A Sea-Level Change for Search

First published April 19, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

After spending a week with thousands of search marketers in New York last week, I think I’ve figured out what search’s problem is.  It’s suffering from low self-esteem.

I said before that search is crossing the chasm.  That certainly seem to be true last week, but to be honest, it took me a little while to figure it out.  It wasn’t till the last day of the show, having lunch with my friend Greg Jarboe, that we hit it, with a little help from Anne Kennedy.

Greg Jarboe’s Gentrification Theory

Both Greg and I felt like the industry was adrift.  It was going through something that hadn’t quite defined itself.  We certainly felt that a sea change was imminent, but we weren’t sure what was entailed in that change.  Greg referred to it as the gentrification of search.  A new wave of bright, shiny respectability was coming to the hard-working but plain-Jane neighborhood of search, first established by people like Greg and myself.  For me, this new influx encapsulated some of what I was seeing — but there was something else here.

One of the noticeable trends I’ve been seeing is the tendency for large organizations to want to ramp up their search efforts internally.  They want to jump into the search pool, but they’re afraid to take the leap with any of the search vendors currently in the space.  They’d rather try to figure it out themselves.

Anne Kennedy’s Epiphany

On the way out of the coffee shop of the New York Hilton, we happened to spot Anne Kennedy, a fellow pioneer of SEM, who put everything in perspective.  Search was moving from early adopters to the mainstream market.  Search was crossing the chasm!

I should’ve seen it much, much earlier.  After all, I’ve written columns right here in the Search Insider saying that this is happening.  But those columns were written from the vantage point of my office in Kelowna, for all intents and purposes a location far removed from the search industry.  Sometimes it’s easier to see a clear picture when you’re standing back a little bit.  When I was in the middle of search, surrounded by it in New York, it was hard to get my bearings.  I knew I was surrounded by a flurry of activity, but I wasn’t sure what the point of all that activity was.  It took Anne’s comment to put it in its proper context.

Is Google Too Big for Search?

The irony here is that as search is gearing up for what should be its finest moment, its time in the spotlight, it seems like the companies that have the most to gain are the ones rushing headlong to leave search behind.

Consider the irony of the two big announcements at the show last week.  First of all we have IPG, one of the gargantuan holding companies in the advertising world, announcing that it has purchased Reprise Media for an undisclosed sum.  Again this is part of the trend for the large advertising companies to quickly ramp up their search efforts in anticipation of the coming firestorm of demand in the search space.  This is the way the chasm crossings work.  If you can successfully make the leap from early adopters to mainstream, there’s a resulting crush of demand that everyone has to rush to meet.

But then you had the big news of the show, Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick for $3.1 billion.  The closer that search gets to the mainstream market, the more intent Google seems to be to build up its rapidly expanding portfolio of non-search marketing channels.  It’s like Google is saying, “Sure we’ve got search.  But search isn’t sexy. It’s utilitarian. It’s direct marketing.  Online video, that’s sexy! Cable TV, that’s sexy!  Auction-based print and radio, that’s sexy!” Google wants to get its hands on those branding dollars — and doesn’t think that search is the way to do that.  To use Jarboe’s gentrification analogy again, just when everyone seems to be considering a move into the inner city neighborhood of search, Google has its eye on buying new property all over town.

Why Search Deserves a Second Look

If this is Google’s thinking, it may be too quick to discount the value of search. To me, there’s vast untapped potential here still.  All the research we’ve done seems to indicate that search is the crux of online activity.  We just haven’t done a very good job of assigning value through the entire buying cycle to the various points where consumers reach out and interact with search.  Online consumer research and brand engagement is a Gordian knot, a complex map of intertwining click-stream paths, winding through various properties and doubling back on itself.  When you start to look at that click stream, one thing becomes very apparent.  Search is the connector that holds it all together.  As we move from point to point and continue to build our brand awareness, we are connecting the dots through a search.  There has to be value to each one of those connections — and as we get better at defining and quantifying it, I believe we will find more and more reasons to shift our budget to some form of search.

It’s almost as if Google (or at least, parts of Google) takes search for granted in its rush to secure the entire landscape of consumer interaction.  With more and more advertisers starting to look at search seriously, maybe it would be a good idea for Google to do the same thing.

Addendum: I wrote a similarly themed post on Tuesday in my blog. Matt Cutts was quick to comment that Google’s search team remains as dedicated as ever and has some great things in store. I hope so, because I think search’s finest hour has yet to arrive.

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