The Search Vineyard

Enough with articles on the 'search bubble.' Bubbles burst. Search engine marketing can best be viewed as a vineyard that's just now starting to bear fruit, with the best wine vintages yet to come.

The seeds were planted as the first search engines sprung up in the early to mid 1990s. At first, no one monetized search in any sophisticated way. The most experienced among search engine marketing firms, born in the mid to late 90s, largely predated the paid search market (and it's little wonder they specialized in natural search optimization).

GoTo, now Yahoo!'s Overture, looked at the nascent vineyard and said, "It's pretty, and the grapes are great, but why much grapes when we can be drinking wine?" That's the kind of innovation you'd expect from Californians. Google, young and eager to party, jumped in, sowed a few acres with Miracle-Gro, and helped take the early vintages mainstream.

The first harvests were an acquired taste. The masses were too accustomed to tap water and moss-bottled domestic brews. There were few surprises, few significant changes over time, and no one seemed all that thirsty.



It was in these watered-down times, around the same time the search vineyard was planted, that saw the arrival of online advertising, that golden, godly nectar of tequila. This was a welcome shot to liven things up. Yet instead of serving tequila as part of a margarita media mix, some people got a little too giddy downing straight Jose Kozmo, and they wound up hospitalized, or worse.

Others saw the hangovers, the bad dancing, the waking up in a strange bed with someone who you didn't know all that well. This was a turnoff, and it hurt tequila sales for awhile, but most have since learned how to drink responsibly.

Meanwhile, wine sales were growing. Some batches were a bit off - overly fermented, corked, too many tannins, or suffering from a lack of best practices and winemaking standards. Growing pains. Yet the market kept improving, as did the wine. Wine tasters soon discovered that wine could have a positive impact on everything else on their table.

Currently, it's really starting to get good, with more niche wineries, new local varietals, personalized wines, and the blending of different grapes. Better yet, the staggering innovations are ripening from so many different sources.

It might be helpful to explain where all this is coming from. "Such an extended metaphor is clearly a cry for help," you say.

You're right. It all started on a dark and chilly New York evening in early October, the night of Dynamic Logic's CrossMedia Forum 2004: Night of the Media Heavyweights, which assembled an all-star lineup from nearly every medium, along with representation from the American Association of Advertising Agencies and Advertising Research Foundation.

Michael Zimbalist, president of the Online Publishers Association (who this columnist respects immensely), represented the Internet. With recent estimates showing paid search comprising 40 percent of the online advertising market (far more than display ads and rich media combined), surely search would play a major role.

Alas, Zimbalist represented online publishers and focused on display ads, and search was hardly even alluded to the entire evening. It felt like search was the proverbial elephant in the room. Search is a medium in its own right. It's accountable, it can offer a massive and measurable impact on offline sales, and it had absolutely no representation that night. The horror! Perhaps the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) can have a seat at the table next year.

Reader, feel my pain. Every single panelist, Zimbalist included, spoke of push advertising. What all media present that night have in common is that they send ads to people who may or may not be interested in that company, product, service, or offer. With search - and this can't be stressed enough - the consumer seeks the advertiser. The online time an ad for a hotel displays is when someone looks for something travel-related.

Imagine NBC rejecting an ad for an incontinence reliever on "The Apprentice" because the ad isn't relevant enough to its viewers. The network couldn't make such a decision because it has little information to go on. Yet search engines do such screening and rejection constantly. Other media, ignore search at your own peril.

Reap this vineyard's bounty. Just don't cellar it - it's ready to pour now.

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