all the rage -- a process by which consumers add text labels to indexable or indexed content -- and it was refreshing to hear some concerns about spam. In the "how quickly we forget" category, we tried to index information with user-designated tags some time ago. The process of adding tags to websites left the searching public susceptible to those who would abuse the tagging process by spamming tags with keywords. 

In my opinion, we'll know exactly when tagging really takes off because the every site will be filled with tags for adult content, places to purchase Viagra and OEM software online.

comScore and Nielsen offer the pulse

The two measurement and industry guidance giants released their search engine state of the search reports within days. Each showed search activity on the rise and Google's hold on the searching public increasing.

Nielsen//NetRatings reported that search activity was up 39 percent overall for the January 2005 to January 2006 period. comScore reported that in January, 2006 Google was responsible for 41.4 percent of all searches submitted, up six percentage points from the same period in 2005.

While the reports differed slightly in their depiction of search share, both concluded that Google had increased its share while third place MSN had declined slightly. In comparing search share for January, 2005 and 2006 comScore's report indicated that MSN had declined 2.3 while Nielsen// NetRatings showed a 1.8 percent decline.

The two reports also differed in their representation of Yahoo's search share. Again, comparing January 2005 and 2006, comScore reported a decline of 3.1 while Nielsen// NetRatings indicated an increase of 0.9 percent.

comScore also indicated Ask.com's share increased 0.5 from 5.1 percent in January 2005 to 5.6 percent in January 2006. Of course, the true measure of success for the sans butler Ask will have to be in next year's report.

Hitwise gets in, SEMphonic organizes

Immediately following the search engine strategies week, a couple of providers made some news of their own with a new product offering and an acquisition.

First, Hitwise announced Monday the planned acquisition of HitDynamics-- a technology platform that combines bid management and campaign optimization with reporting. Hitwise plans to integrate the technology into their existing robust layout of online competitive intelligence reporting tools, and when the transition is complete we can expect to see a powerful one-stop search solution.

Yesterday, SEMphonic unveiled its version of an all-in-one reporting and competitive analysis tool, CampaignTracker. SEMphonic's variation provides those who wish to manage search initiatives directly with search sites (leaving behind the complications associated with third party bid management tools) with an easy-to-use desktop application that quickly combines reports from Yahoo, Google, and many other sites.

If the buzz at SES is any indication, measurement and management are hot topics in the search business, and as more providers introduce their own brand of search management tools, we can expect see a great deal more robust platform based approaches to search management.

SES is still a great place to see old friends and meet new ones, and there is a rich experience to be had in watching how big the search industry has become.

iMedia Search Editor 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. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations. 
Ryan is Managing Partner at Kinetic Results.

Whose side are the consumers on?
AdKeeper's Nielsen polls aside, consumers' attitudes toward banner ads aren't always clear. In one Harris Interactive study conducted last year, 43 percent of respondents said they "ignored or disregarded" banners, and 63 percent said they disregarded internet ads above all others. At the same time, eMarketer estimates that U.S. advertisers will spend $6.56 billion on banner ads this year -- an increase of 11.4 percent over last. The situation calls to mind the old paradox about email spam: Consumers would bemoan the number of unsolicited messages in their inboxes, but that wouldn't stop them from clicking. 

The incongruity between consumer opinions and advertiser results lies, again, in relevance and value. Not all banners are created equal -- in fact, there's often a huge discrepancy between the quality and value of ads produced for major brands and countless other less likeable alternatives. Consumers may also fail to realize the effect that banners are actually having on their purchasing habits. MediaMind reports that just 20.4 percent of conversions occur immediately after clicking on a banner, while nearly 80 percent happen post-impression.

If consumers are still thinking about the brand and ad message enough after seeing a banner to convert at a later date, doesn't it stand to reason that they might be interested in revisiting that ad? If they come across an ad for a medical service or a vacation destination that's of interest but don't want to pursue it in the office, might they not really appreciate the ability to tuck it away for when they get home?

In general, consumer attitudes toward advertising are changing. People are beginning to recognize that there's real value in ads that offer something they truly need or want, and buy into the notion not just of tolerating those ads, but inviting them into their lives. For evidence of this, you don't have to look any further than Groupon, with its 54 million members, and Livingsocial, which currently has 20 million members. Daily messages from these group-buying services are essentially geographically targeted ads. These and other such businesses are teaching their subscribers that targeted ads attached to valuable offers can enhance their lives as consumers.

Consumers and brands are on the verge of simultaneously discovering the benefits of extending the life of digital ads online. Maybe the banner will finally get its credit where credit is due.

Courtney Nowicki is associate director of interactive at Enlighten

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