SearchTHIS: For Whom the Search Bell Tolls

The unique needs of search engine marketing have produced their own industry segment, and it’s a great time to be a search marketing intermediary. Search has become a multi-billion dollar industry. For some time, the focus of the search marketing generation has been making search a more efficient experience for searchers while making a few bucks in the process.

Market segmentation and diversity in program management executions in both natural and organic arenas spell a need for specialized search firms. While full-service interactive agencies have made significant moves to embrace search, they still have a few challenges to overcome before they will truly have a handle on search disciplines.

Despite the apparent best efforts of big search providers to embrace search marketing firms, recent developments indicate that search is rapidly losing its mystique as integrated tools continue to separate science and fiction in the search arena. At least one search site is giving a look-see inside the organic search listings kimono, and every paid search provider is investigating more traditional pricing models for paid search.

These developments beg the ultimate question for the specialized search providers. Is the end near?

Early warning

For many advertisers, there are really only three search sites. Last week, I spent some quality time reviewing log files from a multi-billion dollar online merchant. Not surprisingly, analysis indicated the bulk of search traffic came from the big three: Google, Yahoo! and MSN, with greater than 70 percent of organic traffic coming from Google. All other search traffic sources added up to less than 3 percent, despite the advertiser’s commitment to second-tier search offerings.

Said merchant has what is commonly referred to as a “sophisticated search marketing program.” Significant efforts have been made to increase natural rankings, and paid search is a huge priority. Despite having three firms (natural optimization firm, paid search vendor and interactive ad agency) involved in search efforts, the merchant got some help in organic from a surprising source: the search engine itself.

Probably the biggest source of angst for search firms and the driving force behind negative buzz in the business is the practice of a search site offering optimization advice for site owners. Search engine marketing firms butter their bread with natural search advice and implementations, and they are upset that a search site might be giving it away.

Search side shenanigans

While MSN, Yahoo! and Google offer advice for webmasters on their sites, many search marketing firms have complained that search engines are offering big advertisers free search advice, i.e., going well beyond what is contained on the help pages.

Not surprisingly, the word from a Google spokesperson is slightly less malicious in tone: “If asked, we occasionally provide a basic overview of the webmaster information that is publicly available on our website. This is not a formal service and is conducted by the Google direct sales organization.”

From the communications I have seen, the advice offered to site owners is pretty consistent with what is posted on the search site in helping site owners avoid terrible mistakes and helping them structure content better. Rumors abound relating to search sites deliberately trying to remove agencies from the picture with search advice. Even if that is the case, a little optimization advice should not be enough to kill the search engine marketing firms.

But it’s a good start.

Organic anarchy

As many search advertisers and those who would require search optimization services have learned in most difficult fashion, there is often a big departure between theory and practice in search. More often than anyone would like to admit, there is a difference between what is promised, expected and ultimately delivered.

Those who would offer organic search optimization services -- once a mysterious solution offered by a precious few who claimed to have black box search solutions -- are finding themselves in quite a pickle. For many years, big brands and small sites alike have shelled out funds to help with search optimization. Many site owners have been burned by bottom feeders in the business, and even more have realized that a sound site architecture and relationship link-building strategy accomplishes the same goal of big ticket search optimization services.

With search sites offering counsel to webmasters on how to properly structure sites, why should a site owner pay anyone when they can simply check in with Google for a search solution?

Wait, it gets better.

Sponsored mayhem

On the paid side, search solutions providers are building complex, efficient tools using each search provider’s API (application program interface) to help maximize advertising spending. A smart API places all of the pieces (protocols and software guidelines) of an interface puzzle in one place for application architects and builders. Developers can then construct applications such as the ones offered by Microsoft for Windows-based applications.

Building a paid search tool isn’t quite like creating software for Windows, but it does bear a few striking similarities. Like Windows-based applications, they don’t always work as promised. My Treo 650 has yet to synch up with my Outlook Calendar despite downloading patches, reinstalling tools and using about 700 tricks from discussion boards.

The process by which search tool developer applications are synching up with the search engines is often plagued with problems as well. Sometimes (maybe more frequently than anyone will admit) the application interfaces don’t function quite as well as the tools provided by search sites, notwithstanding the developers' best efforts to build a better mousetrap.

MSN plans to offer an API when they release their new and improved paid search offering. From the preview standpoint, it looks pretty sharp -- maybe as good as or better than Yahoo!’s or Google’s. Despite the API offering, every provider has smart applications in the skunk works designed to make paid search easier for interactive agencies to manage. 

Search firm extinction

If MSN’s integrated approach -- along with other search providers like Google testing the waters with more online advertising one-stop solutions (Google acquired the analytics provider, Urchin last week) -- is any indication of things to come, search firms will have to work pretty hard to stay in demand since many of the tasks performed in paid search may more easily be accomplished by agencies or the search sites.

In the past year, we have seen interactive agencies -- the keepers of client relationships -- charge forward with search activity. The search engine marketing firm iProspect was acquired by Aegis Group, the parent of Carat Interactive. Prior to that, AQuantive acquired the paid search management tool, GoToast. Some agencies, like AQuantive’s Avenue A / Razorfish are buying, others are building and each acquisition and consolidation carries with it a message.

“I believe that the best predictor of the future is the past. Look at the things we thought were specialized enough to require a specialized industry,” says Harrison Magun, VP, Managing Director AR/ Search a division of Avenue A / Razorfish. “Email is a prime example of this, and it is now part of every agency environment. I think we will see the same thing happen with search.” 

Last call for search firms

Specialized search firms haven’t been counted out yet. They have secured relationships with big advertisers and brands, and the smart ones are seeking to change their stripes and diversify offerings. Many are seeking outside funding, and some are getting it, in an attempt to build scalable offerings. Still others are trying to become more like agencies by building an intangible asset façade, but that won’t be enough to keep them around for the long term.

Maintaining an expertise in the search discipline will be difficult for agencies, but the writing is on the wall for the search firm as we know it today. Advertisers want smart integration and sound advice. They are tired of misinformation and excuses. They don’t seem to mind going directly to search sites for advice, and more search sites are seeking to demystify natural search optimization. A new breed of search firms will have to emerge as integrated agencies that recognize and integrate the search relationship with offline efforts, marketing and sales.

Additional resources:

SearchTHIS: The New Face of MSN Search

Search THIS: Why Can’t We Get Along?

Search THIS: Buy Your Own Search Listings

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

Meet Kevin Ryan at the Kelsey Group’s Drilling Down, The Online/ Offline Opportunity  April 18 - 20, 2005 and Ad:Tech San Francisco April 25-27, 2005

 

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