SearchTHIS: Certified Grade A Search

Paid search advertising has changed. The dynamic auction environment has transformed our online advertising world forever. It requires specialized knowledge that defies the media model as we know it. The process of managing hundreds, perhaps thousands requires an intimate knowledge of each provider's unique attributes.

In the instance of commercial search engine advertising -- be it auction-based sponsored listings with Google AdWords or large scale inclusion programs like Yahoo!'s Search Submit -- getting some help from the search providers could be a requisite requirement of effective program management. Since few industry guidelines exist in the search space, top providers have stepped forward to provide education and various levels of distinction to agencies, search engine marketing firms and other third parties that guide search marketing efforts.

Do these requirements and guidelines provide some with an unfair advantage in the space? Conversely, does showing preference to a publisher negate the inherent benefits of retaining a third party to act in your best interests as an advertiser?

Let's take a good long look at the new search era.

Origins of caste

How has the need for a publisher stamp of approval arisen in this advertiser-driven world? Way back in the 1990s when online advertising got started, publishers were often frustrated with the amount of time it took traditional marketers and agencies to drink the online advertising Kool-Aid. It didn't take too long before said publishers began bypassing agencies in favor of pitching the clients directly.

Raise your hand if you have a story about a "web economy provider" that had a plan to "engage 24/7 content" in order to "target transparent paradigms" for the low low factory discount price of only 13 million dollars per month. After a few months of negotiation (read: proposal shelved), said offer would be paired down to about 13 thousand dollars a year. The agency role was once again apparent and the "bypass the agency" mantra faded for a bit.

Fast forward to 2004. Search engine advertising has taken on an entirely new form. It moved out of the tech department, but it's still complicated, difficult to understand and has no place in the media department. We went right back to 1999 with a few hiccups in search, but for the most part we are seeing search sites exhibit a much more intelligent and suave approach today. Forget the direct pitch, now you have to be certified.

I am Google enough, smart enough…

And doggonit people search on me, so listen up! Google has a simplified approach to helping agencies and search marketing intermediaries along with its "Google Advertising Professional" qualification program.

If you really want a case study on smart search advertising application and solid channel development, check out Yahoo! Search (formerly Overture; formerly GoTo.Com; formerly those guys with the big plastic Ducks). Yahoo! has created a reseller hierarchy that would make even the finest frequent traveler loyalty program green with envy.

For starters, there's the Ambassador Program. According to Yahoo!, this program was designed to "help high-performing search engine marketers (SEMs), agencies and other resellers drive targeted sales leads to their clients."

Now that's a real nice way of saying, we'd like to help you hapless nudniks sell more advertising.

Yahoo! Ambassadors receive all kinds of benefits, like more seasoned professionals to work with, marketing tools and faster editorial clearance, which means your listings don't have to wait as long to go online. One can also be a Local Sponsored Search Ambassador, a Search Submit (paid inclusion to you and me) Ambassador, and a Marketing Tools (performance measurement) Ambassador.

As if that weren't enough, there are higher levels of ambassadorship. There's the Yahoo! Certified Ambassador, for "higher-performing agencies and SEMs" and the grand exalted Yahoo! Strategic Provider "top-tier agencies and SEMs" if you really want to run with the big dogs.

Does any of this remind you of your preferred airline's loyalty program? From where I am sitting it sounds like the faster I sign up, the sooner I will be sitting with the important people up front.

Capitalism at its finest

Slow down there, Turbo, we have a few things to discuss. Let's go ahead and take a look at your spending levels, Mr. Search Marketer. Why don't you grab a seat in the waiting room while we run your credit and see how the numbers come up?

Once again, Google has the most straightforward approach. An individual can sign up for the Advertising Professionals program and for 90 days must maintain a minimum $1,000 budget, along with taking an exam to show your expertise at Google. If you would like your organization to be "qualified," you must spend at least $100,000 in this 90 day period, be based in the United States, and employ at least five "Qualified Google Advertising Professionals."

Yahoo!'s requirements are an exercise in complicated excitement. Though spending minimums are not disclosed, the highest tier, "Strategic Partner," requires that a firm must meet all the requirements of each lower tier certification. In short, you must prove a level of expertise in sponsored search, local, and measurement. This means you have to be selling everything Yahoo! offers very well.

All off this adds up to one thought in my mind: you can have the smartest people in the world on your search marketing team, but if you aren't spending the big bucks, it's the back of the bus for you -- at least in the eyes of the seller.

Partner or unparalleled bias?

Ever race to the airport on a Friday afternoon, praying to Hermes that you make it in time to get the business class upgrade? Of course, you arrive only to find that a higher tier loyalty member has beaten you to the punch, and you are doomed to the pit of coach for the next four hours. Maddening, isn't it?

Should your spending level similarly determine your role in the search marketing food chain? After all, it is a search engine, and results should be closely tied to relevance first and dollars second, right? Then again, paid search is a dynamic bidding environment. There are few buying efficiencies, so it really doesn't matter how much you spend, you shouldn't get "bumped" by a higher tier loyalty member.

There might be a couple of other issues here as well. Who audits the "exams" that one must take to become qualified? What does it really mean that you have to demonstrate a level of expertise? Demonstrate what? Your ability to generate more revenue for search sites?

Frequent emails to key partners offering incentives for increasing sales have become the norm in the search business. While many advertising firms and clients limit publishers in providing gifts, taking care of top revenue generators in advertising is nothing new, although assigning sales goals and gifts certainly is. One email promised a "Grand Prize" that included high end electronics and a dinner with publisher execs to the provider that generated the most new revenue. I am sure agency representatives in this classification will not feel beholden to the publisher in the slightest.

I would have thought dinner would be included with that kind of cash. As an agency senior manager, I would want to spend as much time as possible with my constituency as a matter of course, though it's not my idea of a grand prize.

Suicide is painless

Perhaps I am being a bit harsh. Search providers have had to take matters into their own hands to make sure the, ahem, resellers have created an environment that is more akin to a new millennium surgical operating room, as opposed to search marketing M.A.S.H. units.

A lack of standards in the business has led to sellers leading the way in organizing best practices and enforcing their own standards. They have optional requirements, classifications, and even certification guidelines for becoming better resellers.

Lately I have noticed that search marketing partner requests for information have included questions about the potential's relationship with search sites. For the first time in recorded advertising history, the opinion of a media seller has begun to weigh on the minds of advertisers.

Does that mean it's a good idea?

Smart marketers develop partnerships with firms that will act in their best interests. Should it really matter how adept you have become as a reseller? Doesn't that fly in the face of the unbiased nature of the agency relationship? Will you think twice the next time someone tells you they are certified? Drop me a line and tell me what you think.

Additional resources:

Some of the statements made in this week's column would not have been possible without the assistance of the web economy, uh, language generator.

Search THIS: Buy Your Own Search Listings.

Search THIS: For Whom the Search Bell Tolls.

Can't we all 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, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.

Ryan is chief strategy officer at Zunch Communications.