Navigating the Maze of Search Engine Marketing

Search engine marketing has always played a critical role in managing the visibility of a company’s online brand. However with the Internet becoming what is arguably today’s dominant medium, search engine marketing has also risen to become a key driver in a company’s overall brand strategy.Regrettably the maturity of the products and services that comprise search engine related disciplines come at a time when the industry has never been more complicated and difficult to navigate. Even though businesses today have many more options with regard to how they execute their search engine initiatives, I find that many marketing executives struggle more today with their online marketing strategies than they did a few years ago. In this week’s column I’ll share my opinions on the current state of the search engine marketing Industry. My experience with search engine marketing predates many in the field. I have been active online since the days of Arpanet, co-founded what was at the time the largest web development company in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, served as director of internet strategy for the world’s largest web-enablement firm and founded one of the top 50 interactive advertising agencies in the United States. My purpose in providing the resume excerpt is not to self-promote, but simply to make the point that I have been actively involved in the industry from its conception, watched it struggle through its adolescence of the boom and bust, and am now watching it get a second-wind with Web 2.0. While the Internet as a medium is far from being mature, it has most certainly evolved, and so have the methods for marketing your brand online. Last year alone I attended PubCon, the Blog Business Summit, the Search Engine Strategies Conference and a handful of other industry shows. While the messages communicated at these events made it clear that the industry has shown remarkable growth, made tremendous advances in sophistication, and has increased in the diversity of product/service offerings currently available, I question whether things are getting better or worse for the consumer. In talking regularly with many senior executives, marketing professionals and entrepreneurs one thing is clear. They are clearly not fluent in the area of search engine marketing. While these professionals understand the potential that search engine marketing holds for their businesses, they do not understand how to capitalize on it. In fact, many of the people I have spoken with are extremely frustrated at the amount of money they have invested in search initiatives without being able to develop an understanding of the medium such that they have not yet been able to develop a consistent winning strategy in this space. The major problems that exist within the search industry are tied to the fact that this is still an embryonic medium. There are only so many ways to purchase advertising in more mature mediums like radio or television. Contrast this with the numerous options available to consumers and businesses looking to purchase advertising on the Internet: search engine optimization, pay-per-click, pay-per-call, pay-per-acquisition, pay-per-post, sponsored advertising, themed advertising, Internet Yellow Pages, ezine ads, contextual advertising, ambedded advertising, pop-overs and pop-unders, banner serving networks, directory ads, content syndication, branded portals and microsites, e-mail marketing, link building, blogs and video blogs, podcasts, webcasts, social media, etc. Advertising mediums in the infancy of their lifecycle spit out new opportunities faster than you can shake a stick at, and worse yet, this happens with a plethora of inexperienced vendors lined-up to cut their teeth on the advertiser’s nickel. There is rarely a week that passes when I don’t speak to a company who has a horror story to tell about a search marketing company who over-promised and under-delivered and by the time the advertiser figured out what was going-on they had spent thousands of dollars with little to show for it. Another problem with the search industry is that Google currently controls most of the traffic. Combine Google’s dominant position with the fact that they will share little, if any, data with advertisers, and that they can change the rules of the game at any time. It brings new meaning to the term “flying blind.” However the issue of transparency within the search industry is not limited to Google. Most of the search engines play their cards very close to the chest as they try and establish a leg up in the market. Until there is competitive pressure brought to bear on Google the odds are stacked against the advertiser. I met with a client last week that was spending 50 pecent of their pay-per-click budget on Yahoo and MSN because it was recommended to them by their search marketing firm. The problem was that given the advertiser’s product line and target market, Yahoo and MSN would produce virtually no return for them.This is a big problem. The fact is that the Internet is the medium that can deliver the most velocity and biggest return on your marketing dollar. I also believe that this will continue to be the case as the dominance of the Internet medium will only continue to widen the gap over alternate mediums. Companies cannot afford not to allocate a substantial part of their advertising budget to online advertising, but until the medium matures it will behoove of them to make sure that they work with the best vendors who can keep up with the rapid pace of change in the industry.