Search and Rescue from the iMedia Summit

Disclaimer: Some of the information you are about to read has not yet been declassified by the Colorado Bureau of Snow Disaster Recovery and should be taken with several grains of sodium. The names of some parties involved have been omitted to protect the innocent and many Humvee related details have been gratuitously overstated for dramatic effect.

About a month ago, I set out on a journey to collect viewpoints from industry leaders and iMedia readers on Search Engine Marketing (SEM) for the Beaver Creek Summit. I published them and proceeded to lead a discussion armed with the end-all, be-all issues for agencies and big advertisers, while trying to avoid frostbite and altitude sickness.

For the benefit of those of you who did not attend, here are the results of this discussion. As it happened, my journey for search marketing harmony coincided with a near-death experience (sort of) on the mountain.

Search Marketing Responsibility

The consensus from our discussions was actually quite diplomatic in that most attendees agreed that search marketing ownership should rest with the most qualified candidate.
The all-inclusive responsibility should depend on the scope of the client’s search needs and should be administered by the provider with the strongest core competencies, with cooperation of every shop involved.

Yeah, right. Just like retrofitting a Humvee with a battle tank-style tread system on each wheel is a hell of an idea. If you have ever been to an iMedia Summit, you know they provide for a great meeting of the minds along with some fun activities. One of those activities was a sponsored trip up the mountain in said reconfigured Humvee to “explore the wilderness” while climbing a steep, snow-covered mountain road that looked like something out of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” There were two vehicles, each configured to carry about eight people. Sure enough, one person had to tempt fate on the 45-minute ride up the mountain by saying, “Boy these things are really built solid; it must be impossible to break them.”Speaking of inviting disaster in, it seems there is no greater point of fear for agencies than search marketing ownership. The one-on-one discussions I had after the session dug deeper into the anxiety agencies feel about search. One site representative categorized it well in saying that advertisers are getting tired of seeing performance comparisons with other types of ad vehicles on the Web. Search outperforms many of the ad formats in which an agency’s core competency lies. Once a third party (search provider) is invited into the picture, the agency immediately loses credibility as the search campaign performance is compared to other initiatives. No wonder agencies are scared.

We are going to see some big changes in how agencies handle their approach to SEM this year. A few senior agency attendees indicated to me they had plans to bring search in house or at least hire an expert (a la Carat Interactive) to convey a greater level of competence for integrated programs.
Search Efficiency

How about search diplomacy? A search result can still be an alienating and vulgar experience for users and advertisers alike with thousands of results, which may or may not be relevant for a given phrase. Yet, our audience had a pragmatic feeling about search efficiency in that technological advances would sort search inefficiencies out over the long term.
According to this group, search marketing is “efficient enough” for marketers to effectively represent themselves in SEM.

I would tend to agree with those who say paid search is coming into its own via natural evolution, but organic search? Oy. There is a cottage industry developing around delivering search results on top of search results with downloadable apps like Grokker (should we learn to“Grok” instead of ”Google”?), which aggregates search into holistic categories, and Vivisimo that picks up paid search and natural listings alike with a neat little preview window for links.

Back to the mountain: There were two Humvees, a red one and a yellow one. Our driver in the red Humvee was one of those gentle mannered “guys’ guys” living the life we all occasionally dream of if we could only depart from corporate America and settle into a less comfortable digital existence while making far less money. As for me, I was cold, crammed in that sucker like a sardine. My idea of “roughing it” is doing without room service. Following close behind in the yellow Humvee was another group of online ad execs increasing their already high elevation by about 2,000 feet. The last thing on our minds was getting back to nature.
Forget about Natural Search

Natural search was another of the hotter topics in the session with an audience comprising a healthy combination of agency, hybrid (a firm that offers both natural or organic optimization along with paid search), and power search sites. Since natural search doesn’t do a whole lot for agency and search site bottom lines, it seems only optimization shops are profiting from the presence of organic links. Furthermore, most advertisers have given up hope for delivering any semblance of a timely message within organic results.

As witnessed in Yahoo!’s recently-announced plan to drop the great Google from its listing partnership, all great online marketing decisions are made by and for Wall Street. The presence of natural listing’s issue goes hand in glove with search efficiency, and the group had a most unusual prediction for the future of organic search: Users eventually will demand “unbiased oracles of information” after being bombarded with paid listings.
The trend for search will place a final listing product in the vein of what we currently refer to as “Paid Inclusion” listings. A hybrid, if you will, that has the benefits of a sponsored link without any organic listings will pass quietly into thy good night.

