Search Engine Marketing (SEM) has changed considerably over the past ten years. When I first started, it was called Search Engine Submission. Then it became Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which was barely recognized as a marketing strategy.

At first, SEO was a simple webpage-tweaking service. It required due diligence in installing meta tags, sprinkling keywords in content (some would sprinkle more than others) and manually submitting to engines like WebCrawler, Yahoo!, Infoseek, Lycos, AltaVista and Excite. Looking back, it was a lot easier to achieve high rankings in those days compared to the complexity of organic SEO today.

By reverse-engineering the search algorithms, SEO techs discovered many different ways to quickly get high rankings. That began the white-hat / black-hat debate that continues to this day. One of my first clients, NASDAQ, required a strictly white-hat posture, and that early experience helped shape my philosophy on the ethical standards of SEO practice that I recommend to this day.

Back then, it was a cottage industry without certification, licensing or even a professional organization. We've come a long way since, as Search Engine Marketing has expanded its services to include paid inclusion and paid placement. Search marketing is now proven to be an accountable, cost-effective and multi-purpose advertising medium.

Many Flavors of SEM

As search engine marketing matured, it was found to be effective for branding, as well for direct response online sales and latent-action offline sales. SEM adoption has begun to reach critical mass as search engines develop new ways to tap additional inventory to meet advertiser demand. While search has become an authentic advertising medium, the industry is at a small pinnacle compared to where it will go in the future.

Concepts such as search personalization, vertical search engines, contextual search ads, and search behavioral targeting are just beginning to take hold. You need several crib sheets to distinguish between the many variations of search marketing and to select the best strategies that enhance your marketing ROI.

Personalization of Search

Search personalization can be promising for consumers and marketers alike. The premise is that by collecting user data such as frequently visited websites and past queries, a search engine can give users relevant results while delivering ads suited to their needs.

In order for personalization to be effective, user behavior has to be tracked over time, which may involve privacy and security risks. Thus, personalization technologies have some obstacles to overcome.

In a recent interview by Tom Saunders of, AskJeeves CEO Steve Berkowitz said, "the growth of identity theft and phishing scams could kill the promise of more personalized search technologies."

Another problem is the lack of disclosure when behavioral data is collected online. Legislators would like to see more disclosure in data collection as well as an opt-out option. HR 29 (Safeguard Against Privacy Invasions Act), a Bill with such provisions, has passed the House and was recently referred to the Senate for Committee review.

New information suggests personalization might work with a young demographic (age 13-24). A study conducted by Yahoo! and OMD Worldwide examined the needs expressed by members of the My Media Generation. Results show this demographic is attracted to interactivity and personalization, evidenced by their adoption of individual play lists for music, ringtones and wallpapers for phones, and avatar customization on instant messaging. This can be interpreted as evidence of a demand for personalization options as younger generations use the Internet and numerous self-programmable electronic devices.

Usefulness of Vertical Search

Vertical search engines are specialized search engines that contain only the content that is gathered from a select niche of the web. The thesis is that results will be more relevant to certain users because the context is narrowly defined. Organic SEO analysts should carefully select appropriate vertical search engines for submission, and these engines would also be a good source for targeted B2B paid search ads.

For instance, the science search engine Scirus is configured to only search science-specific content. Scirus searches over 200 million science-specific web pages, filtering out anything that is not science related. Users can quickly pinpoint information they are looking for and will likely be receptive to branding messages in the listings viewed.

Another vertical search engine, KnowIT, provides information for business and technology professionals. It filters out any content that is unrelated to the technology sector. The KnowIT index includes the following types of content: commercial, educational, news, analyst/research, blog, forum, industry association, government, and reviews/opinions. This allows specialized professionals to conduct deeper and more useful Internet searches for technology content, products and services. KnowIT hopes to change the way niche searchers use search engines by providing the ultimate search platform for the technology community.

