Welcome to the Search Marketing Sweat Shop

First published May 25, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In the latest Business Week, buried on page 70, there’s a story about outsourcing in search marketing. The story is titled “Life on the Web’s Factory Floor,” and it’s about the thriving business in assembling search marketing ads.

From the description, it sounds like search marketing is nothing more than a big Scrabble game. You throw a bunch of combinations of words up in the air, see how they land. and cut and paste them into your ads. In fact, in the story a search marketing specialist is defined as someone who “types phrases to drive ad traffic.” One gets the mental image of the proverbial room full of monkeys sitting at typewriters. At least the writer, Burt Helm, called the process “slightly creative.”

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to SEM…

I admit there are companies, some thriving, who take this sweat-shop approach to search marketing. But every time I see the mainstream press reduce my passion to this elemental level, I die a little bit inside. I’m already having enough trouble explaining what I do for a living. Just this past weekend, I was trying to explain to an importer/exporter the rapid growth in search marketing, and what I did most days between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. He had no idea the search marketing industry existed, and when I told him it was a $7 billion dollar a year industry (just guessing at where we’ll be this year) I could see the question in his eyes. “How the hell can $7 billion change hands in an industry that doesn’t seem to be based on anything?” I’ve been struggling with this attitude for years now, and had finally thought that I was past it. But in one short weekend, with the help of a two-page story in Business Week, I’m right back where I started.

Perhaps the problem is that most users’ touch point with search seems so simple. I type in words, I see words come back–and not a lot of them, either. Most messages are 15 to 20 words at most. How hard can it be? It’s this prevailing attitude that has made search the bastard child of the online ad space. We get no respect. From the outside, it seems like anyone with an IQ topping 60 could market this way. So agencies launch search divisions. Large companies find people that seem to have no pressing items on their to-do lists and make them the new director of search marketing. Everyone throws their hat in the ever increasing search marketing ring.

HELP, I need somebody (preferably a search marketer)…

As an aside, I always find it enlightening to sit at a table during lunch at a Search Engine Strategies show where I don’t know anyone. As introductions are made around the table, you can bet you’ll flush one of these newly minted search marketers out of the crowd. The story is usually the same–the boss thought it would be good to come to the show and “get up to speed.” They look at you with hapless confusion, shell-shocked with the sheer amount of data to digest. Four days, four tracks crammed with information. That’s well over 100 sessions and 400 individual presentations, all dealing with some nuance of search marketing. Before the show, these people thought they had search pretty much pegged. At best, they thought they’d pick up a hint or two. They come back from the show realizing they’ve just jumped into labyrinth of arcane knowledge and tactical expertise.

I Fall to Pieces…

It’s the sheer volume of minutiae in search marketing that makes it such a daunting proposition. I’ve been immersed in it for over 10 years now and I can tell you, there’s no way one person can stay on top of it. That used to be possible, but it’s not today. Even Danny Sullivan and Chris Sherman can’t keep up, and they work unbelievable hours to try.

Search is advancing on all fronts at once. You’ve got Google, Yahoo and MSN trying to gobble up new online territory at a frightening pace. You’ve got new players like MySpace emerging (for the first time, ComScore has included MySpace in its search share numbers). You’ve got new ways of using search, for broadband, on mobile devices and for finding local advertisers. And on top of that, we’re just starting to understand how, when and why consumers use search. I remember once in high school chemistry a classmate spilled a bunch of mercury on a workbench top. A hundred little globs of quicksilver scattered everywhere, proving impossible to round up and contain. That’s what search is like, multiplied by a factor of 100.

It’s Only Words, and Words Are All I Have…

I suppose when you pick search apart at the single message level, it can look pretty simple compared to other channels. Consider the time required to put together one message for one key phrase, compared to what it takes to put together a television ad.

We know that there’s this whole sexy industry behind television ads, with actors, special effects, huge buys and (sometimes) brilliant brand strategies. Now that’s something to admire. They’re like little tiny movies, and we all love movies. But a search ad is, well, just a few words thrown together. What we forget is that every key phrase is its own campaign, infinitely controllable and measurable. For the big search advertisers, that can mean millions of individual campaigns. We buy customers by the penny, building business click by click in a grueling marketing marathon.

There are a lot of moving parts to each of those campaigns, including page placement, maximum bids, messaging, landing page performance and other conversion factors. We obsess over numbers, fine-tuning each campaign to provide maximum performance–or at least, that’s what search marketing should be. It’s this incredible granularity that makes search such a challenge to execute properly.

Search is not easy. Given the choice, I think it would be far easier to consolidate your marketing strategy into a few television ads that are measured on an ephemeral “brand lift” metric, rather then fragment it into millions of individual campaigns, each measured down to the click.

I realize there’s a paradox here. I know it’s this incredible amount of detail that gives rise to the web factories that Burt Helm talks about in Business Week. There’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done. But don’t discount the entire industry by simplifying it down to a room full of people throwing words together. That’s one rather unfortunate aspect of an incredibly dynamic marketing channel. “Typing phrases to drive ad traffic.” Give me a break!

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