In the past year, three of the top-ten search players have charted new courses. Yahoo began the process of handing its search over to Microsoft. AOL, once a top search destination, hopes to re-emerge as a next-generation content network. IAC's Barry Diller has openly hinted at (albeit backpedaled from) dropping Ask from his roster of companies.
Effectively, 2009 has seen the end of the current round of the search wars. Google and Yahoo are at the top; everyone else is taking to the sidelines -- left to focus, largely, on monetizing content networks.
But don't expect the former search leaders to leave search's lessons behind. Quite the opposite: these companies have invested millions of dollars -- and quite a number of years -- into developing search ad-selling technologies; they will want to do something with those assets if they can. So expect to see these companies leverage their search technologies to more profitably sell display ads.
This process was well underway in 2009. It didn't take long after the Yahoo-Microsoft deal for Yahoo's Right Media Exchange to transform from a seller of remnant inventory to a new "premium" exchange for selling display ads. To be sure, this shift is largely the result of Carol Bartz's mandate to rationalize all of Yahoo's sprawling properties. But it's also a result of a larger strategic shift within Yahoo that seeks to reposition Yahoo's focus from search to content: moving the Right Media Exchange from the margins of the display media sales process to its heart allows Yahoo to focus its automated auction ad-sales capabilities, which are bound to be freed up by the Microsoft deal, on display.
The new AOL is another example of the trend. The fact that AOL hired Tim Armstrong from Google is not a coincidence: AOL was clearly looking to return to its roots as a cutting-edge technology business when it reached out to him. And the lynchpin of Armstrong's new plan for AOL is leveraging search data: at the new AOL, content and advertising decisions will be guided by search trends and search technologies.
A similar shift is also happening in the other direction: as the methods underlying the selling of display ads have grown to more closely resemble those used to sell search ads, the search world has begun to more closely mirror display. Google's investments in DoubleClick -- including the launch of the DoubleClick Exchange, and the new rich media ad units within Google Search -- are obvious examples. Another example is the digital agencies that have increased their competencies in search-based display media buys (such as search retargeting). Indeed, a handful of digital agencies have adapted the principles used by keyword-buying platforms to create automated technologies that manage display media buys in more efficient ways. (Disclosure: my own firm has become very active in both search retargeting and developing a search platform-based technology for buying display ads.)
The upshot of all this is that now more than ever before, the mechanics of buying display ads are looking a lot more like those used to buy search, and 2009 was the year when the groundwork was laid for this seismic shift. So as you're planning your display media strategy for 2010, you may do well to take notes from your search strategy of 2009.
Mark Simon is VP, Industry Relations at Didit, a digital ad agency applying its search marketing competency to revolutionize targeted media buys in search and display. Reach Mark at Mark.Simon@Didit.com.