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Search: The Trends

  |  March 5, 2004   |  Comments

Still hot and getting hotter. Notes from the mother of all search engine conferences.

If you follow search engine marketing (SEM), perhaps you wouldn't be surprised that my colleague Danny Sullivan's four-day, four-track Search Engine Strategies (SES) conference was substantially different in content and tone than past events -- even ones that took place as recently as a few months ago.

But it's true. That's the nature of hyper-growth.

The conference, with well over 1,000 attendees, was even more mobbed than usual. While it still attracts its fair share of techies and Web masters, the event in New York this week brought in an impressive number of major brand marketers -- plenty of the faces you usually see on the podium, not in the audience.

They're following the money. Pew reported that last year, search was the number two online activity, after email. The industry is growing, dollar-wise, by roughly 30 percent this year alone (depending on who you listen to). The Kelsey Group recently estimated local search alone will be a $2.5 billion industry by 2008. Head spinning? Mine is.

Search as a marketing tool is anything but sorted out. Last night over dinner, Tim Armstrong, Google's vice president of advertising, told me, "Ninety percent of the technology hasn't even been developed yet."

That's what keeps things interesting. Just this past week, Yahoo and Overture changed their paid-inclusion program; Ask Jeeves dropped its XML paid inclusion and dropped $343 million on Interactive Search Holdings. Meanwhile, the very acquisitive ValueClick was dropping strong hints about still being very much in buying mode. People under NDA are all but bursting with what they can't yet reveal about big changes with big players. Even people who do this for a living admit they're having trouble keeping up.

And none of this is any excuse for marketers to put off developing a search strategy. The time is now.

Herewith, some of my notes from SES to help get you started -- or better still, to further you along.

Local Search

What's "local" anyway? CitySearch defines it as cities, of course. For pizza delivery or dry cleaning here in Manhattan, it's a six-block radius from my apartment. For a business-to-business (B2B) supplier, it could be all the Southwestern states. Plenty of variables define "local," including the locality and product or service.

Verizon and FindWhat.com have already jumped into the game with pay-per-click SuperPages.com listings, but much more is in store from the biggest search players.

Overture is developing what Geoff Stevens, general manager of local search, terms "radius based keywords." Radii vary, based on region. "I'm sold on their efforts. I'm sold on the technology. It's now up to the retailers," said Cheryle Pingle of Range Online Media, who has been beta testing the service for her clients.

Better still for mom and pops, like my very local geographically -- but very Korean linguistically -- dry cleaner. They won't even have to build a Web site or juggle keywords to participate. Fill in the Web form, hand over your credit card number, and boom -- you're a local search player with an Overture listing.

Sukinder Singh, Stevens' counterpart at Google, hinted her company will look to partner with local publishers and provide them with local search results. Not only could this prevent eBay from eating their lunch, it will open up a new revenue stream for trusted local publications and their advertisers. Three or four months ago, as local was heating up, I put in some calls to publications such as The Village Voice and Time Out to see if plans to partner for local search results were in the stars. No one I spoke with had the slightest idea what I was talking about.

Even before Overture's and Google's programs are out of beta, there's no reason not to optimize for local search now. Does you site contain and buy keywords containing regional information such as city, state, Zip Code, and area code? If not, start there.

A Formal Industry

Last fall, search engine marketers launched industry group SEMPO. That group is now spawning specialty groups. One example is SEMPO's newly formed and very A-list B2B taskforce, chaired by KnowledgeStorm EVP Jeff Ramminger.

(It's so cool to hang out with search specialists. They've lived. KnowledgeStorm.com's CEO, Kelly Gay, is chairman of Georgia's Department of Motor Vehicles. Christine Churchill, founder of Key Relevance, built missiles for the U.S. Army in the South Pacific. Our own Shari Thurow was once a geneticist and is fluent in Japanese. What is it about search that attracts people with such colorful backgrounds?)

Meanwhile, a group of SEMPO's European members launched E-SEMA (European Search Engine Marketing Alliance), which will be affiliated with its American counterpart. This means better standards, training, knowledge, and transparency for what's become a bona fide and burgeoning industry.

The Bandwagon

Professional alliances are critical at this juncture as search is officially a bandwagon. Link farms and other search engine spammers are doing their best to ride a wave of dollars paired with ignorance. You can't turn around without bumping into a new search publication, search advice, and search conferences. (Call me paranoid, but when the DMA gets on any marketing bandwagon -- particularly one with a tenuous, at best, direct marketing connection -- it's nervous-making.)

Contextual Advertising

Just in case you'd thought I forgot, contextual advertising was barely mentioned this week. Last fall, it was the hottest topic at SES.

Why the change? Danny, who programs the SES conferences, told me he really doesn't consider AdWords, AdSense, and the like search, but rather ad products sold by search companies. When I mentioned this to Tim Armstrong, he disagreed, arguing the same technology fuels both. Whoever's right, contextual ads aren't going away, but expect change.

The Dark Side

A small clutch of high-stakes trademark lawsuits, both in the U.S. and Europe, have lapped around the edges of the search industry for months. At a trademark session this week, the prevailing attitude seemed to be figure out an interim strategy that gets you profits (until there's a multi-million dollar decision against someone?).

Search will continue to grow and at the same time fall victim (at least in part) to its own success -- like email. Will libel lawsuits be far behind after someone deftly optimizes their I-hate-my-boss/ex/coworker site? Who will build the first software designed to click on a competitor's paid listing... at $0.60 per click? Sad to say, or maybe it's one of my more cynical days, but search -- hot as it is -- may not truly arrive until reports come in that the Bad People are on it.

One can only hope technology companies are already on the case.

Want more search information? ClickZ Search Archives contains all our search columns, organized by topic.


Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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