Letter: Search Is Consumer Behavior

Thank you for continuing to include articles on interactive and search marketing in your publication. I specifically enjoyed reading Bill Wise and Dave Pasternack's May 16 online piece titled, “What’s Search Engine Marketing Now?”

I agree with their premise wholeheartedly. The world of search has evolved and defining search is “one of the most crucial issues for the near future” as it will allow marketers to truly harness its power.

Mr. Wise and Mr. Pasternack define search as “the area of services that knows the specific thing you want to do, learn or see, with a great amount of precision. It brings you the best possible resource or resources you need to accomplish that goal, out of an otherwise unmanageable bevy of choices. And it does it very, very quickly.”

This definition is a step in the right direction toward acknowledging that search is more than just a list of relevant Web pages. However, I believe that the framework here is off.

Allow me to propose the following definition. Search is consumer behavior. Period.

Search describes how people make decisions. First, they decide what they need/want to look for. Then, they seek all available choices/outcomes (both known and unknown.) Once gathered, they weigh them against past experience before picking the one that is right for them at that given time. These decisions could be anything from what video to watch to what computer to buy to what the best resource is for a chronology of World War II.

From a marketing standpoint, Search is not a platform. It describes the process by which consumers consume. Search engine marketing is a platform. It describes the process of garnering placement for a marketer via search engines.

With that in mind, I believe the phrase “search engine marketing” no longer accurately represents the opportunity afforded by using search for marketing purposes. As Mr. Wise and Mr. Pasternack point out, you can talk about search without referring to search engines. I believe it’s time to talk about search marketing without referring to search engines. And, eventually, I think we’ll be able to talk about search marketing without referring to the Internet.

Search engine marketing allows you to assess what consumers are looking for based on keywords input via direct query or inferred from content/context of a particular Web page. In order to best use this data for marketing targeting purposes, we have to dive deeper into the when, why and how they are looking by marrying this information with other data points that give us insight into the true mindset of the consumer.

As such, I define search marketing as the platform by which marketers connect with consumers by understanding their behavior and providing customized messages and offerings based on the information they are seeking.

As for how marketers can best understand consumer behavior, the answer does not lay in keyword data alone. All dynamic information provided and actions taken by consumers must be considered (i.e. reg. data, IP location, browsing history, etc.). Only then can marketers customize messages and offers effectively.

We are already starting to see such convergence in online media and marketing with Search at its center. Companies that were once pure-play search engines are now becoming portals and offering portal-like marketing opportunities. Witness Google’s expansion into e-mail and display advertising.

Meanwhile, the top portals have made significant investments in search; i.e. MSN, which recently built its own search algorithm and announced the pending launch of adCenter, which will combine keyword data with registration information. And Yahoo, which has fully integrated Overture into its business with plans to layer past Web surfing activity on top of keyword data.

The implications of this for marketers are incredible. Ten years ago, if you wanted to reach a defined audience with a specific message you had to rely on the content that the consumers were consuming as an indicator of their interests, demographic/psychographic traits, etc. Now you can rely directly on consumer behavior as an accurate reflection of not just who the consumer is but what he/she is looking for at that very moment.

This helps explain why search engine marketing represents 40 percent of online ad spending (per PWC/IAB). And, as we move away from search engine marketing to what I’m calling search marketing, I believe we’ll see this number continue to grow. In fact, per my definition, search marketing shouldn’t even have its own piece of the pie. Rather, it should be the strategy by which online marketers plan and execute the various placements that make up that pie (e-mail, display, keyword text, sponsorships, etc.).

And that’s just the Internet world. Eventually all media and marketing (on and offline) will be tied to search. Why? Because search is consumer behavior.

On the media side, in order to compete for share of mind and time in this short-attention-span, immediate-gratification-seeking world, content providers will need dynamic indexing (what some call “search”) functionality. Whether it’s TV, print, radio or the Internet, if a publisher or network wants to keep and/or attract an audience it will have to provide content on demand (and relatively quickly). And that’s at a bare minimum.

Content providers will differentiate themselves by offering personalization features such as content based on previously indicated interests and activity. On the Internet, features like these are now commonplace (i.e. MyYahoo, MyJeeves, MyESPN, etc.). In the offline world, we are just starting to see the penetration of Search. Tivo is a great example. It allows you to watch what you want, when you want it (not to mention suggestions for other programming you might like based on your prior selections). Thus, it should come as no surprise that rumors have Google and Yahoo looking to acquire it.

On the marketing side, the old days of identifying a target audience, customizing a message to those folks and finding ad space or delivery methods that are most likely to reach them are over. Search takes the guesswork out of the equation. It allows you to target folks based on their interests at a particular time, customize a message based on what they’ve indicated they are looking for and take them to a destination that will allow them to fulfill their need immediately.

The emergence and convergence of search are still in their nascent phases. If my definitions and extrapolations hold true, the marketing world in 10 years will more closely resemble the scene in “Minority Report” where Tom Cruise is walking through the mall than anything we have today. Let’s just hope it’s less intrusive.

And, for what it’s worth, I think it will be. For all the money they’ve made and ground they’ve broken, today’s search superpowers (Google, MSN and Yahoo) have always demonstrated a commitment to one thing above all else – user experience. Why? Because search is consumer behavior. And as long as that is at the forefront, there will be value for consumers and marketers alike.

Best Regards,

Aaron Goldman, Director, Strategic Partnerships, Resolution Media,


[email protected]

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