Search Engine Marketing – A Brief History and a Promising Future

This article, “Engine sells results, draws fire” in CNET dates back to 1996, a time when people were warming up to search engines. Summarising the article, the search engine OpenText initiated the paid search business model to finance their business. OpenText’s Preferred Listing service aimed at highlighting businesses, services and products when users searched for relevant keywords. The article then goes on to say that the company drew a certain degree of flak aimed at their integrity and business ethics. The searching masses did not want a commercialised version of their search results. But, this was 1996.

Fifteen years and more than a billion searches later, what started off as OpenText’s Preferred Listing has evolved into an industry that caters to one of the most preferred tools in a marketer’s inventory – search engine marketing (SEM). As with anything worth its weight, the journey to the spotlight hasn’t been easy. Non-believers and skeptics aside, SEM was earlier seen as something that could be explored through leftovers from the marketing budget.

Over time, results, return on investment and a skyward sales graph all aided by the rapid progress and penetration of technology has helped shape search engine marketing into a $20 billion industry.

Shortly after Open ext,, a major search engine at that time, pioneered the paid search business model by introducing the pay-for-placement model. succeeded in deciphering the maturity of the search market. soon introduced the auction (bidding) process for ad placements on the search results page. The advertiser would get charged the bid amount each time his ad was clicked by a user. This soon caught the eye of many advertisers who saw the value in relevancy and did not hesitate to pay up to a dollar per click.

Search engine marketing as a mainstream business was slowly taking shape. Under the umbrella were other techniques of leveraging search engines for marketing such as search engine optimisation. The pay for placement model evolved into the pay per click (PPC) model that encompassed other digital advertising avenues such as display advertising, content marketing, and placement techniques.

Since the beginning of the last decade, things started getting busy for the PPC industry. later went on to change its name to Overture and, in 2003, was purchased by search giant Yahoo! to add muscle to its paid search marketing wing. The year 2000 saw the arrival of Google into the search marketing scene with the Google AdWords program that saw mostly limited success until 2003. followed with its PPC services in 2005 called Ask Sponsored Listings. Soon after, followed suit in 2006.

Owing to click fraud, PPC advertising saw a downfall during its initial stages. The nodus was at times automated bots generated a huge number of clicks on a particular PPC ad, thereby costing advertisers huge losses. Presently however, the PPC ecosystem has evolved enough to reduce the impact of click fraud on advertisers.

As businesses with deep pockets started adopting PPC models to reach their marketing and sales goals, it soon turned out to be the primary source of finance for search engines.

Search engines now provide search engine marketers with access to analytics, trends and keyword tips that add the edge to relevancy. Most digital marketing firms now have teams that specialise in search engine marketing management. In-depth campaign analytics provided by major search engines help teams derive the best possible bid amount, placement and ROI for a PPC campaign.

Various tools have also been crafted by independent PPC businesses to enhance and sharpen their strategies. As search engine houses evolve their search algorithms, PPC methodologies are also evolving to give advertisers more than just the desired return on investment.

So what about the future of SEM? Well, smart SEM campaign management and foresight can help do more than influence purchase decisions. Reputation management and communication is turning SEM into an integral tool for marketing-communication specialists. An example to help you understand – ever since the spill, record amounts of money was reportedly spent by BP trying to clean up their act through Google SEM. They used Google SEM to buy keywords, which when searched for, revealed ads that linked to more transparent information about BP’s efforts to clean up the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Brands are thus using SEM as a way to clear the air.

Very often, multiple unique messages need to be communicated to the audience about a product. This direction of their communication can very easily be communicated through SEM compared to traditional means.

Thanks to evolving search patterns, SEM is turning out to be more behavioural based. This means brands will have to strategise on keywords, bid on keywords and keep an eye out for events that can aid relevant correlation. As a result, a concept called remarketing is taking shape that will link a person’s digital behaviour to the ads that are exposed to him.

In my following columns, we’ll have a look at emerging SEM trump cards such as remarketing.

Related reading