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.