What's Up with Search?

In a recent column, I asked online advertising executives to sound off about search marketing and, boy howdy, they did. I also asked several attendees of this week’s iMedia Summit to voice their opinions on concerns facing search marketers today. From all walks of online marketing -- big online agencies to site designers and search engine optimization shops -- voices rang out about the toughest issues in search, interpreted by the smartest online marketing audience in the industry: iMedia readers.

The responses led me to believe the current state of search engine marketing (SEM) can safely be compared to a hydrogen-filled dirigible heading for port. At the moment, SEM may still be ruled by popular opinion, while the dividing lines that exist between specialized search shops, site designers and online marketers keep us from seeing the impending disaster.

SEM needn’t go Hindenburg, thanks to the expertise of smart marketers as a driving force for a sound future. It took NASA many years to determine what turned the big blimp into a fireball, and it wasn’t sabotage or a bolt of lightning. It was a small spark of static electricity. The search zeppelin definitely is filled with flammable gas, but sound advice obtained from asking some smart questions may prevent it from exploding.

Who Should Be Responsible for Search?

Answers to this question were nightmarishly predictable. Specialized search engine optimization (SEO) firms claimed to hold sway over search marketing, paid or unpaid. Agencies, the keepers of client relationships, almost always said they should be in control. For the most part, site design firms appeared indifferent to the needs of search marketing. However, someone outside the agency/SEO realm can offer a very different perspective. In the end, we learn a great lesson from a guy with the bird’s eye view to watch it all go down:

“It depends on the advertiser. In one extreme, large Fortune 500 advertisers usually have an agency,” says Dave Carlson, CEO, GoToast. “Often the best way for these firms to approach search is to contact their agencies. At that point, [paid] search becomes an apportioned part of an overall strategy. In the other extreme, very small businesses typically do not have the agency relationships or budgets to pay others to manage their search campaigns.

“Specialized search engine optimization (SEO) firms play an important role because natural or editorial results represent a large portion of click traffic. Nearly every site needs to optimize or at least be search-engine friendly. SEO providers have stepped into the paid search fray and often apply an SEO frame of mind (focusing on accountability) to paid search. SEO providers have been forced into this frame of mind in order to justify the sometimes high costs of optimizing a site.

“The medium-sized businesses, 20 to 30 employees, are often the smartest advertisers in search because they typically have the passion and scaled business model to manage SEM in-house, minus the various quagmires big advertisers face and the lack of resource problems of very small advertisers.”

How Efficient is Search?

Hunger is an interesting feeling. Sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you need a pastry, and nothing else will do. A search result for the keyword hotel is pretty predictable in that, chances are, you will at least get something travel-related.

However, try to find a tart when you really want one and the dividing line between sponsored listings and organic results along with a search engine’s natural inability to communicate with the human interface becomes painfully apparent. The phrase “I need a tart,” returned the “blank stare” search results from eBay suggesting I go bid on tarts there along with organic links I simply cannot discuss here. Clearly, I needed a second opinion, so I got one from James Colborn, Account Director, Inceptor, Inc.

“ Search can be effective. But it’s also very cluttered and still holds many opportunities for both the honest optimizer and the ‘dishonest’ optimizer,” Colborn says. “Search lacks standards and has too many different rules set by the engines and not a governing body. Until search is managed as a unit rather than as different entities, it will be rife with inefficiency.

“At the moment it CAN be efficient but the company using it, either agency or direct vendor, must be sure that they aren’t crossing their wires. A lot of companies are bidding against each other in search if they don’t manage their search program with the affiliate program. This increases the click costs and reduces their return. Companies that don’t keep a check of resellers of their products or services face a similar scenario.

“ It is hard work but rewarding if done correctly. The biggest winners with inefficiency are the engines. In the two examples above, any paid for listing engine will be making more and more from each click and therefore gives you an understanding why engines are not pushing for standardization or a ruling body to prevent instances such as this.

Paid Search is “Paying” Everyone

According to many SEO firms, paid search delivers an unfair prejudice. A search result should be unbiased source information. One site (selling an optimization guide) offers the wildly inappropriate and non-sourced claim that 85 percent of users ignore paid listings. However, no one can deny what paid search has done for online marketing. Somebody must be clicking on those paid results. My theory of all search listings being paid is once again vindicated, along with great suggestion for the future.

