Wedding Night Advice for Microsoft and Yahoo

First published February 7, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Now that there seems to be some sort of union in Yahoo’s future, blessed or otherwise, I felt the urge to pass along some advice to whoever the happy couple might be. For, in all this talk about the impending nuptials, the clear objective is to survive and compete in the business of attracting the attention of prospects online.

I offer this advice on behalf of users, because frankly, I think that’s the only perspective you should be interested in. I’ll explain why.

Why Search is Essential

First of all, there’s a lot of talk about how a Microsoft-Yahoo deal would give you the biggest chunk of the online ad network space, and this is true. But I hasten to add: Don’t forget search. Google has stumbled in rolling out another significant revenue channel that holds up against its search business, yet it has still dominated. That’s because the importance of search has been understated up to this point. Here’s why search matters.

Search is the thin edge of a wedge that is marking a fundamental change in advertising. And it’s fundamental because it’s initiated by the prospect. The importance of that sometimes gets missed by marketers, who start looking at search as just another weapon in their arsenal.

Search is important because of expressed intent. That puts it in a whole different league than all other advertising, online or off. Behavioral targeting is effective, but it’s still intrusive and interruptive. We ask for search results. That’s a different level of engagement, a different balance of control, and a different mindset on the part of the prospect. It’s the first place that balance shifted from the marketer to the customer, but it won’t be the last. Search is forging the way, but customers will demand that level of control and relevance to intent in more commercial communication from corporations. So, for all the talk about ad serving networks, it’s vital that the new duo gets search right. All the truly effective revenue channels will lead from search and the new principle of prospect initiation, including the vast untapped mobile and local markets. You can’t afford to screw it up.

Users Come First, Advertisers Will Follow

Secondly, all you should be focused on is one thing, and that’s meeting the expressed need of the user. Don’t talk to me about balanced ecosystems or serving the needs of both users and advertisers. While as an advertiser I appreciate the consideration, as a user I call it hogwash.

Search cannot serve two masters. One has to prevail. And it should always, always, always be the user. Users are the prospective customers, and without them, the equation doesn’t work. Get users, and the advertisers will follow. And those advertisers will play by the rules laid out by the users because they have no choice. Google gets it (probably due to the philosophical bent of Google and an inherent suspicion of advertising) and you’ll have to get it too to compete. So those ads better be highly relevant and in the user’s interest if they appear. If they’re not, don’t show them.

If you pay attention to nothing else, please pay attention to this one point. It’s vital to your success.

Church and State: Antiquated Concept?

The final piece of advice is not to be so set on holding on the divide between church and state on the search results page. This is one holdover from the offline world that may be due for rethinking.

The concept of the church/state divide came from the fact that advertisers will always push their advantage. That’s one reason why you can’t have a balanced ecosystem. Advertisers have always had a much louder voice that gets heard more often. So in traditional channels, the only answer was to divide up the page (or other real estate). Advertisers had free reign over some sections, but they had to keep their hands off others. Consequently, we’ve learned to largely ignore the real estate given over to advertisers. The success of this church/state division has been questionable in the past, but it’s a relic of journalistic thinking that somehow became entrenched in the world of search.

But if you pay scrupulous attention to my first two pieces of advice, you don’t have to worry about church/state. The fact is that in search we have expressed our desire for relevant information, and if that information is commercial in nature, and it matches our intent, than we’re open to it. At my company, we’ve looked at interactions with search advertising in minute detail, and while people will self-report an aversion to advertising in general, in the midst of a task, relevance trumps all. If an ad is the closest match, it will succeed.

This opens the door to mash up editorial functionality with commercial messaging in a richer way. As search becomes better at determining intent and delivering richer results, the opportunity exists to seamlessly integrate commercial messaging with other information in a user-centric way. But user trust is paramount. Let the user set the rules of what’s acceptable.

So, whatever happens, this is the advice I would give. There’ll be a lot on your mind in trying to navigate the new union, so I’ve kept it simple. You can thank me later.

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