Search Converges

Falling as it does in December, Search Engine Strategies (SES) Chicago inevitably conveys a year-in-search feeling to its many participants, as well as a particularly strong e-commerce vibe. The event falls smack in the middle of the holiday season, after all, and this year search is driving 26 percent of retail Web site visits, according to data just released by Hitwise.

The study also reveals that online communities, though hardly the big traffic source search is, are becoming a force to be reckoned with for marketers trying to sell things on the Web.

Last week, MySpace generated just over 2 percent of visits to shopping and classifieds Web sites, making it the eighth most popular site to send traffic to that category. Overall, social sites generated over 6 percent of traffic to retails sites, a figure on the ascendant. “Social networking Web sites such as MySpace now represent a major source of retail traffic as they become a key component of Internet use,” said Hitwise’s Bill Tancer, who oversaw the study.

We examined this phenomenon in a couple SES sessions. Organic’s Scott Lang presented a case study of a Jeep campaign tied to the TV’s cult blockbuster, “Lost.” The campaign centered on LetYourCompassGuideYou.com, but the way in to the site was represented by what’s probably the most complex in online advertising history. A matrix of some 200 sites fed into LetYourCompassGuideYou, to say nothing of links and dedicated pages on MySpace, YouTube, and other social sites. Jeep has fully embraced social network advertising to be sure, yet search still plays an enormous role in consumer involvement and engagement.

Kill Your Idols?

Search can be considered the first manifestation of the consumer control that now permeates nearly every aspect on online marketing. It’s no longer just the consumers who are in control. Marketers and publishers have enhanced powers, too, and there’s ample evidence they’re flexing those muscles. About.com CEO Scott Meyer shared a number of campaigns that ran on his network to provide consumers — and advertisers — a degree of control that couldn’t be achieved (for legal or contractual reasons) on the advertisers’ own sites. One example was a promotion for “The Office,” inviting viewers to create video promos for the show. Another was creating a place where NBC could promote its Olympics coverage without violating the terms and conditions of its contract with the restrictive international organization for the Games.

Campaigns aren’t just more creative and complex, they’re becoming more iconoclastic. Blogads founder Henry Copeland, for example, regards the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB’s) standard ad formats with nothing less that scorn. He pleads with his advertisers to “think outside the 468 x 60 box” to create new ad formats — any formats but those mandated by online advertising’s official body.

Electric Artists CEO Marc Shiller, meanwhile, gets downright blasphemous when it comes to accepted online advertising wisdom. Discussing the new Starwood Hotels brand his company launched in Second Life (and revealing his shop is about to unveil an iVillage campaign in the game), Shiller bluntly stated the unutterable: “There is no ROI.”

Gasp.

There is ROI (define), of course, once you stop trying to be provocative about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s terribly easy to measure. A huge part of social media campaigns is in the PR value they garner and their long, long tails. As for Starwood, EA set up a blog, invited feedback, and is building a customer lead database.

Waitaminnit — are such campaigns bleeding edge or old-school direct marketing in digital avatar guise?

Measure This

Online, everything continues to be measurable, except of course when it isn’t. Like anything that happens in Second Life, for example. Or anything built with AJAX (define). A session at the conference addressed just that.

As CriticalMass’ Jim McFayden put it, “Search engines can’t access AJAX — any element of it — from title tags to navigation items.” If you want to build a site using AJAX, create duplicate content, he recommends. “Based on our research, search engines won’t penalize you for duplicate content,” McFayden suggested. But there’s really no way to know if that’s because the search engines don’t know you have duplicate content, as they can’t spider the AJAX stuff anyway. So “be careful not to cloak” was an additional admonition.

Of the AJAX issue, Google’s Dan Crow said, “We’re working on it.” That’s notable, because it’s highly unusual for Google to reveal what it’s working on. It’s also notable because I raised AJAX measurement problems with none other than CEO Eric Schmidt four months ago, who promised his engineers would get on the case.

“The ultimate end,” said Crow, “is to have you not worry about search engine capabilities at all.”

That would make life a whole lot easier, wouldn’t it?

In his keynote address, conference chair Danny Sullivan observed 2006 has been the year of search convergence. “Search is going to be the idea that you’re searching for anything, anywhere, on any kind of device. Search is colliding with all sorts of other things.” Sullivan equated video search with video on demand. “I want to see that video, and I can just type in some words and get it.”

And a few hours later, Google announced it would team with BSkyB to provide search, advertising, and video functionality for the broadcaster’s broadband service.

So it’s time to gear up for yet another Year of Search (Is it the third or fourth in a row?). 2007 will be the year of ubiquitous, converged search. Metrics will get mushier. In the end, it will all be for the better.

Note to readers: I’ve moved into an expanded role at ClickZ to assume editorial supervision of our sister site, Search Engine Watch (SEW). Editor Elisabeth Osmeloski and I are looking for new bloggers and contributors for SEW. If you’re interested (and qualified), please drop me a line.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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