Commentary

In Search of Roots In Bonita

In the Everglades, there are mangrove trees by the water with some of their roots entirely exposed, as if the trees are searching for a spot to anchor them. While touring the Everglades during the Search Insider Summit this week, I found these trees offered a fitting metaphor for the search industry.

Does it matter if we know where to anchor our roots? That question was first inspired by a conversation I had with Erik Engman from Grainger and fellow Search Insider columnist Gord Hotchkiss during the first night of the Summit. The conversation that night was actually about history, not search.

We noted that when walking down a city street just about anywhere in Europe, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by its history. Some cities have been razed and bombed to oblivion, but even sections built anew tend to acknowledge that many people have come before you.

It's hard to feel that in the United States. For the most part, there's no trace of the previous civilization that inhabited the country, and few of the older cities show signs of their 18th- and 19th-century origins, with some exceptions such as Philadelphia and Boston. More often, you hear of cities with a bizarrely constricted sense of historical perspective. Where I grew up in southern Westchester County, north of New York City, an old house is from the 1940s or '50s. In Dallas, an old house dates back to the 1980s. In Las Vegas, old homes date back to the Clinton administration. In such places, it can be hard to have a vision for the future when there's no sense of the past to hang on to.

For search engine marketing, this means we have few precedents to guide us. The best case study for this factor is Google's acquisition of DoubleClick. Should that acquisition change how marketers, publishers, and agencies relate to Google? Should Google spin off any parts of DoubleClick that don't fit as easily into the Googleplex architecture? Do consumers need to understand more about how their data's being used? Does the government need to get involved?

Note that I'm not saying any of those questions merit a definitive "yes" as a response. But they're questions that are harder to answer given how nascent a business we're in.

The lack of grounding also affects how search marketing firms plan for the future. Is their value proposition all about their expertise with auction-based and/or keyword-based media? Do they fall back on their relationships with the engines? Do they assimilate the best of both of those angles and then follow the engines wherever they go, buying media -- and perhaps optimizing content -- for the TV, Xbox, and any device and channel imaginable? Or is there something bigger than all of this, with agencies valued for the customer intelligence and business strategy they provide?

Google CEO Eric Schmidt offered up a bit of a challenge to those of us trying to grapple with all these questions at the Web 2.0 Expo last month. Responding on stage to questions from John Battelle, Schmidt said, "So in doing this strategic analysis, we looked at text ads, display ads (banner ads, as you know them), we looked at radio, bought a company there [dMarc], television, we're doing a series of trials there, acquired YouTube...You put all that together and you think, what would the advertising customer like?.... They'd like a single way in which they can see ads and then have the computer do the allocation for them."

If that is the future, then most, if not all, agencies are history. Yet given how agencies at their best are about strategy, understanding clients' businesses, and building relationships between marketers and their customers, it's unlikely the computer will ever be able to replace all that, or even put many people out of work (media managers who do nothing but manage media to meet easily measurable campaign goals will be affected the most).

Overall, the lack of historical context has its upsides. In the U.S., it has fostered a culture of entrepreneurialism. It's the idea that you can start from scratch, wing it, and emerge all the more successful for it. That lack of context might just be all the perspective we need, leading us to focus more on our branches than our roots.

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