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."


There's also, of course, still chatter of a Yahoo-Microsoft partnership, which many experts believe is the only chance that Google could meet any significant competition. But even as Google reigns supreme, marketers stress the importance of not giving up on other engines. 


"There's a substantial percentage of people who haven't given up searching on Yahoo and MSN," McVeigh says. "However, because Google is constantly rolling out new and easy-to-use features, more and more advertisers are mistakenly making the choice to only advertise there."


At the very least, he points out, brands' should make sure that their high-value terms are on all the major engines. 


Mobile search is another trend that marketers thought would fly high this year. And, with the proliferation of Apple's iPhone and other Web-enabled mobile phones and devices, marketers are keeping their eyes on mobile search. However, some say 2009 is just not the year for the channel to truly blow up. 


"The iPhone has a killer application for mobile search right now, but no killer app for the advertisers," McVeigh says. "Mobile in general is improving more from the user perspective, but isn't quite there yet from the advertiser perspective."


Additionally, more marketers say they are lumping mobile search into their local search budgets. Murray says mobile really stresses the importance of local search because 80% to 90% of queries from mobile devices are local in nature. "Unless I'm killing time at the airport, I'm not browsing for a new car on my mobile phone," he says, "I'm looking for a gas station, a restaurant, a bank or something of that nature when I'm on the go."


Schwartz says the idea of advertisers moving more quickly into the mobile space is dependent upon mobile agencies and applications being able to deliver the same type of measurability available online.


"In the past, we saw more and more companies testing mobile campaigns because budgets were looser," he says, "As we get better at measuring the results of mobile marketing, I think we'll see more marketers try to embrace it in more interesting ways."


Agencies are beginning to stress integration now more than ever — not only with each component of a brand's marketing mix, but also with all of a brand's agencies.


"More and more, our clients are giving us full insight to their budgets and other agencies," Murray says. "Because of this, we can make sure that anything they're doing offline or in other online initiatives that are driving intent, that we're there to capture that intent via search."


Garner says generating returns is not a one-way street. "Search doesn't do it all," he continues, "You have to be ready to meet search intention through a landing page, compelling content and a specific call to action."


Murray adds that transparency and communication between agencies will synchronize marketing efforts and maximize the efficiency of all channels.


But perhaps more importantly, McVeigh says this type of integration can also save money. When search drives to a landing page, which prompts an e-mail capture, it's easy to see how search can impact other channels, he says. "Marketers are asking the tough question: 'How do we make this all work in unison and not as separate limbs from the same body?'" he explains. "You can't afford to spend that same money again and again, reacquiring those customers through paid search."


A down economy is no excuse for search campaigns to remain stagnant, especially with changes in so many industries, says McVeigh. "In every industry vertical there's been a pretty seismic shift in the way people are searching, even if the volume is still high," he says.


Many marketers still tend to stick with the status quo, Schwartz adds. "I'd urge marketers to continue to test new keywords, creative, landing pages and even new engines
and channels," he says. "Now is an opportunity to grow market share, steal customers away from competitors and try to build long-term value in your brand through the search channel."


Garner adds that research is key for today's search marketers. "Look at your natural results, your history of optimization, your traffic history and your analytics," he says. "Test as much as possible, and invest in where you send your visitors."


Though search is one of the few sectors still on the rise today, marketers need to remain realistic about clients' budgets and the economic reality of the year ahead. "I don't think innovation is going to be a core focus this year," Murray says. "No one is coming to us with a big pot of money they have lying around to try something new."


Because of its accountability, though, search should remain strong, he says. "This means search has a major seat at the table," he continues. "We've been saying for years that search deserves a seat, and guess what? Search now has it front and center in marketing plans and budgets." l


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