While that's certainly true, it's only part of the picture. To see the whole picture, I think that the search industry needs to start distinguishing between search engine marketing--which is more branding-focused--and search engine sales, which is about the final conversion. The two concepts are different.
Marketing, to my mind, is about introducing new modes of thinking. It's about convincing people that you're able to enhance people's lives in ways they might not have considered. And since it's about changing people's modes of thought, marketing works best at earlier buy-cycle stages, before people have made up their minds about what they're looking for.
Sales, more than dealing with influencing thought patterns, is about reeling in customers and driving purchases. It's about the very end of the buy-cycle, when a customer actually decides to buy.
And so when people point to the effectiveness search in terms of capturing the easiest buyers, they're not talking about marketing at all. They're talking about sales.
To a large extent, advertisers have already grasped this point. Last year's State of Search Engine Marketing--an annual report released by the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization--states that 62 percent of marketers value branding, and not just immediate conversion capture, as a primary SEM goal. But it's possible that these advertisers still don't grasp the full capability that search marketing offers.
That's because search marketing, I think, is about much more than standard branding. While search might offer more targeted branding than other ad media--keywords, after all, allow you to pre-screen who sees your message--it's possible to manage search branding along very traditional lines. Inasmuch as branding is about maximizing visibility, there's no fundamental difference between search branding and branding through TV, radio, or print: at base, it's all a matter of maximizing impressions.
To my mind, what makes search marketing different and powerful goes to the core of what search actually is. Effective search marketing means leveraging the fact that search is a research medium.
Typically, searchers conduct between three and five searches between initial interest and final conversion. As searchers research their purchasing decisions, they're doing more than just learning about your industry's products and services: They're learning which brand names are the industry standards, and what kinds of quality and pricing they can expect. By achieving a presence throughout the buy-cycle--both through well-positioned ads that heighten name recognition, and even through ads that can alter customer expectations--you have an enormous capability to guide each potential customer's thinking about your entire industry. Which means that search branding, done right, can be used to shape yourself into a true industry leader.
The search research cycle, in other words, works through the same forces that made household names out of brands like Google, Band-Aid and Xerox. When the people learn about a new product and a brand name in tandem, the brand name goes straight to top-of-mind. That's just as true for a new customer learning about an industry through search, as it's true in any other consumer-learning arena. And it explains the unique power of being in search at every phase of the buy-cycle, from marketing to sales.
The importance of search engine marketing--beyond just search engine sales--means that advertisers need to look at early buy-cycle keywords a lot more seriously than they might be doing now. It also means advertisers need to look into crafting ad copy and landing pages that are uniquely developed for research-phase searchers, just as they're currently doing for later buy-cycle searchers. For a lot of players in search, that might also mean taking a new look at what search engine marketing (and not just sales) really means. And if you're an advertiser, it means considering your marketing options through search--beyond your sales options through search--before your competitors beat you to the punch.