Search: Today’s Silver Bullet

Nothing moves on the Web until users find what they are looking for. In fact, one could argue that online advertising evolved as a direct result of inefficient user experiences on search sites. Since before the first banner ad appeared on Hotwired in 1994, online commerce hopefuls have struggled to increase search engine rankings.

Search is now rated as the second most popular activity on the Web and the search marketing industry is worth billions. It is therefore only fitting the world of search marketing take its seat at the helm of Internet marketing. Here’s an overview of how search has evolved, and what the search industry looks like today. 

History and Evolution of Search

Search engines have existed since the days before the Internet. Government mainframes used search tools to help find information on green screens when the first files were transitioned from processed wood fiber into binary elements. In 1990—the advent of the online universe—a college student named Alan Emtage developed the first search tool for the Internet, which he named after a comic book character. “Archie” used servers to archive online documents.

The next several years found other comic book characters being named after search tools until 1994 when Stanford students Jerry Yang and David Filo launched an Internet directory. Often mislabeled a search “engine”, Yahoo! evolved as a human-compiled directory listing of content, a model which is not much of a departure from the Yahoo! of today. The primary distinguishing characteristics of directories and robot-, or “bots”, or “spiders” based search sites is the human component. Robot-based search engines using automated spiders were introduced around the same time Yahoo! launched. At this point, search engine marketing games began when savvy site owners realized the importance of being found.

Specialized Search Engine Optimization (SEO) firms sprouted around the ever-growing number of documents on the Web that needed to be indexed. Almost instantly, tools and tricks were developed to manipulate and search positioned listings. Cloaking devices, mirror pages and flooding search sites with pages became common practice until search engines decided this may not be the best way to go. Search sites began “locking out” or penalizing search marketers who used these techniques with poor rankings. SEO became a daily battle to come up with a new trick before the engine could discover it. These activities gave Search Engine Marketing (SEM) a bad name and many SEO providers were labeled snake oil salesmen.

In the years that followed, online advertising began to grow around the universe of search marketing as an online marketing bubble inflated in the late 1990s. Site providers viewed search as a non-revenue generating evil and big providers like Yahoo! outsourced search technology to tiny little search technology companies like Google. Advertisers viewed search marketing as a strictly technical component and separated it from online advertising. Advertising became the Art, SEO became the Science, and the two worlds were almost instantly divided. 

Although Art and Science still have not come together, the biggest move toward unity was unceremoniously initiated in 1997 when a little company called GoTo.Com (now Overture) sold listings on a Cost Per Click (CPC) basis. In 2001, Yahoo! began to carry some of Overture’s top listings in exchange for a share of CPC revenue. Other sites like AOL and MSN followed and search marketing took center stage in 2002 as paid listings revenue kept sites alive amid the post bubble-burst recession.

Today, paid listings are everywhere. Not just for search portals anymore, paid listings are found on destination sites (called contextual listings) and even email. And for good reason—Internet users use search, causing many in online marketing to label it the silver bullet for the industry. This may be overstatement, however, given user behavior.

Search Solicitude

Internet users have been trained to think that search engines are stupid. The US Bancorp Golden Search report indicates an overwhelming 74 percent of searchers use only one or two keyword phrases. The user’s mindset is such that a search site couldn’t possibly understand an actual question like “Where can I buy an Infiniti G35 Sport Coupe in Newport Beach, California?”

MONDOSOFT, a Palo Alto, California-based enterprise search, analytics, and optimization solutions provider, conducted a study on user behavior in search. Although the primary focus of the study was on behavior within site-centric searching, it revealed some key insights as to the habits of searchers. WebSideStory’s StatMarket compiled additional behavioral information. Through analyzing multiple studies from firms such as these we can make the following assessments about a search user’s manner:

  • Users spend an average of two to four minutes conducting a search
  • Relatively speaking, only a small percentage of searchers view second page results
  • A significant portion of searches produce no results, most likely due to morphological shortcomings
  • More than half of searches use a bookmark function to catalog a site once found
  • Roughly half of Internet users use search engines to find sites, the other half use direct navigation.

The Next Evolution

As the search industry evolves so do organizations designed to help make search a more pleasurable experience. In 2003, search engine marketing obtained its own non-profit organization in the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO), a non-profit formed to “help spread the good news about search engine marketing (www.sempo.org). Other big organizations that work in the search engine marketing arena are the Association for Interactive Marketing (www.interactivehq.org) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (www.iab.net), which both have committees centered on search engine marketing.

Generally speaking, search engine marketing is still in its infancy. As the industry continues to expand, we can expect search engines to become more efficient and natural language applications to evolve as one of the Web’s most popular activities continues to grow.

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.

 

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