The Growing Pains of Search

Ahh...our fledgling little industry is growing up.

The little search marketing companies are unfurling their new wings and peering over the edge of the nest. Suddenly, venture capital firms are looking at search marketing technology with stars in their eyes. It's beginning to seem that a few people are going to make a lot of money in this industry. And we've even got internal politics. All signs of an industry that's finally ready for a run at the main stage. All of the signs became more apparent at the recent Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose this month. This event, for right or wrong, has become the regular group therapy session of search. It doesn't seem to matter where it's held, you'll see all the familiar faces at Search Engine Strategies. "If it's August, this must be San Jose!" We come, we bitch, we share...and then we go home, just to do it all again in a few months.

With each new show, the latest hot topic spreads from table to table at the networking lunches and cocktail parties. In Chicago (December) it was Google's Florida Update. In New York (March) it was Yahoo's unveiling of SiteMatch. And this time, for a change, it didn't have anything to do with one of the big engines. This time, it was our own little industry and its new professional organization (SEMPO) that stirred up conversation along the hallways of the San Jose Conference Center.

It's not easy to gain maturity. Lord knows it's still a struggle for me. As search tries to claw its way onto Fortune 500 marketing budgets, the driving forces of the industry still have to figure out where it is they're driving too. Is search still a cottage industry, a loose amalgam of hundreds of small shops, or is it starting to become big business?

Will search marketing be overseen by internal departments in the biggest companies and advertising agencies? Will the best of the little guys be gobbled up in the next few years, with the rest left to find a niche to survive in, or wither on the vine?

To make prognosticating even more difficult, we still have to wait for the technology to mature before we can see where the industry could go. Something like providing results targeted to geographic locations can have huge implications for us all.

The biggest thing I saw in San Jose was the beginning of a chasm developing in our industry. A handful of more sophisticated and forward thinking search marketers are starting to really explore what can be done in search. They're thinking research and strategy, rather than linking tactics and meta tag optimization. They've refocused their vision to look at the large and emerging picture of search. In their wake, they're leaving the more traditional firms behind. The firms are usually quite small and are still using tactics from 4 or 5 years ago.

One of the things that have frustrated many about our industry was the lack of differentiation between search marketing firms. Despite the huge spread in prices, we all pretty much said we offered the same things. The minute we started talking to a potential client, we started spouting works like organic optimization, link building, landing pages, bidding strategie, and ROI tracking. All of this is relatively unique to our industry and reflects an exclusively tactical approach.

In San Jose, I noticed a few search marketing companies starting to use a different vocabulary. Not new, different. It's terminology that comes from marketing and is strategy based. We're beginning to talk about customer profiling, identifying attitudes, the nature of the buying cycles, and the role of brand awareness. It's a new way of speaking aimed at marketers, not Webmasters.

I believe years from now that the 2004 San Jose show will be a milestone in the industry. I think it will mark the beginning of a year that will dramatically alter the nature of the search marketing industry. We will grow up, and that will mean significant pain for many. Search will become much more sophisticated, and the price of entry to play the game may prove to be too expensive for many smaller providers. Alliances will form and total solutions will begin to emerge. Google and Yahoo! will have to address the huge amount of time and effort required to manage a large, sponsored search campaign. Real money will start to be invested and made.

And to think, one day I'll be able to say I was there.