Favorite Topics of 2004

The end of the year brings a rash of columns predicting the future and ranking the past. Last year, I did some crystal-ball gazing. This year, I’ll look back. But backward-looking columns tend to suffer from the “objects in mirror are larger than they appear” problem, with titles like, “The Hottest News Stories of 2004.” I won’t succumb. Instead, I’ll list the topics that not only got my attention but that I genuinely enjoyed talking about.

The Search Engine Marketing Market

The agency business is a tough one. As a former boss used to remind me, “The most valuable assets get in the elevator and go home every night.” How do you manage a group of smart people, focused on doing the right things for a client, day after day, in a competitive market?

Search agencies truly matured this year. Here at Jupiter Research, we conducted an analysis of the players in this space. Just the presence of this report points to the fact at least 15 companies have evolved enough that they’re blending their insights about search mechanics with a desire to understand their client’s goals.

This evolution has naturally created new opportunities. We’ve seen the number of search service providers increase. If this isn’t applicable to their services’ scope, it is to the perception they have of their businesses.

IProspect’s Fredrick Marckini talked about his company providing “inquiry marketing” at one point. That’s dead-on, if for no other reason than an “inquiry” can take many forms. Any good marketing service must become a part of a company’s whole marketing platform. Nothing good should live in isolation, and search is moving toward the marketing mother ship.

The Sophistication of the Affiliate Space

Who am I kidding? Affiliates have always been sophisticated. The people and organizations that take up affiliate programs (and succeed) tend to be smart and nimble. They figure out new ways to work online to make a profit, channeling customers toward one merchant or another. Of course, this is much to the chagrin of many marketers and providers. Sophistication doesn’t necessarily mean pure advertising or marketing ethics.

Merchants have begun to find ways to take this enthusiasm and channel it. Or at least, provide it with a really strong platform. Many merchants worry about their affiliates doing something terrible to the brand. It’s a misplaced worry. Affiliates want to make money. Damaging the brand won’t help.

Merchants who provide their affiliates with APIs (define)or data feeds are in a great position to attract good affiliates who will use their skills to help grow their businesses. The king of this is eBay. It provided a strong API earlier this year and is reaping the benefits. All sorts of new sites and applications take advantage of the opportunity to grab and manipulate eBay listings.

Watching the Blogosphere

This was my favorite topic in 2004. I wrote about it and recently spoke about it at Search Engine Strategies. The ability to tap into consumer conversations is fantastic and powerful. Companies are falling all over themselves trying to figure out how to use the blog phenomenon to their advantage. All too often, they conclude they should use blogs to talk. Please. Brands do enough talking as it is. Use the blog space to listen.

I read (on a blog, of course) Microsoft is doing just that: It uses tools such as PubSub and Bloglines to capture consumer feedback on its products. From that insight, it culls the most appropriate and appealing bits, which go directly into the next development meeting.

Companies such as IntelliSeek have some really amazing technology that captures the sentiment of a poster or blogger. This is the kind of Web index that’s powerful, moving from just a list of what’s out there to what kinds of things are out there.

The Value of Data

The ability to collect data seems as though it’s always been part of the Internet’s business promise. There were problems, though. What to do with all of it? What’s the actual value of it?

The first problem is fairly solvable. I won’t devalue the efforts of IT pros who are diligently working to set up racks of storage, rapid access, and reliable backups. But those problems can be engineered and solved. The second question is harder and more overlooked.

Consider relevance. It’s essential to targeting and a large part of the offering of many new ad-serving systems and methods. But what is it? Relevance is an abstract notion that says the offer’s value is higher for a particular person. The way that person is identified is often weak. If someone conducts a single search on a term or visits particular site, it’s frequently taken as connoting relevance for a particular offer. Even if it’s true, considerable challenges surround the decay of this relevance over time, as well as the difficulty in taking behavior from multiple sources and coalescing it into a single profile.

This problem is far from solved. And we’ll see more of it, especially when contextual and behavioral networks add members who provide data to the network and expect to be rewarded.

Thanks, everyone, for a great year. I appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given and look forward to another year (at least!) here at ClickZ.

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