Danny Sullivan's wide-ranging keynote address at Search Engine Strategies San Jose prodded several raw nerves in the industry, sparing neither search marketers nor the search engines themselves, reports Andrew Goodman.
A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, August 2-5, 2004, San Jose, CA.
Search Engine Strategies (SES) veterans have long recognized the even-handedness, timeliness and breadth of the material presented at the conferences. The continued growth in attendance testifies to the wisdom of the strategy of offering a little something for everyone, and constantly gauging audience interest in various topics and points of view.
When it comes to the keynote address, though, we get a glimpse of what Danny Sullivan really thinks of the state of the search engine marketing (SEM) industry, and it's always a treat. Sullivan spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the brand-new McEnery Convention Center in downtown San Jose. He noted that 150 people attended the first conference in 1999. Today, some SES dates attract ten times that number, with four stops a year in North America alone.
Thanks to the prolonged Google pre-IPO quiet period, recent unflattering media portrayals of search engine marketing, and bubbling controversy about a fledgling industry association called SEMPO, you could have cut the tension in the air with a knife as attendees arrived at SES. Sullivan broke it with his feisty address.
Some veteran attendees I spoke to afterwards felt that this keynote was more controversial than usual. Newcomers, by contrast, sensed an animus in various speeches and conversations that week, but couldn't quite fathom what it was all about.
One tech-industry CEO observed that the source of many of the current machinations in the SEM industry seemed to be about relatively small service firms trying to block entry of even smaller firms. In their eagerness to be seen as "respectable," he implied, some established SEM firms forget their own humble origins, and also seem unaware that much larger ad agencies seek to crush them by using similar tactics (essentially cartel behavior and planting the seeds of "FUD" about ethical status SEM industry pioneers). In this observer's eyes, the SEM industry may fall victim to a "be careful what you wish for" scenario as it matures out of the "back bedroom."
It was this theme of respectability--or lack of it--that provided some of the background context for Sullivan's keynote. He railed against a blog entry by well-known business author Seth Godin that argued, in part: "Lucking into (and it is luck) the top slot of a great word on Google is not a business plan. It's superstition. It's blind faith." It goes without saying that Godin speaks from little experience, having never spent any time in the professional SEM trenches.
But he's right that there are too many bad apples in our field for comfort, and it's difficult to completely discount the opinion of a man who popularized the idea of permission marketing, and later chastised companies for not living up to its ideals. Those who scolded Godin forget that he went on to say: "If you want to grow your business, you need a reliable and scalable and dependable way to spend time and money and have it turn into traffic and revenue. In the real world, companies do that with real estate and with advertising. Online, it's about adwords and site design." Is he wrong? "I hope I can rank high" is not a business plan. What's the backup plan if you don't?
Practitioners of the so-called "black art" of search engine optimization (SEO) are accustomed to being routinely slandered, anyway. Remember when we were all supposed to just read that short how-to article in Webmonkey for the answers? Mercifully, after ranking in the top three on Google for the phrase "search engine optimization" for several years, that "tutorial" has now dropped to #14. (Perhaps Google doesn't like it because it now triggers pop-ups.) Lest we forget, the author of that piece, Paul Boutin, also referred to "dubious experts" and advised readers to "avoid the snake oil." He went on to recommend several credible resources for search engine marketing information, such as Search Engine Watch, I-Search [now SEM 2.0”, Rank Write Roundtable [now High Rankings Advisor”, and Webmaster World.
It's not just us. All advertising and marketing people have been taking their share of guff for the past half-century, ever since advertising executives were broad-brushed as "hidden persuaders." (For his part, Godin's latest schtick is that companies should spend little or nothing on marketing and plow that money back into product development, soft innovation and remarkable service that goes "straight to an edge." The SEM industry should take note. Don't just tell people you're wonderful and different. Be wonderful and different.)
In castigating the news media for inaccurate reporting about search engine marketing, Sullivan recalled that several years ago, pundits predicted the demise of search engine optimization and related service firms, either because search engines would get wise to their tactics or because the preponderance of search listings would become paid.
Although it can't be denied that SEO has taken some severe body blows in terms of the proportion of listings on search engine results pages that are now paid for, there is no disputing possibly the most important bullet point in Sullivan's presentation: "it didn't die." Nor does Sullivan expect it to die anytime soon.
