No Search Is An Island

Today I am plagued by ambiguity. I'm happy and scared. Relieved and cautious. Excited and apprehensive. And it all has to do with search and how we use it. On one hand, I'm relieved that search seems to be the sole marketing channel that's actually benefiting from the crushing economic pressure. On the other hand, I'm worried that we may be short-sighted in grabbing onto search as a life preserver in raging marketing waters.


Search: The Connector

My ambiguity comes from the unique nature of search. We consider search a marketing channel, and in recent times we're treating it as such. But it's not. Search is glue. Search is intent expressed. Search is a mirror of our dreams, objectives and fears. To treat search as a channel divorces it from its real role as an integral connector. And, as such, search is inextricable from not just the online world, but the offline one as well. Whatever happens, whenever it happens, it shows up in the search trends.



And therein lies the source of my internal turmoil. If you look at search as a marketing channel, the current move by advertisers down the funnel, driving towards more and more accountable advertising, is predictable and a good thing. Search is certainly effective and measurable. But if we look at search as the connecter between demand and fulfillment, there's an inherent problem looming. As budgets dry up in creating awareness and eventually demand, search inventories will ultimately dry up as well.

Obsessive Optimization

I've talked to a few search marketers here at SMX West who are saying their clients are pushing them to drop generic terms and stick to branded ones because they convert better. Even as effective as search is, we can't resist trying to pump conversion numbers even higher.

If advertisers are this obsessive about cutting all the fat from their marketing, it seems they've backed themselves to the very brink of a dangerous precipice. One more step and they'll have reduced their marketing efforts to managing a paid search campaign for "I want to buy an Acme Widget online today and I have my credit card out."

Everyone is focused on the thinnest possible slice at the bottom of the funnel, without worrying about priming the pump at the top. While it may bolster search revenues in the short term as budgets migrate in from all other channels, in the long term this shortsightedness will prove disastrous.

I believe there is a tremendous amount of optimization that has to happen across all marketing channels. I'm not saying that all budgets should stay put where they are. But I do worry about an obsessive focus on capturing late-stage demand, even if it is through search.

You have to develop your market and create awareness. Search doesn't work if nothing is creating awareness. Those branded queries won't suddenly materialize out of the ether. Marketers seem inclined to take huge pendulum swings in their approach, one minute tossing branding money around by the bucketful, and the next clamping down on anything that isn't a sure conversion. There has to be a happy medium.

For Every Action...

Search is the last half of a cause-and-effect chain. If you just focus on the effect, sooner or later the cause will cease to exist. As search marketers, much as we gleefully accept the new budget flowing in from other channels, we have to understand the inherent integrated nature of search. If we accept the windfall in the short term, we'll end up paying in the long term.

I'm personally thankful that search is the boat I've chosen to ride out this particular economic storm. There's no place I'd rather be. But I think it's naïve to ignore the macro effects that will impact search behavior. As I said before, whatever happens, wherever it happens, whenever it happens, it will be reflected in search. And as all other marketing channels begin to run dry because of budgeting cutbacks, that too will show in search trends.

13 comments about "No Search Is An Island".
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  1. Michael Mostert, February 12, 2009 at 12:16 p.m.

    "Search is the last half of a cause-and-effect chain. If you just focus on the effect, sooner or later the cause will cease to exist."

    I think this is an interesting point, but would it necessarily apply to large, established advertisers? I doubt that if Honda, Nordstrom, NBC etc. stop paying for marketing that their search queries will dry up. Their brands don't necessarily need a constant flurry of advertising to be remembered.

  2. Nick Drew from Microsoft Advertising, February 12, 2009 at 12:21 p.m.

    This column couldn't have come at a better time! I'm just knocking my presentation for SES London into shape on this very theme, and it's something that's come up a number of times. Search is, if you like, the road network between the online destinations, and a country made up of all roads and no towns and villages (destinations) wouldn't be much of a country at all!
    The other point to bear in mind is that a study we've just finished in the UK shows that 2/3 of searchers admit that brand perception prompts them to click on a paid search link. So far, so old hat. But we have to remember - where are they getting these brand perceptions? What's causing them to see one brand as one they really relate to, while another is something they just don't get? And that is where other media come into the mix.

  3. Michael Hubbard from Media Two Interactive, February 12, 2009 at 12:27 p.m.

    "Search doesn't work if nothing is creating awareness." We have been preaching this for years now - isn't it great that it takes an economy like we have now for people to realize that... Or do they realize that? I'm reading Michael from Microsoft's comment - and I'm shocked!?!

    There are studies upon studies that talk about large advertisers grabbing market-share in bad economies. If someone like Honda is not front of mind, then they're going to be left out of the entire buying cycle by a greater percentage of people who have been exposed to someone like Ford. People get too caught up on their own brand words converting, and they completely forget about the path that led them to that brand word. So yes Michael - even though the biggest won't be completely out of sight due to their brand history, they surely are going to lose market-share by assuming their brand is strong enough to have the staying power.

