Search and the Winds of Change in Chicago

First published December 7, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Things are changing in the SEM world. At the Search Engine Strategies Conference Chicago, it’s more than the ice-cold winds off Lake Michigan that are blowing. These are the winds of change. There is a palpable sense that we’re moving into a new era in search.

Dateline: Chicago

The word on the streets of Chicago (not that I’ve ventured on the streets that much) is that a huge consolidation juggernaut is about to steamroll the industry. We’ve seen the precursor to that in a few announcements timed with the show. But at the same time, we’re seeing the world of search fragment in another way, as search marketers now have to move their focus to include new worlds such as CRM platforms, ad networks, local, video, social tagging, analytics, usability and a host of other emerging developments. If we follow Google’s model, soon we’ll be dabbling in the world of print and radio. And I thought I had left those worlds behind in a previous life.

There’s a collective holding of our breath to see what’s next. One of the wonderful things about search, the fact that it’s the intersection of so much activity on the Internet, is also its biggest challenge. To truly leverage search, you have to have one foot in a lot of different worlds. And that’s tough to do as a small independent shop.

The Honeymoon’s Over

But the other topic of conversation I’m hearing is how the integration of traditional marketing and search is not going as swimmingly as some of the early marriages might have us believe. There’s a lot of drinking of one’s own Kool-Aid here. Search agencies position themselves as the keepers of the vaunted black box, the holders of arcane knowledge and assets essential to the truly enlightened marketer. That black box could be advanced algorithmic optimization knowledge and technology or sponsored search management technology and advanced campaign optimization tools. Whatever it is, the SEMs protect and promote it religiously, using it to drive up the price tag of their company.

The potential buyers seem content to cede this small area of expertise to the SEMs, because they lay claim to pretty much everything else. The entire brand relationship that lies outside the search silo is where they play, and the only reason they’re looking at search at all is because they’re being forced to by their clients. Reluctantly, they have to look at building or buying, and the lack of available talent is forcing their hand towards the second option. It’s a shotgun marriage, and in many cases, the results will be predictable. Search marketers are mavericks, and they won’t place nice in the corrals that are currently being set up for them.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

The problem is that in both cases, the egos on both sides of the table don’t allow us to know what we don’t know. The trick here is not to be territorial about your area of expertise, but to acknowledge that the rules of the game are changing incredibly quickly, are being changed not by the agencies, not by the search engines, certainly not by the SEMs–but by the consumers, and we’d better all work together to figure out what’s happening.

I believe in integrated, or convergent, service offerings. I think it’s essential. But the simple fact is that there is no search silo. It sits at the center of a tremendous amount of consumer activity. But the firms that are positioning themselves to provide these convergent (or integrated, or 360 degree–you pick the buzzword)  better reacquaint themselves with the meaning of the words integrated and convergent, because unless they truly get it, admit they don’t know everything and are willing to work with new partners to effectively understand this new consumer control, they won’t be able to keep up. Passion is the price of entry, but please, everyone, check your egos at the door.

Living in a Quality Score World

Another point of interest that emerged in Chicago is the new reality of quality scoring being introduced by the engines. Suddenly, search marketers have to tweak a lot more campaign factors to determine position on the page. We have to look at not only the quality of the ad but also the quality of the landing page and the subsequent on site experience. To make matters murkier, the engines aren’t really sharing the criteria or methodology they’ll be using in these new quality algorithms. So once again, search marketers will be working in the dark, trying to reverse engineer the inner algo workings that will hopefully vault their page up into the top of the Golden Triangle, but this time on the sponsored side. I think search marketers will be well suited to the task, but the challenge is that this requires them to step into a lot of new areas, and in some cases, they’ll be stepping on toes in doing so, both on the client side and the agency side. Without exception, the biggest challenge we’ve had in delivering effective results has been in getting the buy-in of the various groups required to take a holistic approach to search. The introduction of a quality score means this will be happening with greater frequency.

New Madison Avenue Mavens?

One dinner conversation I had circled around the potential future of SEM agencies. Apparently, a representative from a major engine told a room full of SEMs that we’re the new Madison Avenue. We embrace accountable marketing in a way that much of the rest of the advertising world is struggling with. We’re not afraid of consumer-empowering technology, because we’ve cut our teeth on such technology. And we’ve learned to adapt and survive in a fluid marketplace, where things change daily. To me, these three things are the true value that SEMs bring to the table, and as traditional agencies look for potential partners, I’d be looking very hard at those three criteria. To be honest, most of the rest of our “black magic” boils down to simple common sense and a willingness to do the dirty work that’s required to optimize search campaigns, whether they’re on the organic or sponsored side.

It’s been a cold week in Chicago, but one would never guess–based on the heat being generated in the Chicago Hilton Convention Center. Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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