Search Engine Marketing Finally Gets Respect

To some degree, search engine marketing has been the Rodney Dangerfield of online advertising — it’s gotten no respect. Or, at the least, it has gotten no respect in relation to the time and effort analyst firms have put into understanding it, as opposed to banner advertising. The good news is, that’s all about to change.

Many readers well understand how search engine listings can bring in qualified traffic. You know this because you’ve experienced it firsthand, so you might wonder how the value of search engines isn’t recognized by others.

The reason is that until recently there was no way to quantify the actual value of search engine marketing. Go back to a year ago, look at the public financials of any major search engine, and you won’t find a breakout for paid listings. That’s because paid listings simply didn’t exist in any major way, shape, or form. Instead, it was banner advertising and retailer deals that dominated earnings. In addition, few of the publicly owned major players were “pure” search companies, so it was hard to discover search-specific revenue.

Of course, a year ago, there was plenty of revenue being generated by search engine marketing. Indeed, there’s been plenty earned for several years. However, the bulk of it has been generated by third-party search engine optimization (SEO) firms, I would wager. Since search engine marketers lack a trade organization — and since most search engine marketing firms are private companies — measuring the value of what they generate is a near-impossible task. Without those figures, it’s hard to get some people to recognize that search engine marketing is, and has been, a booming business.

A case in point is the recent report from Jupiter Media Metrix affirming that paid search placement is now a successful advertising model. This is the first time I recall seeing a major research firm declare that search engine listings are something that companies need to consider in their advertising budget. If another, similar report slipped by me, let me know, and I’ll happily apologize. I certainly don’t recall one.

We have had stats from surveys showing that people use search engines frequently and that many Web marketers understand that SEO is important. But a major analyst firm saying to marketers that they need to think about search engine listings? Nada. No respect.

Jupiter Media Metrix is the first firm to do this, and while I’m absolutely pleased to see it come to this conclusion, all I can think is, “Duh, what took so long?” How could firms not realize that there was value in them-thar search listings a year ago, two years ago, three years ago? And how much money might advertisers who heeded their calls have saved if they hadn’t bought overpriced banners and instead put more thought into search engine positioning?

Let’s not single out Jupiter Media Metrix for its long lapse. Forrester released, back in March, a report on driving traffic to a Web site. Search engines weren’t mentioned, not as a major way that marketers were getting traffic nor as a recommendation that marketers should investigate — although the same report noted search engines as the top resource consumers use to find Web sites.

The demand has always been there, and it shouldn’t have been that hard to see. For instance, back in 1999, INT Media Group first suggested that I work with it to do a day-long conference about search engine marketing. A veteran of trying to squeeze everything about search engines into a one-hour slot at other conferences, I was thrilled at the luxury of so much time.

INT Media figured 100 people would be a success. With over 300 attendees, we ended up sold out, and we have been packed at every conference since (and honestly, if you are thinking of coming to the next one in San Francisco this month, you’d better preregister).

Now what’s caused Jupiter Media Metrix — and soon everyone else — to finally see the light? You see, while dot-coms continue to crash all around, GoTo is a major player showing growth due to its listing services.

In addition, GoTo competitor has posted a small profit. Meanwhile, LookSmart is running around desperately trying to get analysts to understand that it, too, is in the same marketplace as GoTo (which it is — so, analysts, do finally get it). LookSmart continually points out that its listing services are growing. In fact, last quarter, they surpassed more traditional advertising as the company’s major revenue stream.

All these companies are public, and they either derive most of their revenue from search listings or break out listings as an easily identified component of revenue. This means that analyst firms and others can finally attach a value to at least a portion of the search engine marketing industry. Moreover, that value is showing sustained growth at a time when other advertising options are declining. This is a big red flag that there’s a product in demand.

Still, the financials are no excuse that the value of search engine listings wasn’t seen earlier. Sure, it was easier to measure the spend on banners. And, sure, purchasing banner space a year or two ago was much easier than delving into the morass of getting listed with search engines. And, sure, getting good search engine placement is still a complicated matter, even with the new programs offered by those like GoTo.

But so what? Who said things that are worthwhile are easy? It would be nice if they were, and hopefully search engine marketing will get easier — but, complicated or not, it cannot be ignored.

If you are marketing a Web site, search engines are not an afterthought to your banner ad spend. They are not even something you can consider after you build your Web site. Search engines are something you think about from the very beginning, and they remain a priority for as long as you plan to market online. If you fail to understand this, you’re going to spend more money than necessary to get traffic and still may fail in your efforts. Meanwhile, those who do understand search engine listings will be enjoying success.

Please — please, please, please — don’t assume that it’s just about buying your way in, either. Yes, you should absolutely investigate the paid participation programs available to you from places such as GoTo, Inktomi, LookSmart, and even Yahoo They can certainly make your life easier and generally offer good value for your money. However, if you get your own house in order, you can probably tap into a lot of free “natural” traffic from search engines.

Build search-engine-friendly sites, or budget for advice and assistance from third parties that can help you. And budget money to spend with the search engines themselves.

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