    Kudos to the companies that have cut budgets, but not cut marketing mix!

    P.S. Microsoft has a great product called Engagement Mapping that helps you determine what path people took to get to that brand name conversion if you're interested (MediaPlex has one too called Path to Conversion).

  4. Michael Mostert, February 12, 2009 at 1:03 p.m.

    I completely understand the point being made that not advertising could potentially lead to not being top-of-mind when consumers are shopping.

    However, there is a book out right now by Martin Lindstrom on advertising called "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy" that conducts numerous brain mapping studies to research how marketing and advertising really affects our thought patterns. It is an incredible read. One of its many points is that traditional advertising (even for the big brands) is becoming less and less effective. Over time, the book suggests, as we've become more inundated with ads we've begun to filter and tune them out.

    And, since you mentioned Ford, there's a section about how Ford spent $26 million on American Idol ads only to lose mindshare with a group of test subjects exposed to those ads.

  5. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, February 12, 2009 at 1:43 p.m. can't dismiss decades of advertising as suddenly ineffective. I've read Lindstrom's book and I agree..some of the findings are fascinating. But the fact is, advertising does work. It might not be optimally effective, but billions of dollars in consumerism speak to the fact that it drives awareness and demand. And yes, searches for Honda will continue if advertising ceases..but they will diminish over time. Consumer's memories are short. Advertising is not the be all and end all, and it can be optimized dramatically (a point I make repeatedly) but don't throw the baby out with the bath water here. BTW..what about a new Honda model, a sale at Nordstrom's or a new show on NBC. Where will the search volumes come for these, if not advertising? Search is a reflection of what we're aware of..and something needs to create that awareness. BTW..I'll share some ideas about awareness channels next week.

  6. Michael Hubbard from Media Two Interactive, February 12, 2009 at 3:05 p.m.

    Please don't mistake my example of Ford as being one that I agreed with their media placement strategy :) - but I can assure you, I would take a marketing budget from Ford utilizing our agency's strategies and put it against Honda bidding on only their own brand names any day of the week.

  7. Michael Hubbard from Media Two Interactive, February 12, 2009 at 3:06 p.m.

    (or vise versa with the companies - I don't care about the company as much as I do the strategy)

  8. Michael Mostert, February 12, 2009 at 3:42 p.m.

    Hi Gord,

    First, let me apologize for hogging the board! I never usually even comment, let alone comment this frequently.

    I absolutely agree with your point that advertising works and drives consumerism; without advertising my job wouldn't exist. Also, I'm a strong proponent that display ads, tv ads etc. lift search volume. However, what I would really like to know is just how valuable massive ad spending is with regards to search for the strongest brands. Certain companies would definitely fall off the search radar if they stopped advertising in other mediums, but what would happen to those companies with incredibly strong brands if they pulled back? How far off would they drop before the cause-and-effect chain catches up with them? Do you think there's a bottom that these larger companies would hit and be able to maintain without really trying? I’m not advocating the cessation of advertising or ad spending, just curious as to how well the “best” brands could fair without really pushing.

    Thanks for your comments and I look forward to your article on awareness channels.

  9. Andy Giordano from Terri Bennett Enterprises, LLC, February 12, 2009 at 5 p.m.

    couldn't disagree more in reference to the ford vs. honda argument.

    at the end of the day, you can't polish a turd. it only smears.
    the consumer knows this, regardless of the search strategies.

  10. Gary Senser, February 12, 2009 at 9:24 p.m.

    One of the primary drivers of search is need. Advertising drives a lot of perceived need, aka demand. I agree with your logic. However, a lot of excess demand seems to have been created in our economy... perceived need vs. real need. A little less advertising will soften the perception that we need so much to get through the day. Consuming a little less and focusing on what we really need... and finding it through search... will help reduce advertising noise and help us save a little more (environmental resources and $$). Just a thought.

  11. Lance Loveday from Closed Loop Marketing, February 13, 2009 at 12:42 p.m.

    Right on the money as usual, Gord. Great piece.

  12. David Wilson from AMN Healthcare, February 19, 2009 at 4:14 p.m.

    Just wanted to point out that some companies, like Google, hardly do any brand advertising, yet they remain top of mind...

  13. Sean Scogin from Hilton Worldwide, February 20, 2009 at 9:43 a.m.

    Great article. So great, in fact, that my buddy and I used it on our podcast last night. if you're interested. We start chatting about it around the 48 minute marker.

    My buddy recently started working at a search agency, so now he's high on the "effect" portion of the cycle. It's interesting to get his insight in to what he's seeing (he was on the display side for a while).

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