Search Engines Innovate, Why Not SEMs?

First published July 26, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The future of search has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve just done a series of interviews with some of the top influencers and observers in the space — Marissa Mayer, Danny Sullivan, Greg Sterling, Michael Ferguson, Steven Marder, Jakob Nielsen and others — talking about what the search results page may look like in 2010. I’ll try to corral this into a white paper this fall. I’ve also chatted with a few people about the future of search marketing. And here’s the sum of it all. “Hang on, because you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

Change is the Constant

I have remarked to a number of people in the last week or two that I’ve seen more change in the past six months in the search results page than I have in the last 10 years. And all my interviewees seem to agree: We’re just at the beginning of that change. Whether its personalization, universal results, Web 2.0 functionality or mobile, our search experience is about to change drastically. Search will become more relevant, more functional, more ubiquitous and more integrated. It will come with us (via our mobile devices) more often and in more useful ways. It will expand our entertainment options. It will change forever our local shopping trips. And it will all happen quickly.

As Search Goes, So Goes SEM

The question is, what does this do for search marketing? In a recent conversation, I was asked where the major innovation in the search marketing space was coming from. This was prefaced by the remark that when a well-known industry analyst was asked the same question, they (I’ll keep the gender neutral, as there really aren’t that many industry analysts out there) said there was almost no innovation coming from search marketers. They were “living off the fat.” My first inclination was to jump to the defense of the industry, but this proved harder than I thought.

I realized I haven’t seen a lot of innovation lately. Certainly, the engines themselves are innovating. And I’m seeing innovation in adjacent areas (Web analytics, competitive intelligence). But I’m not seeing a lot happen in the search-marketing space. After a raft of proprietary bid management tools hit a few years ago, there’s been little happening to move the industry forward. In fact, I’ve noticed a lot of SEM heads buried in the sand. We are not encouraging change; we are actively fighting it.

There are probably a lot of reasons why. First and foremost, I think a number of companies that have been in the space for a while are tired. I’ve touched on this in a previous three-part series in Search Insider. Secondly, it’s tough to develop new tools or technologies when you’re completely dependent on APIs or (worse still) scraping information from the search engines.

It’s a very risky call to spend time and resources developing new tools or technologies that can be rendered useless by an arbitrary change at Google or Yahoo — or made obsolete by the rapidly increasing pace of innovation.

Either Help Push Or Get Off!

Whatever the reason (and I’m sure the Search Insider blog will be getting a number of posts refuting my observation), the fact is that if search marketers are, in fact, riding the wave, it’s coming to a crashing halt very soon. The need for innovation and changing your strategic paradigm is greater than ever. As the search engines change rules, those search marketers that want to survive must change. Innovation will become a necessity.

And, in the end, this will be a good thing.

The change that’s happening in the search space is reflective of the change that is happening throughout marketing and advertising. It’s the continuing evolution of a much more efficient marketplace, where connections between customers and vendors are made tremendously more effective through access to information on both sides.

The traditional uncertainty of advertising is being leeched out of the system, due, in large part, to the tremendous effectiveness of search. And as search becomes more relevant and useful, it will make those connections more reliable, less intrusive and more successful for both parties. The opportunity is there for search marketers to help advertisers successfully negotiate this more efficient marketplace. It remains to be seen if we’re up for the challenge.

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