Warning: Maddening Complexity Ahead!

Once upon a time, search meant learning more about the world by typing a keyword into a search box and being presented with an authoritative SERP. Search advertising meant running an ad based on the keyword a user typed.

Doing this correctly -- in other words, doing paid search in such a way that one's organizational goals were met -- has never been easy, despite all the assurances of search inventory providers. And while search has been changing at a slow creep for a few years now, the change agents have accelerated their impact on the landscape in the past 18 months, which is going to make search marketing that much harder. Let's look at some of these changes, and what they mean for paid search marketers.

The Mobile Thing Itself

One important consequence of mobile devices is that they are capable of interacting with the real world without the need for clunky translations like keywords. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Google Goggles: point your mobile device at an object or picture, and Google will translate the image into a keyword (so you can research a painting, or translate a menu with Google Translate, simply by pointing your mobile device at it.) Google barcode scanning lets you scan product barcodes to run a shopping search via your mobile device, for instance. The result is that searches are far more immediately connected to the real world.

This means that searches are subject to a lot more precision (you want to know about this exact product). At times, they're also subject to far more ambiguity as well: sure you want to know about this exact picture -- but what do you know about it? After all, sometimes a word really does speak louder than a thousand pictures.

How does a marketer buy a position in such an interaction? Does such an interaction even provide potential for an advertising position? At this point, we just don't know.

Ask a Friend

In March of last year, Pali Research analyst Richard Greenfield noted that Google and the other engines stand to lose ground to social networks. The share loss, Greenfield predicted, won't just be on account of the presence of search bars on Facebook, Twitter, et al, but because people can easily ask and answer questions via status updates. The cold machinery of the algorithm is replaced by the friendly world of crowdsourcing and recommendation.

The problems for marketers in this environment are manifold and largely unmapped. Becoming "part of the conversation" means first being able to eavesdrop on such conversations, and the recent flaps over Facebook's privacy policy contortions have cast considerable doubt about whether such eavesdroppings are even legal. Even if they are, the methods for effectively marketing within conversational streams haven't been established. What's been lacking here is a convention like the traditional search engine-based query/response system, where advertising is perceived as relevant and consequently welcomed.

The  Fragmenting Web

It's not exactly news that Apple is using its iPhone/iPad platforms to replicate the closed proprietary worlds of AOL and CompuServe that were so mightily profitable a decade or so ago. At the same time, newspapers and other media groups are clamoring to put their crown jewels behind non-searchable pay walls. One can consider Facebook as a similar scheme to herd its users into rooms whose rules are no longer under the users' controls. Even ISPs want to get into the business of regulating content.

Nobody knows how the "open vs. closed" battle will resolve itself, but it's quite likely that marketers will have to wrestle with a whole new set of advertising, pricing, and accounting mechanisms that will make today's ad buying environment look simple.

How It's All Changing Search Marketing

The common link in all of these changes? The traditional mechanism of keyword-based search marketing is being eclipsed by a new form of contextual marketing that is far more sophisticated than the traditional content adjacency model.

This new context is the flow of information from the real world in its many forms; in the case of mobile search; in the case of social media, free-flowing discussion, etc.

Marketers -- both deep-pocketed ones seeking ubiquity and thriftier ones seeking cost-effective relevance -- must learn to navigate this new world of context in achieve reach and influence. Unfortunately, things are unlikely to get easier; in fact, the level of complexity is almost guaranteed to rise. Someday we may be nostalgic for the days when all we needed to do to reach our goals was run campaigns through the big three engines.

The good news in all of this is that the cost of experimenting with all these new forms of contextual marketing remains extremely low. Make sure that your team and agency aren't so tapped out by the requirements of running traditional paid search campaigns that you can't afford to experiment in this rapidly evolving world.

Tags: search
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3 comments about "Warning: Maddening Complexity Ahead!".
  1. Susan Kuchinskas from freelance , May 17, 2010 at 11:11 a.m.

    Wow, there are so many interesting threads in this article, Steve.

    Having been around since the beginnings of the commercial web, I'm fascinated by the return of the walled garden. This approach has failed miserably twice over: first on the web, and next on early mobile devices.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts about whether there are different factors in today's market that will let it succeed, or whether it's just another evolutionary bump in the road. Is it just about Apple's muscle?

  2. David Carlick from Carlick , May 17, 2010 at 2:09 p.m.

    Open always triumphs closed in the long run, but in the short run, closed is how an extraordinary and simple experience is delivered to the user. Once the elements of this new experience are part of the language, then open systems can replicate and compete and inevitably win.

  3. Ross Bradley from Qeg Pty Ltd , May 17, 2010 at 7:33 p.m.

    .
    < I'd love to hear your thoughts about whether there are different factors in today's market that will let it succeed, or whether it's just another evolutionary bump in the road. Is it just about Apple's muscle?>

    Good question in reply to a fine article and I do have my own thoughts on why it WILL succeed this time around.

    And views that I have long held, certainly before Apple had even thought of entering the space. In my InstaBlog profile (on SA), I make mention of the following:

    That......."history will show that ACAP (the, Automated Content Access Protocol), that I have been so "passionate" about in many a post made everywhere over the past few years, will not only become a part of our every-day lives, but will be fiercely-enforced along the way..And rightly so...

    Where your "free" (Local) "rag", may well even survive and become (as was also predicted by myself back in 2005), the very "lynch pin" between local business and the web!"

    http://seekingalpha.com/user/36191/profile

    Steve's article heralds a change that has been well over 5 years in the making. It simply can't fail when the biggest players on the web have now become, so much involved.