SearchTHIS: Buy Your Own Search Listings

I would like to introduce you to the dark side of so-called partnerships among providers, advertisers and agencies -- in search. While there have been touchy relationships with publishers and agencies for years in the online space, search was more or less considered untouched by the shenanigans within relationship mongering.

To be perfectly candid, I didn’t want to write about this topic. I was going to round out the year with a little something about listing best practices, last minute holiday search tactics … something fun. Then an interesting thing happened about a week ago. I might have dismissed this event as a random act of stupidity, but I asked a dozen or so industry colleagues if anything similar has happened to them, and my inbox was filled within hours.

Apparently, an employee of a noted search engine sent a series of emails to advertisers within a specific vertical with the express intent of bypassing the agency relationship and any level of known decision-making hierarchy on the side of the advertiser. This isn't the first time such an email has been sent, but it was the most instantaneously notorious.

The Situation

Search is just a bit more complicated than the rest of online advertising, but in some ways it's a bit simpler. The process of search or paid search management involves hundreds of steps and unique activities, yet one or two key players deliver the most traffic. To the casual observer, therefore, it would seem that letting them help with the process might be good idea.

Think again.

Some search providers are even offering bid or listing management tools. Maybe that would be OK, right? Google, for example could manage my bids on Google.

Wait, maybe there is more going on here.

While search grows up, there are a few things you should know about the players involved, who the players are, as well as what might provoke an otherwise intelligent group to act like a collection of two year olds.

The Publisher

For the most part, search engines are public entities. Despite the pretty façade and love-in style introductions, they are soul-less cash mongers who couldn’t care less about you.

I remember going to a search party the last time AD:TECH was held in Los Angeles (frankly, there were no other parties). While boozing it up, my rep enjoyed telling me how much fun it was to go out and sign up my client’s biggest competitor to drive up bid costs.

Now that’s nice, isn’t it? True story folks, I am not making this up.

The argument from the search engines is very simple and effective. “Agencies don’t understand search and specialized SEM shops don’t carry enough weight to be effective in the marketing world,” one search provider told me on condition of anonymity. “If we can’t get a direct introduction, we’ll try to get the agency to get us in so we can then move around them.”

Of course, if I were on that side of the business, I would do what I could to get a direct relationship with a client. From the bottom of the food chain perspective, half the time agencies have no idea what’s going on with a client and are just guessing. Said guessing, the other half of the time, leads to the agency getting fired and the search provider has to start all over with the relationships.

It is the same old song and dance, but with a slight twist of course.

The Agency

Remember when online advertising grew up? The day an apple dropped on the head of every publisher and they realized that agencies might actually serve a purpose in the world? The day they realized there just might be something to the media model that has been around since before Darrin Stephens was storyboarding tire ads? The moment publishers acknowledged agencies are not just a bunch of bumbling clods standing in the way of precious revenue?

We act in the best interest of our clients. Period. Sometimes. We think so anyway, just answer the damn RFP and like it, OK? Except the RFPs you see in search don’t look much like RFPs elsewhere.

Let’s presume, for argument’s sake, that you as a brand have done your homework, and your agencies all know their responsibilities, so you are well on your way to building your marketing dream situation. You get a call from the search provider, who has appointed a specialist for your line of business. He must know far more about your situation than you do, yes? Or maybe this is yet another ploy to bypass your agency and possibly yourself?

"Agencies need to be cautious of overly cozy interactive publishers who wish to present themselves as a package to their clients. While a deeper level of partnership between agency and publisher is to be commended, agencies need to be mindful of their overall mission, which is to provide strategic counsel and value to clients,” says Ron Belanger, vice president, Carat Interactive.

Ok, so it’s not just me. Like I said, my inbox was full.

“A healthy dose of skepticism, impartiality and publisher agnosticism are all requisite traits of a good agency,” Belanger continues. “After all, a publisher's goal is to snare the largest share of a marketer's wallet, and an agency's goal should be to find the channels and publishers who produce the highest return on ad spend for their clients."

The Conclusions 

And in the end, it really isn’t any more complicated than being happy with your lot in life. If you are a publisher or search provider, be a provider and stop trying to be a neutral third party. It isn’t going to work, and you will end up looking foolish.

Clients aren’t as stupid as one might hope they would be. They can see through idiotic ploys to get more business. Also, understand that when you bypass an agency or other contractor, because you don’t think they are moving fast enough, the client you seek to ingratiate yourself with might just be a bit insulted. By assuming the agency they hired is clueless, they, by extension, are also clueless aren’t they?

Last year I wrote about the differences among site developers, SEMs and agencies. I forgot one and I am a stupid, stupid, man for doing so. In my defense, big publishers had yet to go public or be acquired, and the world of search was still in diapers. Today, even though search has moved on to disposable pull-ups, that doesn’t mean we are going to be accident free.

Additional Resources:
Search This! Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

iMedia Search Editor 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. 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, the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.