Why is Search Marketing a “Dirty Secret?”

The BBC News Web site recently published an article on future trends in online advertising which contained a very interesting quote from a technology journalist named Tim Phillips. Phillips noted that paid placement search marketing is “the dirty secret of online advertising” that “does not get talked about a great deal.” A week or so later, the “dirty little secret” phrase turned up in a ClickZ article written by Hollis Thomases about how CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureaus) marketers are increasingly using search in lieu of traditional display advertising.

It might seem very strange, especially to those of us who work in search marketing, to hear our industry described as a “dirty secret.” What we do is certainly no secret to the thousands of attendees at conferences like Search Engine Strategies or DM Days each year, or to the thousands of readers of online publications such as DMNews, SearchEngineWatch, and others. If search marketing is a “dirty secret,” it’s a very poorly kept one.

What authors Phillips and Thomases are alluding to, however, is the way our industry is perceived by the advertising establishment. This establishment evolved long before there was a Google, a World Wide Web or even a personal computer. Most people working in “the real world” of advertising surely know that search engines exist, but their level of understanding of the way that search campaigns actually work, at either the tactical or strategic levels, is either undeveloped or nonexistent. When you talk to these people about Adrank, search algorithms, or predicted CTR, their eyes glaze over.

Even if they do understand it, the ad establishment tends to look down on search marketing (and direct marketing generally), because, to them, it isn’t as interesting as branded advertising. No glitzy award ceremonies exist for great search campaigns (what would we call them? “The Searchies?”), our people, even such local heroes as Matt Cutts and Danny Sullivan, are invisible at Cannes, at the Upfronts, and in the pages of publications like Advertising Age. Consequently, although search marketing is a multibillion dollar field growing at leaps and bounds, we’ve got a “Rodney Dangerfield Problem,” meaning “we get no respect.”

Mix this low visibility with the tone and tenor of trade press articles written by journalists who also don’t know much about search engines and the situation gets worse. Such articles, when they appear, tend to focus on sensational aspects of our industry such as the unethical antics of “blackhat” SEOs, the specter of click fraud, or the fear of sky-high keyword prices. These issues are important, but they’re not representative of the full spectrum of issues and concerns we struggle with every day.

Let’s face it: we in the search marketing industry can’t trust outsiders, either the advertising establishment or the mainstream media, to define us. As an industry, we’ve got to do a better job of defining what we do. But we also need to go beyond simple PR if we’re going to truly lead the evolution of advertising into its next stage. There are a myriad of tough issues that touch upon our industry. Privacy is one of them, given the recent fiasco arising from AOL’s release of search query data from more than 650,000 of its users. Click fraud is another critical issue that, unless addressed by the industry itself, threatens to undermine confidence in search marketing and perhaps even bring it within range of the long arm of government regulation. If we don’t address these issues, who will?

Equally important are public education and training. The search engines, including Google, are active in this area and more general-level public seminars are happening to educate the business world about search marketing’s power. Organizations such as SEMPO (the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization) and the DMA are working to create more and better training materials for new entrants to the market. Training is key, because this industry is short-staffed, mainly because the skill sets required for practitioners are so specialized. Someday soon, we may see courses in search marketing added to undergraduate and graduate business courses, but none of us can afford to wait until that day.

As an industry, we have a lot of heavy lifting ahead. Until we in the industry can do a better job of telling our own story to the wider world, search marketing will remain “a dirty secret” that will harm the chances of this industry to grow and assume its proper role in the overall marketing mix.

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