SearchTHIS: Parts Bigger than the Whole

Since you are all probably just stepping back in from the summer season's opening weekend, I'll try to keep it short this week -- hold your applause to the end, please. I am on the business end of three days at this year's San Francisco revivalist Internet marketing show, that is to say, AD:TECH, and a couple of really neat things happened on the way to my search panel.

Of course, AD:TECH was a peach, and if you were among the strong, most enlightened bunch who stuck around to catch day three, you got an earful about search marketing in two sessions. Killer research, at least one earth-shattering case study and a group of industry moguls (I was there as well) chatted it up about brand and search.

Here's a run down of the goods.

Searching holistically

I think the actual panel title was something like "integrating" search. Integration is a funny term and it is tossed about quite a bit, as if everyone is supposed to come up with a strategy for it without really understanding what it means.

The first search marketing moderator of the day, Jupiter's Gary Stein, prefers to think of the integration process as a marketing ecosystem. Maybe, but an ecosystem is defined as "an ecological community together with its environment, functioning as a unit." I am going to call it holistic search marketing. Like integration, holistic is a word that is thrown around a bit too much, but the defining characteristics of holism, a theory that "reality is made up of organic or unified wholes that are greater than the simple sum of their parts," seems to suit what's happening in search at the moment.

Speaking of what's happening right now, Stein unleashed some pretty significant research from the world of Jupiter. First on the list, search marketing education relating to the purchase of both high- and low-traffic keywords, along with multi-word phrases, must be hitting home. Jupiter surveyed marketers using more than 1,000 keywords from 2003 to 2004, and the number jumped from 4 percent to 22 percent. Interestingly enough, searchers using one to 10 keywords dropped 19 percent in the same time period.

While the expanded keyword evangelism may be working, it appears the measurement preaching is not. According to the Jupiter data, a large portion of brand marketers aren't measuring search's impact. The simplest answer for this has been that marketers simply haven't had need for it yet. There was a time branding effectiveness measurement wasn't needed for banners, either.

Car radios and plasma TVs

Whether you call it integration, ecosystem or holistic search therapy, no one presentation illustrated a good execution strategy more than Scott Skurnick's. He's the manager of search and affiliate marketing for Circuit City. Skurnick's approach not only showed that the parts of search together have greater value, but also that shifting the dynamics of measurement can be extremely effective in maintaining a successful search marketing initiative.

Circuit City has about 600 stores in the United States, and the electronics retailer has shown how the offline world can successfully meet the online world with a "buy it online and pick it up at a store" system.

In search, Circuit City modifies search term strategies according to the stage in which the buyer exists. For brand-related or generally informational queries, emphasis is placed on high positions and traffic volume since generic terms tend to show lower immediate returns. In more specific or purchase-oriented terms, the goal is maximizing sales based on existing sales-to-cost ratios.

The Circuit City presentation also effectively addressed a hot question on everyone's mind these days: Is search marketing cost of sales, or cost of marketing? One finds the answer -- at least in the short term -- through effectively placing search terms into buckets and evaluating response based on brand-orientated goals or response-driven objectives.

While many of the tactics found in Circuit City's execution strategy are not brand new, it sure was nice to see a big brand up there depicting an accurate deployment.

Preserving America's natural reSEARCHes

In other news, as I was strolling into the search session, someone handed me research from Enquiro Search Solutions. An outline of their recent search study was presented, as well. One key finding is that 70 percent of searchers in their online survey of 425 respondents named Google as their top search choice. Also, searchers used a funneled process for locating what they want in search starting with broad terms and narrowing down with longer and more specific phrases. Controversial data in the report showed a significant portion of users ignored (nearly 80 percent) paid search results.

Wherever you may be clicking, Dun and Bradstreet's Mike Bruno, director of online marketing, showed how search visitors could be segregated into need-based buckets. Simply put, using source tools, existing customers go to one area, hot leads go to the sales department ,and leads that will predictively go nowhere are, well, handled appropriately.

Searching for brand equity

Question: What happens when you put four industry gurus on a panel and ask them to talk about branding in search? Answer: an unfinished debate on affiliates, a plan for building a co-branded site to expand brand search possibilities, and an explanation of when it is important to be number one that used adult diaper analogies -- it depends.

Search branding came to AD:TECH once again with yours truly, moderator Barbara Coll, (aka The Web Mamma) president of the Search Engine Marketing Professionals, Frederick Marckini, iProspect's chief executive and technology officer, Kevin Lee,'s chief executive officer and David Karnstedt, Overture's senior vice president and general manger of direct business.

Karnstedt and Lee offered the most level-headed viewpoint on our first question relating to the importance of being number one in search results -- review your client's goals and objectives before addressing the issue of positioning importance. As in the Circuit City example, it is important to understand your metrics before demanding that number one spot. So, is it important to be No. 1? As Lee said, it depends.

Lee also pointed out that co-branding can sidestep search marketing limiting factors like available inventory, suggesting that Coca-Cola to launch a Clay Aiken (of 'American Idol' fame) co-branded site to expand reach. A site like this would open the door to a much larger keyword set beyond traditional brand key phrases.

Another big question from the audience wondered: If brand keywords have achieved great rankings in natural results, should one bother with paid? Well, in addition to losing ground to competitors who are possibly bidding on branded terms, the answer lies in the speed to market dilemma. Let's say, hypothetically, your very well branded adult diaper has achieved a great ranking in natural search and you have just announced a breakthrough absorbency or comfort technology that will change the industry. What's the fastest way to alert searchers of this earth-shattering development? Buy paid listings.

The panel wound down with a discussion on self-competition in keyword bidding among brands and their sales channels or affiliates. Last October, I wrote a piece on best practices in this area, which placed policing affiliates as a great way to go, while Marckini published a differing viewpoint in November. Marckini's article went the way of competing with affiliates might not be such a bad thing. I believe both viewpoints to be sound and it seems to illustrate the bifurcated affiliate keyword search strategy in the marketplace today. Brands either take control of their relationships with strict guidelines, or let the affiliates run free. Don't worry if you missed the debate, we'll be back on stage in Chicago for round two.

That's a wrap

While we're on the topic of search content at conferences, I have to ask: Only two sessions at AD:TECH? Two? Through deep analysis, I guess I can understand the thought process.

Take the approximate percentage of search firms on the trade show floor, for argument's sake let's say 80 percent. Eighty divided by two leaves us 40 percent, which is the approximate percentage of online budgets dedicated to search these days. If you then take the 40 percent number and multiply that by the percentage of online marketers who understand and accept search as a component of online advertising, you get exactly two. Makes perfect sense to me.

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. In his off iMedia time, Ryan is director, market development at Wahlstrom Interactive. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.