Control Freaks Share Their Secret

When I arrived in my office Monday morning, one of the best holiday gifts I've ever received was waiting for me in my Outlook inbox.

Special Kids Fund President Danny Goodman, who I met virtually last year when writing about non-profits raising money online, sent me an e-card from another of his endeavors, At that site, someone can earmark a donation to send as a gift, and the recipient then selects where to send the donation from over 75 renowned organizations, such as United Way, Save the Children, and Public Broadcasting Service.

While this site moves me on a personal level, even more exciting is how it fits into the consumer control revolution currently underway. It's what search engine marketing is both participating in and creating. The recipient of the CharityGiftCertificates present is in control of who benefits--just as the consumer, using search, has the power to allocate his or her attention to whichever advertisers are deemed most relevant.

It's a concept that keeps rearing its head throughout so many holiday parties and other get-togethers this month.

When people outside of the interactive industry ask what I do and I want to make a quick conversation of it, I'll invariably say I work in marketing at an Internet company, or something to that effect. This is enough information to evoke a curious but vacant stare from the listener, and I can then refill my drink.

It's when I say I work at a search engine marketing agency that I need to pull up a chair and get comfortable. Everyone I talk to wants to learn more.

Many people want to know why Google's the best. "Is it really?" I ask. "Have you tried searching Yahoo! lately, or Ask Jeeves, or any other? You might be surprised." They want to know what it means when I say there's advertising on search engines. "Those text ads running alongside search engine results are worth billions of dollars," I point out, often to listeners' astonishment.

Answering so many questions on my nights off can be a little overwhelming at times, even for an advocate of the industry. Yet I realize why it keeps happening. Every person I talk to knows something--the little secret that they don't share with anyone else but me, and perhaps their therapist.

They know they're in control. And let's face it: everyone's a control freak.

"You know, when those ads come up in Google, I sometimes click on them because they really help me," a friend's brother, Mike, confessed to me at his sister's birthday party Saturday night. "I understand," I said, consoling him. "Sometimes I click the ads too."

If one ad doesn't work for Mike, he picks another. If he wants to tune out the ads entirely, he can do so. It's his choice.

He knows it, and he told me so.

He knows that when searching for ski boots, the only ads he'll see are for ski boots, ski rentals, and perhaps snowboarding apparel. He knows--although not explicitly--that a level of filtering takes place when he conducts a search. If he's searching for content about his favorite TV show, he's never going to see ads for a sport-utility vehicle in a search engine, regardless of how many people watching that show are likely to be in the market for such a car.

Every ad is targeted just enough that it's relevant though not invasive. It reminds me of those simplified Web page editors dubbed "WYSIWYG" (pronounced "wizzywig" by condescending geeks) --"what you see is what you get." Applied here, it's "what you search is what you get." The emphasis is on "you." You show the interest (entering a search query); you perform the action (clicking the link, natural or paid, that's most relevant). The marketers, search engines, and agencies best at connecting interest to action win.

I can hear my friend's brother, Mike, laughing. He knows I just told readers what they want to hear. He knows this because the secret he told me is that he's in control. He always wins. If the marketer, search engine, and agency don't deliver, he crowns someone else the winner. It's all up to Mike. The entire multibillion-dollar industry, with niche markets popping up every week, hinges on Mike.

It's control that all of us involved ceded to him. We've come to agree that when Mike's in control, we're better off.

But no one's better off than Mike.

Thanks to you, Mike, we'll all have a happy new year.

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