Search THIS: Bright Lights, Search City

Flashing lights, hordes of people, tangible energy and industry personalities fluttering about in a frenzy. Oscar party? No. Political fundraiser? Not quite. It was a search engine marketing (SEM) trade show. Last week, Search Engine Strategies arrived in New York in a 4-day, multi-tiered session format with unprecedented attendance. Even organizer Danny Sullivan found the response a bit overwhelming. So did yours truly.

Search Engine Strategies (SES) has long been heralded as the granddaddy of search marketing shows. But I have to be candid here; I have never seen anything like this. The usual SES small- to medium-enterprise audience interlaced with big brands like Procter & Gamble. Agency-world legend Saatchi and Saatchi sounding off about search. Two floors of exhibit hall space at one of the largest hotel venues in the city.

Can search get any hotter?

With four days and more than 50 sessions, it seemed no search marketing stone was left unturned. Packed sessions included morning keynotes, detailed perspectives on the future of search, going local, brand ownership and a little thing called paid inclusion. Despite having a comprehensive session architecture, the demanding audience seemed to steer panel discussion toward hot topics du jour. Here are the highlights.

Brand Litigation

Everyone with legal representation and a dream is suing Google. Who holds sway over your brand’s keywords in search? You do. With several lawsuits pending and Google asking the Federal courts for a little guidance, it is anyone’s game. Topics included best practices for policing affiliate keyword use -- if you aren’t bidding, let them -- and how to avoid confusion for consumers searching for your brand.

In the short term, it seems the best way to help avoid consumer dismay lies in discussion with search providers in the vein of keeping search results relevant.  For the long term, further case law will have the final say.

Geographic Proximity Relevance

Lat week, comScore announced the launch qSearch Local, which they describe as “the first service to measure localized Web search behavior” along with a hot stat -- over 200 million local searches are conducted each month. Verizon and FindWhat jumped into the sack together to form the first IYP pay-for-performance hybrid. Overture continues to test local search options while Yahoo is integrating local information into its search platform. Switchboard rocked the local search world with an easy-to-use, intuitive learning algorithm.

After sessions on local search, attendees still had more questions than answers. What is the difference between searching locally to purchase and searching for information in geography? How will pay-per-click (PPC) providers get their hands on good information?

Answer: users want relevant, accurate local information, so we better figure it out soon. Can you hear me now?

Inclusion, the FTC and Not Necessarily News

Yahoo/Overture announced changes to their inclusion system.  Proponents of inclusion say it is a really great way to increase relevant search content while bringing some desperately needed organization to the new Yahoo/Overture/Inktomi family. Opponents now include the likes of FTC-types suggesting paid ads still need to be labeled as “sponsored” (inclusion listings are not labeled as such), and small business owners who say the program will squash their ability to get listed.

Worst Practices

Deceitful doorway pages, captious cloaking practices and precariously persnickety fees were all a buzz at the show. Comments ranged from, “back in the day, some of these evil tricks were not a problem, because no one thought they were evil,” to, “why on earth would one want to trick a search engine?” It’s about rankings, or the lack thereof.

Word of advice to the evil doers: obey the rules or pay the price with a permanent listing penalty.  

Agencies in SEM?

The battle for SEM ownership came home as agency representatives from Carat, Saatchi, Outrider, SiteLab, and yours truly, profiled not only the trials and tribulations facing search agencies, but the differences that exist between search optimizers and agencies. Popular buzz has long placed the traditional interactive agency in the back seat of search marketing since a specialized need set is required to implement an effective search marketing program. Research presented by our moderator, Jupiter Research senior analyst Gary Stein provided scope for the upcoming battle between SEM’s and agencies in Jupiter survey results profiling the importance and magnitude of search needs.

Key takeaway: get ready for an all out SEM land grab.

Best of Show

The overall winner at search engine strategies had to be the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO). In a few short months, this organization has seen tremendous growth in awareness, membership and fundraising. In one of my sessions, I polled the audience as to how many people have heard of SEMPO. Nearly everyone raised their hands. I ran into SEMPO president and founder Barbara Cole near the exhibit hall. She was pleased with the new Google sponsorship and indicated new sponsors are coming in at high frequency.  It seems this organization’s clout and power are growing like mad. The question is, what do you intend to do with it?

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. If these bios actually said anything important about people, wouldn’t it go something like this? Kevin Ryan is really nice guy with a big heart. He loves his mom, his country, dogs and helps old ladies across the street whenever possible. If Kevin suddenly found out he had a short time to live, he would devote his remaining days to righting as many wrongs as he could in the world.

Meet Kevin Ryan at Ad:Tech May 24-26th, 2004 and the iMedia Learning Search Tour.

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