Search or Destroy?

I’m getting worried about search engine marketing (SEM).

Sure, I’ve praised the industry before, as have many others. Search is the fastest-growing sector in online advertising — probably in all of advertising, period. That might be the problem.

Perhaps I’m just grouchy this week, but I’m here to remind you there are no silver bullets. Search may be interactive marketing’s best bang for the buck, but it’s not a be-all, end-all. I fear too many marketers will adopt a bandwagon mentality and decide otherwise. They’ll neglect or abandon other initiatives. When things crash and burn, search will be pronounced “over,” just like banner ads, email, the Nasdaq, even the Internet itself. Remember?

Irrational exuberance is beginning to emerge: Jupiter Research (a unit of this site’s parent corporation) just found 44 percent of marketers think search is “much better than banner-style advertising.” Thirty-two percent find it “better.” This correlates with Search123 findings: 66 percent regard pay-per-click (PPC) search their most effective method of online advertising.


Search123’s survey of nearly 300 businesses reveals 32 percent of respondents allocate at least three-quarters of their online advertising budgets for PPC search engines. Another 21 percent devote half to three-quarters of their budgets to paid search. And these lofty numbers were released six months ago, before everyone went absolutely search-wacky.

Just compare those figures to a report released exactly one year earlier, in which nearly 46 percent of marketers surveyed said search engine optimization (SEO) merited less than 0.5 percent of their annual budgets.

Jupiter said last week 64 percent of online marketers will increase their search budgets this year. Yet the majority of these marketers currently have a set-and-forget attitude toward search. Relatively few employ the full complement of optimization tactics, tests, tools, and SEO vendors that make search campaigns work.

See where this is going?

As marketers plunge, lemming-like, into SEM, search will become an increasingly costly marketing channel (especially now that the Fortune 500 are bidding for keywords). Costs for bids, CPC, and other search elements will spiral. More complex campaigns will mean investing in optimization tools. Marketers will face additional costs developing landing pages and other post-search Web elements. As with email marketing, marketers will soon learn “low cost” is not synonymous with “practically free.”

All Your Eggs in One Basket?

Competition for high rankings is fierce and will only become more so. iProspect’s research indicates over half (56.6 percent) of Web users abandon searches after the first two search result pages. Obviously, there’s not room for everyone. Yet Search123 found PPC advertisers less inclined to use other marketing channels, including email, ads, and affiliate programs.

If marketers abandon too many essentials in favor of search, even highly optimized search campaigns don’t stand a chance. Remember advertising? Branding? Sites designed for conversion? More critical than ever are ironclad value propositions. Because not only are marketers becoming search savvy — consumers are, too.

Yet another study (this one by DoubleClick) supports search’s role in branding. Forty-one percent of users gain initial brand awareness from results. Initial awareness is only one baby step forward. If searchers return to and ultimately buy from the site in question, it’s because they are now interacting with a trusted brand, not with a “result.”

Throws CPC into a new context, doesn’t it?

Consumers are quickly becoming aware search isn’t merely a way to find stuff to buy; it’s a means to find the best place to buy it from. I’ve discussed the process with my ClickZ colleague Kevin Lee, who agrees many searchers are adopting a very granular level of search sophistication. This can indicate how far along they are in their buying process.

An initial search for “cordless phone” might evolve, over time, into “Panasonic KXTG4000B 2.4GHz DSS.” You may sell that model, but your site is now pitted against several pages of search results that list others selling that model. In addition to checking out your Web site, brand, trustworthiness, and maybe even your privacy policy, the searcher is scrutinizing your price and shipping policies. Perhaps she’s also hunting for online coupons and rebates.

Will this new buyer become the loyal, repeat customer who accounts for your highest profit margins?

Please don’t get me wrong. As a marketer, I firmly believe search is great. It’s targeted, timely, relevant, unobtrusive, and relatively low cost. On the other hand, it’s growing increasingly costly and competitive. In an age of broadband, rich media, and half- and full-page ads, search has a no-graphics-allowed policy. The extent to which you should bet your brand on search must be informed by your willingness to commit to the process, not just the bid or buy. Your product or service plays a big role, too. “Book” and “travel” will be tough to crack. “Beekeeping” stands a pretty good chance.

Search leads that proverbial horse to water. It’s solid, integrated marketing that induces him to drink.

Meet Rebecca at ClickZ’s Weblog Business Strategies in Boston, June 9-10.

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