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Strategy, not tactics, wins the search war

One thing that’s always bothered me about the search industry is how the terms “tactics” and “strategy” are used interchangeably by people who should know better. This confusion is so deep and widespread that the title of the industry’s most important trade show, SES (Search Engine Strategies), is 180 degree out of phase with what the show actually is: a show about Search Tactics, not about Search Strategy. As anyone who’s attended SES knows, the vast majority of information conveyed by panelists and pundits is tactical, not strategic. The focus is on “how to,” as in “how do I optimize my site?”, “how do I win a bidding war?”, “what keywords should I be buying?”, and hundreds of similar, low-level questions.

Sure, tactical knowledge is important, and that’s why green military recruits learn how to assemble and disassemble every part of their rifles during their first days at boot camp. But being able to accomplish this and other tactical tasks is just the beginning of a soldier’s education. To learn how to win a battle, a campaign, or a war, one must move far beyond mere tactical knowledge to the kind of strategic wisdom taught at military academies.

Unfortunately, in my view, the SES show is nothing more than a glorified, highly profitable boot camp, run by Search Tacticians, that does very little beyond imparting the most rudimentary information about what it actually takes to succeed at Search. This is why the same, tips-laden panels persist, year after year, hawking cheap tactical tips in expensive bottles labeled “strategy.”

Frankly, I’d love to see SES’s organizers practice a bit of truth in advertising, and re-title their show Search Engine Tactics, but I’m not taking bets on this happening any time soon, because it would be much harder to sell attendees and exhibitors on the idea of shelling out thousands of dollars for a handful of tactical tips they could read on blogs for free.

I would, however, really like to see a trade show called “Search Engine Strategies” that lived up to its name: a show that actually served up strategic principles and practices for agencies and in-house Search teams. Such a show would cater not to newbies just getting started with adwords, but to experienced marketers who realize that succeeding or failing at search isn’t just a nickel and dime parlor game, but a win-or-die struggle whose outcome directly affects their organization’s ultimate fate in the market.

So here are a few high-level sessions I think would be knock-outs at a real “Search Engine Strategies” show:

1. Don’t win the battle and lose the war

To a Search Tactician, Search is about keywords, CPC prices, SERP positions, and ROI. To a Search Strategist, Search is about building market share, crushing your competition, and winning in the long-haul. Many organizations run by Search Tacticians believe that they’re winning this battle, because their media management fees are low, keyword prices are affordable, conversion rates acceptable, and SERP positions are consistently above their competitors. Their campaigns might even be showing a decent profit. These same organizations receive a rude awakening when, after a period of months, it becomes clear to them that their market share, overall profitability, and long-term market viability have dropped precipitously because they were obsessed with battle-level decisions, instead of thinking about what it takes to win the long war. In most cases, these unfortunates are completely unaware that they’ve been defeated by a competitor who was thinking strategically.

2. Destroy your marketing silos before they destroy you

Most marketers pay lip service to the idea that their marketing efforts need to be integrated across all channels, but fall down totally when it comes to actual strategic planning of these efforts. In far too many organizations, an artificial, arbitrary wall has been erected between direct response marketing and traditional brand marketing, resulting in the misallocation of budgets, teams working at cross-purposes, and a complete failure to benefit from any synergies. Eliminating these barriers to success is a top-priority task for any CMO charged with rectifying an organization’s misfiring marketing efforts.

3. Your numbers may be killing you

The best laid plans of Search marketers can be completely undone by planning based on bad data. Web metrics are notoriously unreliable, offline conversions are often unknowable, and offline-online interaction effects are frequently ignored. Some SEM agencies even pride themselves on buying keywords in bundles (often called “portfolios,” as if this word had inherent merit) that fog reporting even further. Despite the fact that the Web is the most eminently measurable medium yet invented, we are all likely to live with data ambiguity for the foreseeable future, which will obviate all efforts to make marketing a thoroughly “scientific” process with precisely knowable inputs and outputs. Still, by triangulating multiple data sources and having a testing infrastructure in place, it is possible to minimize the influence of “dirty” data that can cause strategic search campaigns to run off the rails.

4. Practice the art of stealth

Did you know that there are competitors who, right now, are eating your lunch without you even knowing that they’ve approached within range of the table? These competitors have figured out how to use the advanced segmentation technologies provided by the engines to “fly their campaigns under the radar” in a way that is specifically designed to thwart your defenses. Unless you can respond with an equal level of strategic acumen, your search campaign (and perhaps your company) will be toast before too long.

These are just a few agenda items from my completely imaginary “Search Engines Strategies” conference. There are many other such items I’d like to see addressed, but sadly, we’ll never see such a show, for a very simple reason: there are neither enough sophisticated marketers who understand the difference between Strategy and Tactics, nor enough practitioners of Search Strategy to conduct all the seminars.

Search tacticians, on the other hand, are available by the truckload, and that’s why SES will probably be with us for a long time, despite the fact that this show really doesn’t serve up the information that enterprises really need to achieve victory at search.

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