Is Search Engine Marketing Viable?

When I wrote “A Promotional Strategy That Won’t Break the Bank“, I had people ask why I didn’t talk about search engine marketing firms. These are the companies that, for a per-click fee, will optimize your position in the major search engines.

Here’s my feeling on search engine marketing. It will make a few people angry, but if you remember me from my days of moderating the discussion lists in Online Ads and ClickZ Forum, you know I’m not one to shy away from controversy.

The whole business model, in my opinion, has a limited lifespan because the major search engines are moving away from spidering content automatically and toward creating human-reviewed directories. Clear evidence of this is the the trend that more and more engines are using the Open Directory database as their back-end. (In fact, you’d be surprised at how many popular engines already use that database. I certainly was.) Thus, getting a good ranking is becoming less about optimized pages and more about public relations building awareness of your site with the editor of the section of a directory you want to be in.

I think a budget for search engine marketing is better spent a few different ways. For example, dumping it into an affiliate program. Or seeking out comarketing arrangements with sites that provide a complimentary product or service. In both of these arrangements, the affiliate or comarketing partner has a vested interest in sending you traffic. That’s a dynamic that simply doesn’t exist with a search engine.

In fact, the dynamics of a search engine optimization strategy run counter to what most search engines are trying to do. Search engines are trying to deliver the results based on the quality of the content. Search engine marketing companies are trying to deliver results based on who pays them to do it. These goals are, and always will be, irreconcilable, in my opinion.

The only pay-for-position business model I’ve seen work is what GoTo.com has built, where it’s clear to consumers that they are seeing results that have been paid for. And, of course, why do you need a search engine marketing company if you can deal with GoTo.com, and similar services, directly?

That is not to say that I don’t think optimizing your site isn’t important. Many sites, simply out of sheer ignorance, put up roadblocks to being indexed correctly through the way they design their pages. But you can become a slave to it. And you have to wonder if it’s worth the effort when you can spend equal amounts of time developing the strategies I outlined above that, in the end, are not antagonistic to one of the parties involved.

If search engine marketing companies want to invest in a business model that is neither antagonistic nor has a limited lifespan, they should refocus their efforts. Specifically, they should be helping companies understand the next wave of search engine technology: comparison engines, shopping bots, and the impact XML will have on indexing content.

Because search engine marketing companies have a deep understanding of how search technology works, they are ideally suited to help answer the question of how e-commerce sites large and small take advantage of these emerging search technologies. And to do so in a way that doesn’t focus on “beating the system.” I guarantee you that a year from now, sorting through raw search results will be a minor way for consumers to find things on the Internet.

I welcome your comments

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