Last week’s column seemed to spark a bit of a debate in the search business. In case you missed it, I made a few prognostications about the possibly limited shelf life of stand-alone search engine marketing firms in light of two developments: search sites offering natural optimization advice for sites seeking to build a better or more search friendly website, as well as online agencies -- the keepers of client relationships -- charging into search.
The question for advertisers and natural optimization seekers in the space is difficult. Why not just take advice from the people who built the search site? Who needs yet another third party when you can simply task your agency to manage paid search, or ask the search site for help with getting natural rankings?
As you might imagine, I heard from one or two people in the space who offered some of their own opinions on the future of search and the search firm. Beyond simply plugging away at normal activities and reacting to change, there are a few things you can do to stay alive.
How did it come to this?
Is it evil for a search site to reach out to site owners with optimization help? Let’s look at it from the engine’s perspective for a moment. The race to build the best search site is a highly competitive one. The big three (MSN, Yahoo! and Google) are all seeking to build the best search destination for users with deep content.
An unregulated, disorganized and highly competitive natural search optimization search space has forced site owners to seek out third parties who may, or may not, hold the secrets to better rankings. Search engines penalize unauthorized tactics, and many third parties in the space sought to position themselves as a search site’s fierce rival; this strategy has decidedly negative consequences for the clients these third parties serve.
Possibly due to the bad taste left in the mouth of high ranking hopefuls led down the path of ranking abuse (a.k.a. search engine spam), in the past year or so we have seen an increased level of transparency offered by search sites in how their search engines work. As many advertisers have found out the hard way, it is not easy to recover from being caught spamming.
Confusion, complication and misinformation have led site owners to ask for help from the people who actually do know the answers, and the search sites seem pretty justified in offering help from this perspective. Can you think of a better resource to turn to in this time of need?
Broad range of issues
Is there a future for search engine marketing standalones? With search sites becoming a primary resource for search marketing intelligence, and with the technologies used to index also always changing, the challenge of coexisting in the space is becoming difficult for agencies and search firms to handle.
“The speed of innovation in search marketing is astounding. It takes time and effort to keep up with the changes and to execute on them efficiently, says Cheryle Pingel, Chairman and founder of Dallas, Texas-based online advertising agency, Range. “That being said, it doesn’t seem so much a question of who does it, but who does it the best. Let whomever does it best forge on.”
Pingel also offers a compelling argument on how to make the relationship with search engines work. “We see the search engines as partners, and having a solid relationship with the search engines has been an asset to us as an agency and to our clients,” Pingel says. “We get to test new technologies when they are in beta; we learn the nuances of each engine and how to maximize their results. We then apply this knowledge to help our clients best utilize search marketing in their overall mix.”
Indeed, getting access to new technologies and information has become paramount for a search firm’s success. Search sites have done an excellent job of creating this demand for search marketing firms. For example, a search firm can become an Ambassador of Yahoo! Search Services (the search artist formerly known as Overture); in the absence of search marketing regulations and guidelines, it makes sense to make nice with the search site or even, dare I say, join 'em.
You CAN go you own way
Speaking of joining 'em at a time when many firms are running up and down Manhattan’s sidewalks attempting to get funding and issuing press releases, one firm in Lake Leelanau, Michigan has been marching forward using some basic rules of engagement, starting with the first rule many of us learn (and later unceremoniously forget) in life. According to the “about us” section of the integrated search marketing firm, OneUpWeb’s site, “We remember the Golden Rule from kindergarten and we think it still applies.”
OneUpWeb has been making news of late with the development of leading edge tools that satisfy the needs of search marketers, while maintaining solid disciplines that engage both marketers and search sites. OneUpWeb’s President and founder, Lisa Wehr, offered me a look inside the firm’s impressive array of tools.
In addition to offering standard search services associated with natural optimization and paid search management, OneUpWeb has quietly introduced its own brand of search performance understanding with a ready-for-prime-time platform, dubbed ROI traxtm.
"It will roll-out as a multi-purpose marketing analytics interface,” says Wehr. “We have included many features in a platform-agnostic environment that will enhance the search and online marketing experience in ways that previously required multiple entities.”
Two closely related areas of search that are simply begging for innovation are 1) click fraud and 2) trade mark infringement activity monitoring. Both require strong relationships with search sites as well as sound reporting data points, whether an advertiser would, potentially, either ask for a fraud refund or ask a competitor to stop abusing protected terms. These are areas where innovation in value-add can really help a search marketing firm stand out from the crowd. With one click on ROI trax, I got detailed competitive reports on search terms. My second click offered me a downloadable report showing possible instances of click fraud.
Click fraud perpetrators are slippery devils. Trademark infringement is a hot topic for big brands. Putting both of these tools together adds up to the kind of innovation that a search firm will need to survive in the new transparent and constantly evolving search world.
While the future of search firms will continue to be the subject of much debate in the coming year or two, there are certainly a lot of possibilities.
“I don’t think any of us really knows what the evolution of search will or will not be. Internet marketing --whether it is search, email, rich media, or some kind of chip that will be soon inserted in our brain -- is simply another channel for advertisers to reach their intended audience/consumer,” prognosticates Pingel. “Here’s a final thought; kiss your vendors, kiss your clients, optimize your search campaigns, and sleep tight.”
Maybe the new breed of search firms to which I alluded last week are already making innovative headway that will guarantee longevity. Maybe there is hope for specialized search third-party intermediaries. Maybe forward thinking and evolution exist in this constantly evolving world of search, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
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Become a Yahoo! Search Solutions Ambassador
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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