Every time search practitioners gather at a conference, there is always healthy debate about what the future holds for the seemingly all-powerful medium. At a recent event I attended, Gian Fulgoni, comScore's chairman, focused attention on the value marketers currently are not getting from search and display advertising. He asserted that over-emphasis on the "last click" overlooks important latent online and offline effects. Overall, Fulgoni suggested, as little as 5 percent of paid search ads on Google result in a click, but by failing to monetize the latent value of the remaining 95 percent, Google and the other engines fail to capture as much as 84 percent of search's value. Essentially, comScore's findings imply that search should -- and may -- become more of a branding vehicle, while not necessarily sacrificing its primacy as a direct response mechanism.
In effect, what comScore has issued is a monetization and measurement challenge to both engines and marketers, since the engines are now so focused on performance that they reward ads containing relevant calls to action over those that focus exclusively on branding. Pouring resources into search engine optimization can help with branding efforts, but that's not likely what Fulgoni had in mind. Nonetheless, emphasizing the branding value of search makes sense. Consider the consumers marketers are trying to reach. They don't distinguish between branding or direct response ads -- they see ads. All direct response ads also have a branding element to them while all branding ads, though they may not carry a call to action, will have a direct effect on consumers' perception of a brand and their subsequent purchase activity. In short, both are opportunities to put a message in front of a prospective customer.The challenge comes at a time when there is increasing emphasis on a) the value derived from integrating search and display; and b) the branding value of search. None of this should come as any surprise in an age in which industry consolidation and in-house innovation have united both media under one roof at all of the leading search players. In this context, trumpeting the synergistic benefits of search and display media buys makes dollars in addition to sense. According to Fulgoni, only one-third of online ad spending goes to brand building (the reverse of traditional media), so remodeling search to facilitate branding may further fill the engines' coffers. Yet, beyond attracting the brand dollars, which is where the big money is, focusing on the branding value of search may help elevate and solidify the medium's presence at the top table. This would be a welcome advent for both in-house and agency practitioners, who continue to relentlessly trumpet search's effectiveness in the face of the sexier media, both online and off.In my previous column, I focused on the importance of using search strategy and tactics to manage a brand's reputation online, especially in the age of universal or blended search. If the future of search is increasingly brand focused and we're going to be putting a great value on latency in both search and display, the nexus of search and reputation management comes into sharper relief. Reputation management is all about building and protecting the brand. It contains both a defensive and a proactive component, but in most cases, it is not about direct response -- it is all about the latent actions consumers take or don't take as a result of what they discover through search. Making search more of a branding vehicle and further fusing it with display advertising would make managing online reputation a far more viable concern.Unlocking value that currently goes unrealized is a laudable goal, but the key to reaching this proposed but still-nebulous future is maintaining relevance. That's a goal in which everyone from marketers to the engines to the consumers who use search is invested. Search has become a universal activity. In the future, it will likely be a ubiquitous activity as well, one that transcends every possible device, but regardless of where, when and how the activity occurs, no one wants relevance to be sacrificed. That would be bad for search's online reputation.
Noah Elkin is vice president of corporate strategy for international search-led digital agency Steak.
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