Just a few years ago, when asked "How do you drive traffic to your website", many companies would name banner ads as their main marketing medium for increasing online revenues. In an effort to increase brand awareness, companies spent thousands of dollars on obnoxious banner advertisements on high profile websites in an effort to cement their reputation as the number one company or product in their industry.

It didn't seem to matter that very few people actually clicked on these flashing, animated billboards. What did matter was Internet users saw these ads wherever they went on the web; there was a sense of pride and vanity from having your company's banner appear more often than your competitors.

Fast-forward to the present day and banner ads have fallen from grace with few companies buying banner ads purely for the sake of one-upmanship on the competition. In their stead, search engine marketing has become the medium of choice for companies looking to increase website exposure.

With the steady growth of search engine use, thanks in part to the technology and reliability offered by Google, companies already know that obtaining top positioning on the search engines will result in qualified traffic to their website and increased online revenues. However, there is a new phenomenon rising up to replace the battle once seen with banner advertising; Search Engine Vanity.

Search Engine Vanity occurs when a company seeks to obtain number one search engine positioning for the simple purpose of one-upmanship on their competitors. Traffic data, click-thru-rates and conversions are all secondary considerations compared to the desire to ensure that when an Internet user searches for a product or service, their company website is listed above that of their competitors.

Whether it's Apple and Dell vying for the top ranking for "computers" or Wal-Mart and Netflix battling for the number one spot for the phrase "dvd rental"; these and other companies know that being #1 on the search engines can be vitally important when demonstrating market share to the press or investors.

Companies can spend millions of dollars each year in advertising and branding. A single 60 second Super Bowl ad will cost you over $2 million and have little discernable benefit compared to the same amount spent on a series of ads elsewhere. Yet the prestige offered to a company that advertises during the Super Bowl cannot be denied.

The same holds true when it comes to search engines such as Google, Yahoo or MSN. Companies are acutely aware that being highly positioned within these search engine results will strengthen their brand and increase their credibility within their industry.

Take Alaska Airlines as an example, while they had great search engine exposure, with hundreds of search terms listed on the first page of the search engines, they knew that they needed to be in the top spot for "Alaska flights" if they were to solidify their position as the number one airline provider to Alaska. Being somewhere in the first 5 search engine listings, was perfectly adequate to drive traffic to their website, but the prestige of being the very first site listed would have an intangible benefit. By being the number one listed site on Google, Alaska Airlines would immediately position itself as the Google's favorite, automatically ensuring brand dominance. Number one on the search engines became the equivalent of a Super Bowl ad; your company's very presence signaled you were the best in your industry.

So are companies throwing money at search engine marketing for the sole purpose of being number one, with little regard to actual traffic and revenues generated? Has Search Engine Vanity taken over from common sense? Yes and no. More and more companies are seeing search engine marketing as the latest trend, something they must do because their competitors are already involved. They fear being left behind and are rushing to secure top positioning for the terms that they believe represent their brand.

A company such as IBM, that has spent many years and millions of dollars to ensure that their name is synonymous with "computers", knows that the Internet offers a new playing field with different perceptions. In their efforts to secure their brand, it is important that they "own" the term "computers" and hence invest a lot of effort to ensure that ownership is carried over to the search engine results.

However, like most companies you can be sure that IBM knows that the by-product of a number one position on the search engines is increased traffic and sales. With more than 500 million searches being carried out each day, being number one for a generic term or phrase not only increases brand awareness but also increases website traffic and ultimately, revenues. As Penny Oslund, Executive Director, EMBA Programs at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School put it, "we want to ensure that our OneMBA website is positioned above all other business schools to ensure the prestige of our program, the traffic will take care of itself".

So as search engine marketing becomes a valid and widely adopted marketing medium for companies of all sizes, not being positioned at the top of the listings is something business wish to avoid. Just as companies rushed in the mid 90's to secure a domain name that reflected their company image or brand, many businesses now seek to ensure that when the average Internet user searches at Google, it is their website that sits at the top of the pile, proudly announcing "Look at me, I am number one".


June 19, 2003





Internet marketing consultant Andy Beal has provided online marketing advice to thousands of companies including, Motorola, NBC, Lowes and Quicken Loans and is a trusted resource for The Washington Post, LA Times, Dow Jones, NPR and CNBC. Andy provides consulting services on search engine optimization, business blogging and online reputation management. Read his blog and request a free consultation at Marketing Pilgrim.








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