Banner Ads: The New Search Engine

In prognosticating the future of search, most of the industry assumes searches will migrate beyond the search engines themselves. The most prevalent examples are from offline media, as people search via mobile phones and televisions. There's a new twist online, however, from a Canadian company, Inoventiv. This startup provides an interesting perspective on how search can turn up in the most unexpected places--such as within a banner ad.

Stepping back, let's first consider the TV example. TiVo, one of the more progressive technologies out there in any medium, announced an update that will enable consumers to search TV ads. This move received some mixed reviews, including one from Business Week's Jon Fine on his blog: "TiVo's move is based around an advertiser's ego-move--the assumption that ads are programming. They're not. They're pitches. They're come-ons. They're the noise TiVo was invented to skip. No one is going to hit a button in order to watch a Subway ad. No one watches car commercials to research their next purchase." There's some merit to that. However, I think advertisers should see this as a personal challenge to make their commercials "search-worthy."



Meanwhile, check out Inoventiv's spin on search and advertising. The company launched Search&Display, which allows consumers to search within a banner ad and then access content without ever clicking through to another site. For instance, an ad from an automaker could allow consumers to search for available cars from a local dealership, get a price quote, order a brochure, and schedule a test drive.

Borrell Associates published a white paper on Search&Display that's as gushing as a Harry Knowles review of a Peter Jackson movie on Ain't It Cool News. Borrell wrote, "The searchable banner offers a new class of creative--'search and stay'--that has the potential, we believe, to increase sales while reducing creative costs. It does so by engaging pre-qualified prospects and by dynamically pushing new rich-media creative content direct to the banner from a database, thus allowing the consumer to not 'lose his place' on the Web site." You can read the full white paper at

Let's now go a step further. Searching within a banner ad is novel and unexpected, so what else could be the next frontier?

What about searching within a classified ad? This sounds silly, of course, but let's see why that's so absurd. First of all, what Search&Display does is turn a display ad (such as a banner) into a searchable classified database, whether the classifieds are for cars, dates, jobs, or homes. Secondly, classifieds themselves have evolved, so to speak, into paid search ads. The added layer of pay-per-call makes the analogy even more perfect.

How about searching in an e-mail? Imagine your favorite retailer sends you its holiday specials in an opt-in monthly e-mail. Right in that message, there's a field where you can search for gift ideas and see if the merchandise is in stock. Something like this can't happen overnight due to trigger-happy spam filters and other technological hurdles, but it could help certain marketers increase conversions.

One of the reasons it's hard to play this prediction game is that search keeps getting better. Searching within a map, a PDF, and even a PC desktop was much more cumbersome only a few years back. A former iCrossing colleague, Sara Holoubek, often illustrated the imminent pervasiveness of the Internet by noting how computers will one day be commonly built into refrigerators. By that example, searching the contents of your kitchen from a refrigerator-based console is hardly far-fetched (and given the difficulty I had finding ingredients when baking a kugel last weekend, it's a development I'd welcome).

This all brings to mind an old iCrossing tagline, "Search is in everything." With TiVo, you can search TV ads, which is great one day a year--after the Super Bowl (oh, wait, those ads are all online anyway). And now you can search within the ads themselves. Inoventiv flips the search paradigm; instead of content supported by search-triggered advertising, it's advertising supported by search-triggered content.

It makes you wonder what other paradigms we can upend while still adding value for the consumer.

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