Is Search in a Rut?

At the fall Ad:Tech in New York, there was an abundance of search on the session list. There were search sessions on selecting an agency, selecting search terms, understanding the search consumer (which I participated in), paid search campaign optimization, organic search, local search and even some performance art lampooning search. After the nearly total absence of search from the spring Ad:Tech show, it was a great rebound.

Or was it?

The sessions were hardly standing room only. In many, there were more empty seats than full ones. A sadly defining moment was when Piper Jaffray analyst Safa Rashtchy raised his expected revenue for search in 2007 by almost 10 billion dollars. This should be huge news. Those of us in the industry did a double take. But the announcement echoed hollowly through an almost empty room. Apparently, the marketing industry didn’t really care.

In a quick conversation with organizers of the show, they expressed frustration at the lack of interest in search. As an industry we had lobbied hard to have a presence at the New York show, and Ad:Tech accommodated. They filled the roster with 9 different sessions that touched on search. But other topic areas drew much bigger crowds.

You Can Dress Search Up, But You Can’t Take Her Out.

I hate to point this out, but search just isn’t sexy. It’s the marketing you have to do, not the marketing you want to do. For those of us that are passionate about search, this is hard to understand. “What do you mean you don’t find my girlfriend attractive? ”

Perhaps the problem is that we tend to be a little myopic in our view. We’re immersed in the day-to-day detail. We can actually get excited about algorithmic changes and new file types being indexed. This is hardly the stuff of great cocktail conversations. There are not many 20-something-year-old marketers who would use their knowledge of dynamic URL rewriting as a pick up tactic at the post-show networking party.

An Hour to Learn, a Lifetime to Master

The other problem is that search is like golf. It’s not that hard to do it halfway right and get results. Grasping the basic concepts is pretty easy, at least on the sponsored side. Most marketers think they’ve got search nailed and there’s nothing more to learn.

But like golf, there’s a whole other dimension to search that almost no one has scratched, and it’s incredibly hard to master. Very few companies have an effective search strategy that spans both organic and sponsored channels. Even fewer have tapped into what I call the missing 40 percent of search strategies, truly understanding the mindset of the search consumer and effectively starting a relationship with them.

The other frustration in trying to paint a more enticing picture of search is that the truly intriguing developments are happening in the research labs of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! It would be fascinating to get these engineers to open up about where they want to take search, but no one is talking. They can’t, because the balance of power in a multi-billion dollar turf war is at stake.

Looking From the Outside In?

Perhaps the answer for Ad:Tech is to look at search from the outside in, rather than the inside out. More and more people from outside search are looking in and trying to understand how they can leverage this extremely effective marketing channel. “We know people use search, so let’s figure out how we can use that to our advantage.”

I know of brand strategists, academics, market research consultants, and consumer behavior experts that are starting to pay attention to the search phenomenon. They’re bringing fresh insights and approaching search from a much more strategic perspective. This outside interest is also indicative of the disappearing distinctions between search and other online ad delivery channels.

As you know, the lack of strategic thought in search is one of my greatest frustrations with our industry. Quit talking about A/B testing, bid gaps, and link building! Tell me about how, when, and why my target consumer will use search. Tell me how to effectively capture that consumer in a prospect pipeline that begins to build a rich relationship. Take a step back and show me the big picture, and how search integrates with it. And tease me with some really insightful discussion about how search will become the functional engine of advertising delivery online, delivering just the right message to the right person at the right time.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that the marketing industry is a long way from knowing everything there is to know about search. I would hate to see search be conspicuously absent from the spring Ad:Tech line up.

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