I feel like search has always been a part of my approach to marketing. I remember, a long time ago (like mid-'90s) stumbling across a submission form on Yahoo. I read through the directions and it was so simple: you would fill out the information about your site and, when people did a search on the terms you specified, a link to your site would appear. I thought it was freaking brilliant. I followed the steps and, sure enough, about a week later, there was my site. It all seemed so simple and easy.
Today, search is not really simple and easy. It is a massively complex marketplace that is evolving at a rapid rate. I now work for an agency whose background is very firmly in the search industry. We are embracing that legacy tightly, even as we stretch into a new set of services. Planning for that growth has got me thinking about search pretty deeply and I realize that I truly do love it. Of course, it is the deeply creative and highly strategic work that I tend to remember (and talk about). But I think it is time to give search a bit of credit.
Therefore, here are the reasons (in no particular order) why I truly do love search and find it fascinating and engaging.
Search Is the Atomic Unit of Advertising
Advertising is a simple process. A consumer expresses a need (or maybe we think she may have a need she hasn't expressed yet), gets a response, and takes an action. Coca-Cola's Hilltop commercial and Bill Bernbach's Lemon ad had at their hearts this same construct. With search, nearly everything else is stripped away. Certainly there is room for creativity within the strict confines of a standard search ad, but really, this is advertising in its most basic form. If I were to teach an Introduction to Advertising class, I would have my students spends weeks just doing search ads, in much the same way that Mr. Miyagi had "The Karate Kid" do wax on/wax off for all those hours. Master the search ad and you have a foundation that you can build anything on top of.
Search Is the Engineering of Understanding
I have a friend who works as a programmer for one of the big video game companies. In particular, he works on a physics engine, which (as I understand it) is a part of a game's code that dictates how things move and bounce and ricochet. He spends his day taking complex math equations that explain things like how a football reacts when it is kicked and recreates them in the computer. He has an extremely hard job, modeling the real world in a computer. But, he does have a basis from which he can work - the absolute equations of physics. The coders who are working at Google and Bing have something far less concrete to work from. They are trying to model the real world, but the part of it that is hidden inside a human brain. The part that is able to read something and understand what it is about. This is a question that philosophers have struggled with for eons, and here is a group of people who are taking these impossible questions and giving real answers.
And we, as marketers, get to leverage that amazing accomplishment, by doing a better job of crafting our content and structuring our thoughts so that they are, in fact, about what we want them to be about. The existence of the search algorithms are making us better writers, communicators, and marketers.
Search Doesn't Hide Advertising as a Probability Equation
I like to see things in their barest form. For advertising, that barest form is a probability equation or, at least, a simple ratio. What if there were no advertising and there were seven kinds of soda. Every time someone got thirsty and went into a store for a soda, each can would have a 1:7 chance of being chosen. But if one brand started to advertise and make their particular can more attractive, that ratio would change, maybe to 2:7. That's what advertising does - changes the chances of your brand being chosen over any other. With search, that probability comes rushing up to the top of the strategy because, when presented with a page full of options, the user can only click on one item (not counting backtracks).
That means that your presence on a search engine results page is truly a struggle to increase your odds. You can do this through a limited set of levers: moving up in the listings, performing search engine optimization, as well as buying keywords to get more than one spot or maybe including the search term in your ad. The thing is, everyone on that page has access to the same set of tactics. So the challenge among all of the brands there is to pick the strategy that you think will work best. And if the strategy doesn't work? Well, hold on for 0.9092 seconds and someone else will probably do the same search and you'll have a chance to play again.
I suppose you can call me a bit of a softy here. I should be able to think of every channel dispassionately, making decisions solely based on their ability to achieve a client's goals. But maybe because search is still so new and so disruptive to the overall ad scene, I can't help but have an appreciation for this particular channel.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014