Commentary

Searching for - What Works Better for Consumers

We all know how hot Search Marketing is, and I want to add yet another perspective to its coverage. Let me introduce you to - the Searchers.

Silly, huh? Why take into account those unwashed masses who are the ones typing in the more than 1.6 billion searches done online each week? We all know that paid inclusion is all about making it easier for them, with the desired results, or at least the sponsored ones, appearing at the top of their query's response page. There's certainly nothing wrong with that.

But, the more I read about Search as a marketing medium, the more I think about how I use search every day myself, as a consumer or - more frequently - as an information gatherer. Mine may be a minority view, but I have long regarded the power and importance of Search to be its quality of distillation. Such a simple and fair process - I type a few words in the query box, and I get to see a range of choices, almost always ignoring the ones above the line at the top of the page.

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Say what? I'm a Web marketer - why would I utter such a thing? After all, most everyone knows that those sites at the top of the response list probably have tricked their pages to achieving that ranking, no? Who am I kidding?

So, I called one of the leaders of this industry to see what he thought about it, and I was pleasantly surprised with what I learned. Jeffrey Herzog is the CEO of iCrossing, one of the leaders in search and the Chair of the IAB's Search Committee. Herzog started iCrossing in 1998, an epoch ago in Web time, and placement on search engines is all they do - in fact, Mr. Herzog considers search as its own medium.

"We always had one vision - we felt that search would connect the world's information and that vision has become a reality," said Mr. Herzog. "We recognize that people use the Web for information gathering far more than they do for entertainment. And while we, as consumers, expect to be marketed to actively while we're being entertained, that is not necessarily the case when we are merely looking for information. While Paid Search can be very effective, especially for some vertical categories such as hospitality, Natural Search, which includes optimization, may provide more value over the longer term. More to the point, it is far less obtrusive in the minds of most consumers, and the results we see on campaign after campaign support that."

This resonated with what has long been my belief, that consumers are fast becoming more Web-savvy, and while they know that there might be some genie behind the curtain making the links provided jostle for position, they know enough to discern that. At the same time, they would rather make those decisions themselves, probably from the 20 to 30 choices presented on the first and second page.

"Ultimately, the effect is going to be that those paid sponsorships or paid listings will perhaps be diminished in much the same way that banners have been. That is, Web users will increasingly become numb to them because it's so apparent that they are being marketed to when all they're after is the most relevant result," said Mr. Herzog.

So, there is a bit of a tightrope here. Mr. Herzog is quick to point out that there are rules to this game, and he tells his clients that they're usually going to be better off blending a combination of natural search optimization (to ensure meeting the criteria of major search engines) with a strategic combination of keyword buys and maybe even occasional paid listings, depending on the objectives of the marketer, and the vertical they're doing business in. He says that there is a clear trend toward specificity among increasingly knowing marketers, who understand that the more specific they are in the search terms they buy, the more targeted their results will be, the better qualified their prospects will be.

The lesson here? Don't forget the consumer, sitting at their terminal on the other side of the lens. They expect to be marketed to - by they demand to get the information they're after in a simple, unobtrusive format. Natural Search will likely deliver a marketer's results by delivering what the consumer expects over the longer term. Relevance is in the eye of the beholder, just above their pockets, which contain the dollars that they went online to see where to spend, no?

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