Keywords Out, Networks In

What will search look like next year? Five years from now? There won’t be any more Yahoo search for one thing — that’s a given. But according to both Nick Fox, head of Google’s AdWords team head, and star analyst Charlene Li, there may not be any more keywords, either.

Pretty radical concept, right? Aren’t keywords the heart and soul of search engine marketing and advertising?

What’s more interesting is will replace keywords. Both Fox and Li delivered keynote addresses at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose this week, indicating that they think keywords will diminish in importance (perhaps even vanish), but for very, very different reasons.

Google Wants to Build Your Ad for You

“What if search ads just…happened?” Fox asked an audience of search marketers. “You tell us what you’re selling, we do the rest.”

That’s right: Google wants to build your ads for you. Are we looking at a world with no more keyword bidding, no more Excel spreadsheets with keyword and keyword phrase groups, no more bid management? Possibly.

“What if you told us what you were trying to sell and we matched that to the queries of our users?” Not only that, Google will come up with your ad’s copy and even its format. It could be video, a banner, text, or rich media. And you likely won’t pay for it on a CPC (define) basis; Google is working on CPA (define) models. Or, as Fox put it, “Leads, schmeads. We want to more closely align advertising with performance.”

And just in case your business has competitors who are also telling Google what they sell and requesting ads, Fox claims the in-development technology will somehow be fair and objective enough to make everyone happy if and when this all comes to pass.

Advertisers I spoke with in San Jose are pretty queasy about the idea — something Google has obviously anticipated. It’s opened a feedback forum where advertisers can discuss this very new concept, as well as submit other AdWords-related suggestions.

Keywords Out, Networks In

Social media guru Charlene Li has a very different vision of the future of search, albeit one in which keywords also play a much more marginal role. The “Groundswell” author pronounced, “People must be at the center of your search strategy, not keywords.”

Li’s view of the future is one in which social networks are “like air,” and search becomes inextricably coupled with what she calls social-graphic targeting, which is based on your behavior with the other people in your network. (Social network analysis is another not-far-off term for this method of targeting.)

In this new landscape, when browsing products on an e-commerce site you could chose to see reviews only from people you know. Ads can be targeted to individual users (or, of course, searchers) based on whom they know, whom they most frequently interact with, and how wide-ranging their sphere of influence is. You could even be assigned a personal CPC or CPM (define) that’s aligned with your own level of social influence, crunched with the number of influential friends you have.

To illustrate this latter point, Li mentioned she’s searching for a family vacation cruise. Her social influence is massive in technology, marketing, and business but rather lacking when it comes to family and mommy stuff. So while she’d be a high-value target to some advertisers, she might be a lower-cost buy for, say, Disney Cruises.

Wonder if Google’s in-the-works CPA algorithm can crunch in social influence?

How should you prepare for this brave, new keyword-free world? Li recommends focusing on relationships and people, not keywords. And, she reminded the audience, you can’t control relationships.

Hmmm — maybe keywords weren’t so bad after all.

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