No Search is an Island

First published February 12, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Today I am plagued by ambiguity. I’m happy and scared. Relieved and cautious. Excited and apprehensive. And it all has to do with search and how we use it. On one hand, I’m relieved that search seems to be the sole marketing channel that’s actually benefiting from the crushing economic pressure. On the other hand, I’m worried that we may be short-sighted in grabbing onto search as a life preserver in raging marketing waters.

Search: The Connector

My ambiguity comes from the unique nature of search. We consider search a marketing channel, and in recent times we’re treating it as such. But it’s not. Search is glue. Search is intent expressed. Search is a mirror of our dreams, objectives and fears. To treat search as a channel divorces it from its real role as an integral connector. And, as such, search is inextricable from not just the online world, but the offline one as well. Whatever happens, whenever it happens, it shows up in the search trends.

And therein lies the source of my internal turmoil. If you look at search as a marketing channel, the current move by advertisers down the funnel, driving towards more and more accountable advertising, is predictable and a good thing. Search is certainly effective and measurable. But if we look at search as the connecter between demand and fulfillment, there’s an inherent problem looming. As budgets dry up in creating awareness and eventually demand, search inventories will ultimately dry up as well.

Obsessive Optimization

I’ve talked to a few search marketers here at SMX West who are saying their clients are pushing them to drop generic terms and stick to branded ones because they convert better. Even as effective as search is, we can’t resist trying to pump conversion numbers even higher.

If advertisers are this obsessive about cutting all the fat from their marketing, it seems they’ve backed themselves to the very brink of a dangerous precipice. One more step and they’ll have reduced their marketing efforts to managing a paid search campaign for “I want to buy an Acme Widget online today and I have my credit card out.”

Everyone is focused on the thinnest possible slice at the bottom of the funnel, without worrying about priming the pump at the top. While it may bolster search revenues in the short term as budgets migrate in from all other channels, in the long term this shortsightedness will prove disastrous.

I believe there is a tremendous amount of optimization that has to happen across all marketing channels. I’m not saying that all budgets should stay put where they are. But I do worry about an obsessive focus on capturing late-stage demand, even if it is through search.

You have to develop your market and create awareness. Search doesn’t work if nothing is creating awareness. Those branded queries won’t suddenly materialize out of the ether. Marketers seem inclined to take huge pendulum swings in their approach, one minute tossing branding money around by the bucketful, and the next clamping down on anything that isn’t a sure conversion. There has to be a happy medium.

For Every Action…

Search is the last half of a cause-and-effect chain. If you just focus on the effect, sooner or later the cause will cease to exist. As search marketers, much as we gleefully accept the new budget flowing in from other channels, we have to understand the inherent integrated nature of search. If we accept the windfall in the short term, we’ll end up paying in the long term.

I’m personally thankful that search is the boat I’ve chosen to ride out this particular economic storm. There’s no place I’d rather be. But I think it’s naïve to ignore the macro effects that will impact search behavior. As I said before, whatever happens, wherever it happens, whenever it happens, it will be reflected in search. And as all other marketing channels begin to run dry because of budgeting cutbacks, that too will show in search trends.

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