Search for Some Perspective

Just because my telephone number is in the white pages doesn’t mean the future love of my life is going to call me out of the blue looking for a date. It’s the same with search. Just because a marketer gets the top ranking, or buys its way there, doesn’t mean search will lead to a lifelong bond with a customer. It’s just one part of the marketing mix and arguably the most challenging and least controllable.

Let’s put search in perspective.

Yes, search is important. Globally, over 625 million searches are conducted every day and over 228 billion searches are conducted a year. It’s clearly the point of entry for most who visit the Web. Search has been a gold mine for Google, which currently enjoys a market cap of roughly $50 billion. And, Microsoft is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into developing a viable entry into this category. But, search is really just a couple of pixels on the large screen of overall advertising spending.

During the first three quarters of this year, companies spent $7 billion on online advertising, and spending’s expected to hit over $9 billion by the end of the year, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). Of that $9 billion, $2.6 billion will be spent on search. (And that doesn’t count all the time and effort unpaid search optimization requires.)

Search’s Messy Start

Take the automotive category, which relies heavily on the Internet to generate leads for dealers. According to various research sources, more than two thirds of car shoppers hit the Internet before they visit a dealer. They spend five hours online researching vehicles and visit seven sites on average, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Clearly, this is a critical opportunity for automakers to influence purchase decisions.

Where does search fit in? It’s a very challenging start of the automaker’s journey toward a sale, Even if an automaker reaches the top of the rankings for the most frequently searched terms, many off-brand search results sneak in. Say you’re interested in a Saab, which is famous for its handling. Google the term “Saab handling.” When I searched, three of the first five results were negative. The first mention was from a posting on saabnet.com, which read, “Speaking about the Saab handling deficiencies.” This is user-generated content, the fastest-growing content category online today. User-generated content — blog postings, bulletin boards, and personal consumer sites — are usually a marketer’s worst nightmare. They stay in search results for a long time. In the automotive sector, harmful consumer-generated content includes disgruntled customer rants and news on recalls and safety concerns.

It’s Too Easy to Take the Wrong Exit

In the example above, a car shopper looking for information on Saab handling might take the wrong exit and leave the brand all together. What can a marketer do? First, it’s critical to take a step back and think about what makes the brand and product set unique. Second, think about how the shopper uses the Web to shop for your product or service. Think through all the possible touch points where behavior can be influenced. Third, devise smart ways of influencing behavior along the way. In the case of search, surround the shopper at key points with relevant messages (tied to relevant search terms) that reinforce the brand.

The automaker missed an opportunity to place positive messaging in and around the search results for “Saab handling.” If the automaker associates messaging about Saab’s handling abilities with relevant search terms (positive and negative), those links could take the shopper to a specially designed landing page or site page directly related to the vehicle’s handling capabilities. Once there, the automaker could present its story.

I’m always surprised how many marketers miss this opportunity. Once you have the shopper out of the search process, you can use richer, branded content to make the case for your product, far away from ranting, disgruntled consumers.

And It’s Just the Beginning

Think about search in the context of the entire online shopping experience. It’s the beginning of the journey for many users, so have a clear, cogent search strategy and revisit it often. Once users leave search, take the journey with them, each step of the way through the consideration process. At the end, maybe you’ll create a customer for life.

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