Search is a silver lining

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Smart marketers have always known that when they need to see strong ROI and measurable results, search engine marketing (SEM) is one channel that can offer a smooth ride toward those goals. Even with today's rocky economic environment, in which marketing budgets are pinched and competition to stand out in the online space is fierce, search has stayed fairly balanced, thanks to its accountability — making it one of the most recession-proof marketing channels out there right now.

According to the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO)'s most recent State of Search Marketing study, released in March, search spending totaled more than $13.5 billion in 2008, the bulk of which — 88% — was spent on paid search. And, while the upswing in search spending is expected to be tempered by the challenging economy, search is still growing and is expected to be $19.8 billion strong by 2011. Clearly, while the search business faces challenges, the recession is not affecting it as drastically as other sectors. 

"While we're seeing information that shows that search growth is slowing, it is still growing, whereas other channels are absolutely shrinking," says Mark Schwartz, managing partner at digital agency Steak.

Michael McVeigh, associate director of strategic analysis with the search engine marketing group at Zeta Interactive, agrees, saying that search is "well-conditioned to weather changes in the economy."

He adds that part of the reason for this phenomenon is that advertisers who, before the recession, hadn't fully embraced search or didn't value it, now flock to agencies in droves, saying search is where they want their marketing dollars. "The economy lit a fire, so [marketers] are moving towards [search] much faster now," he explains. 

Also helping search marketing's fate is the fact that many marketers are pulling those same dollars out of traditional advertising that isn't as trackable. 

"We've had clients say they had TV or print campaigns they were going to run, but now they'd rather run a brand campaign on search," says Robert Murray, CEO of search agency iProspect. "If people are looking for increased efficiency and accountability for their media dollars, by definition more and more dollars are going to search."

The companies scaling back, Murray adds, are the ones that already do the majority of their advertising online and have maxed out their search budgets.
"It doesn't mean search is any less efficient, it just means companies need to cut spend in general," he explains. 

Since the recession began, Murray continues, he's seen a renewed interest in search engine optimization (SEO), or natural search, in which online content is optimized so that a brand's Web site, video, image, blog or social media initiative is more likely to show up in natural search results. 

"Seventy percent to 80% of consumers' clicks still happen within natural search results," says Rob Garner, strategy director of search at search agency iCrossing. "So if you're maxing out your paid search budget, it makes a lot of sense to think longer term to take advantage of that search traffic."

Unlike a cost-per-click (CPC) paid search campaign, there is no incremental cost with SEO, aside from the initial optimization of content. This becomes increasingly appealing when budgets are tight.

Another plus, Murray points out, is having the ability to appear more than once in search results, both paid and organic. "We could have a client's site in the results as a [paid] listing, but also have video and image content from third party social media sites to promote the brand in the natural search results," he says, "So I could have multiple brand touchpoints on a search results page because of that."

The influence of search results from sites such as Facebook and MySpace, as well as blogs and video, is the reason social media is also in the spotlight when it comes to search, say experts. 

"Social media in its essence is very search-friendly, in the way the sites are constructed," Murray says. "Rich and user-generated content tends to interact with the engines very well."

In this way, Garner explains, social media has changed the nature of natural search. "There's less of a technical barrier to get pages to rank," he explains. "Marketers are now setting up content strategies and using their audience to create that content and engaging them in conversation around it in various interesting ways."

With major engines Google, Yahoo and Microsoft beginning to experiment with rich elements within paid search ads and integration between search and display, marketers are also noticing increased opportunities for brands looking for unique online ad options. 

"We've already seen what images and video can do in natural search results," Garner says. "If images pop up on screen, there's an obvious shift in eyeballs, so I think we'll see more of those assets available in paid search as well."

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