Search Answers Ads' Woes

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Consumers love search - and they don't care whether the results are paid ads or not.


Fifty-six percent of Internet users don't know the difference between natural search and paid search, according to a June-issued Harris Interactive study for search analytics firm icrossing. This means one out of two online consumers cannot distinguish between editorial and advertising - troubling for many, but heartening to marketers.


That said, the icrossing report noted that 54 percent of frequent Google users know the difference between paid and natural listings. But only 42 percent of repeat Yahoo users could tell them apart.


Whatever the level of awareness, studies confirm that consumers continue to click their way to finding companies, products, people and news. Few reports surface of consumer angst with search advertising.


"I kind of hope that people do other things than spend their time in front of the computer," said Craig Nevill-Manning, New York-based director of engineering at Google. "We haven't completely become a way of life, but I believe it has become a habit for people ... they have a question and they go to Google."


Not all of them, but many do. Three out of five searches online are on Google, one out of four on Yahoo and one out of 20 on MSN, according to Internet monitoring service Hitwise. Another home and work study from Nielsen//NetRatings claims that Google attracted 47 percent of searches in June - 2.03 billion - and Yahoo 22 percent. MSN had 12 percent, AOL 5 percent and MyWay 2 percent.


As for growth, AOL and Ask Jeeves grew 15 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in this year's second quarter versus the first, Nielsen//NetRatings said. Google grew 6 percent, and Yahoo 9 percent. Only MSN lost 4 percent.


But search is fungible, as the weaker engines are finding. Consumers will search wherever it is more convenient and the results are relevant. Branding is as central to this exercise as add-ons from search companies.


Search companies are doing overtime to diversify their offerings and generate buzz. Google recently added flexibility to its AdWords program; added book search; fended publisher protests over digitizing books via Google Print; and debuted a program that lets advertisers pick sites. It also added local directions to mobile devices; launched Google Earth to combine satellite imagery, maps and search; and increased e-mail storage in its Gmail accounts to 2 gigabytes.


Similarly, Yahoo expanded job search to free listings; enhanced mobile search; retooled Yahoo Mail; split commercial and research searches; and transitioned the acquired Overture brand to Yahoo Search Marketing.


Also, AOL expanded video search, Become.com added news search, FindWhat.com and espotting rebranded into the consolidated Miva, Dogpile redesigned to emphasize metasearch, Blowsearch launched a click-fraud fighter, InfoSpace added MSN results and MSN debuted its own desktop search functionality like Google.


In a sense, the history of search is the history of Yahoo, Google, Ask Jeeves, AltaVista and Lycos. While other unmentioned engines diversified into all-purpose portals and then vanished, few besides Yahoo have retained their relevance as search engines.


Google, too, stepped out of its comfort zone, but it retained its positioning as the search engine of first choice. With a home page that's as minimalist as Apple Computer's Mac and iPod machines, Google charges advertisers for serving relevant AdWords ads next to organic results that pull up. Its AdSense program serves relevant ads next to contextual content on other sites.


Those two ad products sparked other innovations. Web search led to search by image, discussion groups, local search, maps and mobile. Consumers also can comparison shop on Froogle, read the aggregated news at Google News, send e-mail through Gmail and trawl oceans of literary content via Google Print and Google Scholar.


Google's design approach is intentionally constrained. This is one reason the site attracts the traffic it does. Fewer images mean quicker loading for consumers short of time and patience.


"If you've got things flashing at you from all directions, it's more difficult to focus on the job at hand," Nevill-Manning said. "By keeping things very, very simple, we just make life a little easier, a little bit more relaxed to people. Basically, it allows them to cut through the clutter."


Google cuts through a lot of clutter: It searches 8 billion Web pages. You may not find a needle in a haystack, but you'll find it on Google. Or on Yahoo or MSN's updated search functionality or on Ask Jeeves using its Teoma technology.


Think about the technology and user-friendly features these companies have incorporated to make direct marketing more effective and acceptable to jaded consumers.


"The search engine is not about providing information. It's about providing links to information," said Talmadge O'Neill, co-founder of Smarter.com, a Monrovia, CA-based comparison-shopping service.


No doubt consumers and marketers sometimes worry about the data security on search engines in this age of breaches and scams. The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization estimates that one in five pay-per-click online ads is counterfeit.


There's also the worry of click fraud. Predictive analytics software provider SPSS Inc. fears that click fraud may cost businesses $1.1 billion, up from $800 million last year.


"In terms of click-fraud detection, this is once again where small businesses fall down because your typical small business or medium-size business is not using back-end software on their Web sites that track results, visitors and IP addresses to show where your people are coming from," said Bob Cefail, chairman of In Touch Media Group Inc., a paid search facilitation company in Clearwater, FL. "There are inexpensive solutions like Hitslink that show, for $20 a month, when you're getting consistent click fraud going on because they'll show you the number of times IP addresses are coming up over and over again."


Google's stated mission is to organize the world's information. Such brio has alarmed even Microsoft Corp., which was the technology "capo di tutti i capi" - boss of all bosses - of the 1980s and '90s. For example, Google's new desktop toolbar now can search files on a user's computer - an encroachment on Microsoft's turf. And - few know this - the "I'm Feeling Lucky" tab on the Google home page doubles as a Web browser. Try typing in "CNN" and see what happens. No need to add "www" or ".com."


"You don't get the search results back at all," Nevill-Manning said. "You just get taken directly to search result No. 1. And that's one of the things that some of our users really love. Often, especially if users have got the [Google] toolbar installed, they can get to the site much more quickly using that even if they're not doing a Google search. They just want to get to a Web site. Typing in 'CNN' and clicking on 'I'm Feeling Lucky' involves much less typing than going to www.cnn.com."


Other search engines continue to grow under and beyond Google's shadow. Yahoo, for instance, has spread its risks evenly. Second-quarter revenue jumped 51 percent on a comparable quarter basis, and operating income was up 75 percent. That performance was attributed to growth in its search marketing and brand advertising businesses.


Ask Jeeves was sold recently to Internet pure-play giant InterActive Corp. The search engine's mascot - the starchy butler to a bumbling master in P.G. Wodehouse's novels - is a Jeeves slimmed down after a series of workouts in the hardscrabble search engine arena.


Marketers of all hues have these companies to thank for the somewhat altered attitudes to advertising online. And that's why it is important for them to master search - the face of advertising today and tomorrow.


"Ultimately, if the user can come to our search engine and be equally excited to have ads served to them as well as information about the Web and be indifferent, that's the experience that we get some of the time, but not all of the time," said Paul Gardi, executive vice president at AJinteractive. "I think that benefits users and advertisers, and the Internet can deliver that."


For more articles from The Direct Marketer's Essential Guide to Search Engine Marketing, visit www.dmnews.com/search .


A PDF of the guide is available at: http://www.dmnews.com/pdffiles/semguide.pdf


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