Also somewhat unceremoniously, two large tourist tanks arrived atop Mount Noonehasanyideathename and we all piled out to check out the winter splendor. It was a Norman Rockwell landscape, which as I discovered, is not quite as pretty when you are standing in the snow going numb. With no incentive to stay, we all did a Clark W. Griswold and family head nod at the view and headed back into our wagon queen family trucksters for the power ride back down the mountain. That’s when the wheels came off—literally.
Incentives “R” Not Us.

Sure there are incentives for huge buyers of paid search clicks. Most of these discounts are not topics of discussion in any public forum, but one buyer told me that you have to be in the “seven figure” monthly spending range to see any discount.

Nevertheless, I had to initiate the debate of offering a purchase incentive for buyers of paid search results. Everyone seemed to agree discounting search results will deplete the user experience by encouraging the purchase of large volumes of “less than relevant” results. That is to say, a discount on search terms or bids would cause advertisers to purchase large quantities of keywords thereby depleting targeting equity and turning a highly effective search program into a run-of-network banner buy.

The track apparatus that replaces the Humvee wheel costs about $8,000. This is not an item that can be purchased at a large volume discount. As we later found out, when a man agrees to drive and tour guide said Humvee, he also agrees to a “you break it, you bought it” philosophy. As we rode on down the mountain in our beloved red tank, someone noticed the yellow track-driven beast could no longer be seen through the wall of 5-pound flakes now falling on the big hill. The context of our little joyride came to a screeching halt as we heard the call on the radio, “We’ve got a Humvee down.”
Context Just is not King in Search Marketing

Contextual search has its issues. One, advertisers want to know where listings are appearing within large contextual network programs so they can evaluate the performance of each site individually. Two, contextual search does not offer the goal-orientated mindset of a search site query since your results are appearing on destination sites and shouldn’t be priced the same way. There was a tangible negativity about contextual search in the thin air of Beaver Creek.

On the other hand, a few agencies were quick to point out that a smartly relevant contextual program can be effective. With products or services closely matched to content along with separate but equal messaging, success can be achieved.

In the end, our consensus seemed to be that providers should recognize contextual inventory is inherently less valuable and discount it as such. It seems a new pricing structure is in order, and the payment obligation rests with search providers.

Red Humvee radioed headquarters that yellow Humvee was in trouble. Humvee central sent us into warp speed crisis mode. To my shock and disbelief, we began to back up the narrow mountain road to help the stranded tourists. I was now convinced our Humvee was piloted by Captain America. We approached the apparent wreckage and it became clear this metal mass had been wedged into the side of the hill. I could barely make out the logo.
Who Owns a Name?
We are not sure, but it seems everyone is suing Google to try and find out. Louis Vuitton sued Google in France, and American Blind has initiated similar litigation here. It has been years since the legal precedent was set precluding a firm from dropping a competitor’s name in the code read by search engines and it appears it is time for our overly litigious society to receive further guidance from our intangible parent figure, the Judicial system.

Aside from trademark concerns, there is the slight problem with affiliate sites. Affiliates get paid to send partners paying customers. In order to do this, many affiliates will bid on the same keywords as the partner. Since you have agreed to let the affiliate use your brand name, one could argue they have permission to place your name into site code ipso facto. This can cause a host of other problems like having your site locked out of natural search results as punishment for trying to either own the search or for “spamming” a search engine.

The iMedia Agency Summit consensus on this topic made me proud. Rather than point the finger at search or affiliate providers, the group felt that brands, with the assistance of vendors, should police keyword use in affiliate programs and trademark issues.
Speaking of pride, every once and a while one encounters a situation which restores one’s faith in humanity. Instead of a Monty Python discussion as to who was going to be eaten first, and although the twisted metal had clearly rendered this vehicle inoperable, there was absolutely no complaining about the weather or the inconvenience of being stuck on the big mountain. The drivers simply hooked up the winch, pulled out the wreckage and somehow managed to keep everyone warm while we arranged transport down the hill. You couldn’t ask for a better bonding experience. I couldn’t help wonder how many disputes could be settled if we just sent the parties involved up the mountain in a Humvee death ride.
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.