The Mystery of Search Engine Marketing

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My experience with Search Engine Marketing predates many in the field. In the mid 80’s I co-founded what was at the time the largest web development company in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. My partner and I later sold that company to the largest web enablement firm in the world where I stayed on for a period of time as their Director of Internet Strategy before leaving to found one of the top 50 Interactive Advertising Agencies in the United States. At last weeks 2006 Search Engine Strategies Conference in San Jose, California it was clear that the industry has shown remarkable growth and made tremendous advances in sophistication as well as in the diversity of product and service offerings currently available, but I question whether things are getting better or worse for the consumer.

In talking regularly with many senior executives, marketing professionals and entrepreneurs one thing is clear…they are clearly not fluent in the area of search engine marketing. While these professionals understand the potential that search engine marketing holds for their businesses they do not understand how to capitalize on it. In fact, many of the people I have spoken with are extremely frustrated at the amount of money they have invested in search initiatives without being able to develop an understanding of the medium such that they have not yet been able to develop a consistent winning strategy in this space.

The major problems that exist within the search industry are tied to the fact that this is still an embryonic medium. There are only so many ways to purchase advertising in more mature mediums like radio or television. Contrast this with the numerous options available to consumers and businesses looking to purchase advertising on the internet: Search Engine Optimization, Pay-Per-Click, Pay-Per-Call, Pay-Per-Acquisition, Sponsored Advertising, Internet Yellow Pages, Ezine ads, Contextual Advertising, Embedded Advertising, Pop-overs and Pop-unders, Banner serving networks, Directory Ads, Link Farms, video ads, webinars, etc. Advertising mediums in the infancy of their lifecycle spit out new opportunities faster than you can shake a stick at, with inexperienced vendors cutting their teeth on the advertiser’s nickel. There is rarely a week that passes when I don’t speak to a company who has a horror story to tell about a search marketing company who over-promised and under-delivered and by the time the advertiser figured out what was going-on they had spent thousands of dollars with little to show for it.

Another problem with the search industry is that Google currently controls most of the traffic. Combine Google’s dominant position with the fact that they will share little if any data with advertisers and that they can change the rules of the game at any time and it brings new meaning to the term “Flying Blind.” However the issue of transparency within the search industry is not limited to Google. Most of the search engines play their cards very close to the chest as they try and establish a leg up in the market. Until there is competitive pressure brought to bear on Google the odds are stacked against the advertiser. I met with a client last week that was spending 50% of their Pay-Per-Click budget on Yahoo and MSN because it was recommended to them by their search marketing firm. The problem is that given the advertisers product line and target market Yahoo and MSN would produce virtually no return for them…This is a big problem.

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