Because advertising as a whole is not a growing industry, he argued, the growth of search engine marketing will inevitably involve a continued effort to increase its share of corporate marketing and advertising budgets at the expense of other media. That leads to the overarching message of Sullivan's talk, which I'll save to the end (keynote reviewers need to use suspense, too).
Next, Sullivan turned his fire-hose on the intransigent current behaviors of major search engines. While pointing hopefully to the return of a "four-crawler" environment (with four leading, regularly-updated brand-name spider engines for consumers to choose from (Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves/Teoma, and MSN), he saw little to celebrate in such an environment if certain deficiencies aren't remedied.
He presented a webmaster's wish list that included features like warnings of shifting algorithms and index changes; some type of "express line' for accredited webmasters to report spam to the engines; agency-style commissions for selling paid search listings (Sullivan congratulated those few paid-SEM consulting firms who can survive on service fees alone, but felt it unfair that they must do so); and in general, "a partnership in attitude on both the paid and free sides."
Using his own search for a Radio Flyer Wagon for his son as an example, Sullivan also addressed some of the continued shortcomings in the user's search experience, implying that spammy results could be reduced with a comprehensive implementation of better search engine cooperation with accredited SEM firms, and a drive towards standards in the SEM industry. In this example, retailers without physical local brick-and-mortar presences were using misleading geographic keywords to improve their rankings. The end result: an annoyed user.
Many of the problems that have faced search engines have been taken to heart by designers of various open-source and private-group search engine technologies and protocols. Many of these are relatively unknown; some are no doubt completely hush-hush. Thus there's no shortage of schemes that promote "accredited URL submitters." Some of these are essentially semi-private enclaves for "peer-to-peer search" whereby the community is trusted as the source of enlightenment. There is clearly a hunger for alternative ways of organizing and rating information. Unless it happens through word-of-mouth, the act of stumbling on such vertical enclaves happens first through a major search engine or portal, which is why major search engines, above all, are the target of endless efforts to subvert their ranking methods.
Given the history of self-promoting webmasters slyly infiltrating any "trust" scheme (the Open Directory, for example) for personal gain, one imagines that companies like Google will continue to be reluctant to hand over too many express features to the very webmasters who have often charged clients hefty fees for claiming they have some kind of inside knowledge about search engine position. But Google's promise to eschew paid inclusion forever seems particularly limiting insofar as a paid administrative fee could be part of a methodology that gives webmasters express access to better communications with Google staff on the "unpaid side" of the search ledger. (Rumors of informal "engineer consultations" by Google for high-spending Google advertisers just emphasize the need for overt as opposed to covert premium-access schemes.) Various paid-inclusion and paid-accreditation schemes are likely to be debated in the coming years, and the search engine community is lucky they have Sullivan to provide much-needed perspective on them.
Meanwhile, paid-search companies like Overture have taken the ball and run with it, offering "platinum" service for high-spending advertisers and agencies. Since the search engine companies can now use yardsticks like "amount spent on paid inclusion and/or paid search advertising" to determine customer service levels, they may well be reluctant to take it on faith that better rapport with SEM firms (regardless of spend) will in and of itself improve the organic rankings.
To distil Sullivan's keynote down to its overarching message: search engines and search engine marketing firms have a mutual interest in working together. But towards what end, or against what perceived enemy? This talk seemed to focus mainly on the enemies: index spammers, bad search experiences, rogue SEM firms, and uninformed journalists.
Beyond that, the working-together strategy would target corporate marketing departments who over-budget for ineffective traditional media campaigns and under-budget for online marketing, and who continue to ignore data on the superior return on investment associated with search engine marketing. Sullivan seemed to say that it's not merely a question of waiting and watching for "big agency money" to flood in; that much of the growth and advocacy will be driven by the SEM grassroots--talented search engine marketing firms of between one and fifty employees, speakers and educators in the field, and in-house SEM professionals. Agencies, indeed, have been known to actively discredit the SEM component so they can get back to business as usual.
Given the pedigree of Search Engine Watch and the Search Engine Strategies conferences, this talk was not as controversial as it might have seemed to a newcomer. Given the unresolved nature of the questions Sullivan and others raised at the San Jose conference, one thing seems certain: there will be record attendance at the next few events.
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