How do you know you've made it? I'll offer this definition: you've made it when everyone else starts comparing themselves to you. Consider that sea change when portable music player manufacturers stopped talking about why they're the best MP3 player and started saying why they're the next iPod, or when every new search engine started saying, "We're like Google, but with (pick one: more results/better relevance/cuter homepage logos)."
Repeatedly, I keep running into companies saying how they distinguish their models from search marketing. At an iBreakfast conference in New York where I recently spoke, one executive from an online payment company said, "Paid search is not the only way to generate revenues," and then noted the option of offering paid content. I never had thought of comparing those two models before. At that event, I was introduced as someone who would talk about the "status quo," which I found an odd appellation for search marketing, but it was their way of labeling search as the model that no longer has anything to prove. It might not be entirely accurate, but I can live with the perception.
Another example of search marketing's perceived Goliath status comes from recent articles from an executive of an in-text advertising company that appeared in two other publications. In-text ads appear in the body of online content as specially highlighted words; when a user mouses over one of those words, an ad appears. What does in-text advertising have to do with search marketing?
I wouldn't have thought there was much of a connection, but a full 30 percent of one article by the executive described the history of search engine marketing and aimed to bolster that connection. Yet the article itself was about why advertisers should embrace in-text ads. I was puzzled. Searching for answers, I found one in an interview with that executive that ran one week earlier. He told the interviewer that the company was founded because search marketing only worked for the 5 percent of time online where people were searching, but the other 95 percent was underutilized in terms of advertising. In summary, a company was created because search was working great, but the rest of online advertising could deliver more bang for the buck. That's understandable enough; I covered this in a previous column, "The Five Percent That Matters." Why was this executive so determined to make a connection between search marketing and his business, which he described as being something completely different than search? This is where he donned his student of history mantle from the first article. In that column, as soon as he finished his exposition on the rise of search marketing, he chronicled the history of in-text advertising, dating back to 2004.
The gist is that both search engine marketing and in-text advertising were launched amid cries that the user experience would suffer, but true believers proved the doubting Thomases wrong and laid the foundation for a multibillion-dollar advertising channel.
There are two problems with the executive's argument. The first one, at least for readers of this column, should be familiar: search marketing doesn't readily compare with other media. Banner advertising parallels print, and online pre-roll video parallels TV, but search marketing, where advertisers reach consumers who explicitly express demand, doesn't readily mirror other channels. (Search isn't entirely an island, of course, but even the most closely related channels, such as direct mail, are considerably different.)
The second problem is that the executive neglects to consider any other type of marketing whose genesis might have appeared similar to the wobbly foundation of search marketing circa 1998 but did not materialize as a line item on major advertisers' budgets. Consider pop-up ads, for example. They haven't gone away, and when used properly they provide value to the consumer, but it's rare to see entire tracks devoted to the format at online advertising events, let alone a series of Pop-Up Strategies conferences. CBS advertised its fall lineup on 35 million eggs, but I can't imagine EggFusion, which printed the ads on the eggs, will need to fend off too many direct competitors.
If search really is sharing a seat with the grown-ups, that doesn't mean things get any easier. Most media are facing pressures of accountability and audience fragmentation; some will weather those pressures better than others. In this era of advertising, there's no tenure for media--no one gets a free pass. Search marketing does, however, benefit from being included increasingly earlier in marketers' plans, which gives it an extra edge it can use to demonstrate its value. That's an edge search marketing has earned by its track record, not by comparing itself to anyone else.