Ubiquity of Contextual Search Ads

Contextual search ads (CSAs) appear on publisher site networks created through Google AdSense and Yahoo Publisher Network (beta). MSN has a contextual ad network, MSN Keywords (beta), scheduled to launch in October. Ask Jeeves also recently launched its own advertising network.

CSAs are displayed on publisher content pages across the web rather than on the Search Engine Results Pages. The text ad contains a link to the advertiser's landing page and is displayed in a banner or skyscraper ad module. Google automatically selects the number of ads to list in an ad block, depending on which ads produce the most revenue. The ads rotate, so sometimes you'll see a single ad in the banner space; other times there might be four text ads or a graphic ad.

Both Google and Yahoo! have distribution networks consisting of pre-approved publisher sites that agree to display ads and share revenue. Recently, CSA networks have been extended to include smaller, qualified publishers. Advertisers can select sites for ad display. Many publishers are happy campers because it's a great way to earn more ad revenue. Advertisers can be successful as well by requesting distribution to sites that deliver their target audience.

Feasibility of Behavioral Targeting

The search industry is exploring ways to combine behavioral targeting with search technology to meet user needs and client advertising objectives. Claria is developing RelevancyRank, a search technology that ranks sites based on behavioral indicators gathered by Claria adware. These indicators might be repeat visits, time spent on the site and user click rates.

Google could also measure these indicators through its personalization feature, but to my knowledge, Google does not currently include behavioral data in its algorithm. Claria claims that Google and the major search engines do not show the most relevant sites in their top results because of this lack of behavioral influence in the algorithms.

However, privacy issues are a concern as search engines continue to accumulate more personal information on individuals. With the wide range of personal services offered, including free email accounts, free desktop search and instant messaging, users are beginning to lose anonymity. It is well known that search engines use tracking cookies to serve more relevant ads to users, claiming that no personal information is tracked. But consumers are getting leery.

Do online users object to constant pitches and privacy invasion? Yes and no. We already mentioned the objections of consumers and legislators under Personalization of Search. But consumers have consistently indicated in focus groups that they don�t mind seeing online ads for products that are relevant to the content they are viewing. And it�s a fact that consumers will agree to view ads in exchange for a free product or service. A recent Forrester Research study reported that consumers are willing to give up some privacy when offered adequate value in exchange. The role of personalization and behavioral targeting in search marketing remains to be tested.

A New Search Landscape

The integration of search with huge depositories of commercial data is in its infancy, as only a fraction of the existing online content is actually searchable online from search sites. For instance, the current issues and archives of news sites cannot be searched from Yahoo! or Google, nor can those of many other publications. You can search from the publication's site but not directly from the search engines. That's because search engines don't own the rights to copyright-protected content. It will take a lot of negotiating before agreements can be made between search engines and publishers housing copyrighted material.

What will the new search landscape look like? If you ask Bill Gates, he'll tell you that search engines will be extinct once he comes out with future versions of Windows and Office. Enjoy this quote from the Fortune article by Fred Vogelstein:

Gates says that when Microsoft is done integrating search into future versions of Windows and Office, the world will look back at the way we are now "Googling" for stuff on the Internet and laugh. "The idea that you type in these words [in the search box] that aren't sentences and you don't get any answers, you just get back all these things you have to click on, that is so antiquated," he says, later adding, "We need to take search way beyond how people think of it today and just have it be naturally available, based on the task they want to do." For example, if you wanted to look up a factoid while you were writing a document, you might search for it without ever leaving Word.

Perhaps, Mr. Gates. In any event, I believe that search will change dramatically in ways that will give us more and better data to be accessed quickly and easily. Tomorrow's search systems will probably make today's search engines look as outdated as the search/find function on Windows.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
October 7, 2005

Paul J. Bruemmer has provided search engine marketing expertise and consulting services to prominent American businesses since 1995. As Director of Search Marketing at Red Door Interactive, he is responsible for strategizing and implementing search engine marketing activities within Red Door's Internet Presence Management (IPM) services.

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