“’Natural’ search is about as natural as the models found on the pages of Playboy nowadays. While paid search has helped to recharge our industry, it has also served to compromise the integrity of what search was intended for,” says James Kiernan, Associate Media Director, FooteCone and Belding Interactive. “I wouldn't necessarily go as far as to remove organic links altogether, but I do think it makes sense to partition paid search vs. ‘natural’ search so that it’s blaringly obvious to the Joe average user. Perhaps search engines create something similar to white pages vs. ad-driven yellow pages?”

How About a Search Incentive for Buyers?

If interactive were tough to integrate, search would seem to be impossible. To top it off, there is no incentive for agencies to do so. Why don’t paid search providers offer better incentives for agencies to get involved in search? The agency response tells us this problem is not an easy one to solve, unless of course we want to toss the infant out with the Jacuzzi water.

“ It is difficult to implement an institutional ‘discount’ on certain paid search programs due to the nature of bidding systems,” says Jason Burnham, President and Media Director, Mass Transit Interactive. “However, as an agency, I would like to see a discount incorporated. As with affiliate programs, it is important for the agency to articulate to the client the level of work that goes into managing a successful search program. Retainers, rather than commission, are a much more pertinent pricing model for agencies. Unfortunately, if there are ‘volume’ discounts, you may find less sophisticated advertisers attempting to drive down the price through purchasing larger volumes of less relevant keyword search inventory. Therefore, volume-based purchases of less relevant search results would diminish the user experience.”

What’s Wrong with Contextual Search?

Contextual search is getting some really bad press. Some marketers think contextual inventory should be discounted because it does not perform as well as the “tried and true” paid search listing. Some think the entire process of placing paid links into allegedly contextually relevant locations such as email and destination sites are effective only for very specific verticals. At least one smart marketer offered this very pragmatic assessment of the situation.

“Problem: Contextual relevance is less effective than self-directed search returns,” says Mark Redetzke, Vice President, Online Media, Zentropy Partners. “The industry sees this very clearly. If we are complaining about the rising costs of search, as we knew it a year ago, then we are now able to complain about the reduced effectiveness based on the listings showing up another step or two from the point of decision-making. Nothing is being done to fix it because publishers now have additional revenue streams (which they like), PPC engines have another revenue stream (which they like) and advertisers have a choice whether or not they want to use contextual search and we like having that choice. There’s nothing wrong with the picture, in my opinion.”

What’s Going on with Channel Conflicts and Trademarks?

The latest hot topic in search is channel conflicts. My Google search for “Ford F-150” last week gave me at least 12 possible points of sale, including two paid “official” sites. Which one should consumers trust? How can a dozen advertisers claim to be the Ford website? I have to admit, when I asked this question I expected every response to point the finger at paid search providers. The consensus seemed to be that responsibility for the brand lies with the brand.

An advertiser simply can’t blame Google for a channel conflict, particularly with its staunch commitment to helping advertisers while maintaining the user experience. In the end, managing brand presence efficiency in any medium is a complex and difficult process, which requires the stewardship of agency, brand, and media vendor. Of course, differing opinions make the world go ‘round.

“What's needed is an authority on policing relevance. Google has been altering its rules with Google's objectives in mind, relying exclusively on technology instead of working more closely with reputable search engine marketers,” says Jeff Herzog, CEO, iCrossing. “Look at what happened in France -- Louis Vuitton recently sued Google and won. At some point, it is up to the brands in search, just as it is in any other media. Until the people behind the Brands understand, search will resemble a similar bubble to what banners, etc., represented in 1999-- a very vulnerable place to be. Unfortunately, consumers and advertisers, especially when dealing with automobiles, should go by the old adage, ‘let the buyer beware.’”

The End of the Beginning

Throughout the course of my research, I discovered two things. One: With very few exceptions (no names) the world of search would appear to be in some pretty capable hands and is at least beginning to show signs of post-pubescent behavior. Two: It doesn’t take a NASA scientist to determine that with a couple of preemptive smart moves we can keep search marketing flying for a long time.

I’d like to extend my sincerest appreciation to all who took the time to respond to my request for their perspectives. While I am at it, I’d like to say thanks (I think) to all of you who are now referring to me as the Lewis Black of search marketing.

About the author: 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.