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Search Marketing's About People and Principles, Not Just Algorithms, Part 1

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Search marketing has come under fire in the mainstream press and elsewhere this year, and that's not good for the industry, said Danny Sullivan in his keynote address at Chicago's Search Engine Strategies conference.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 5-8, 2005, Chicago, IL.

To ring in the New Year, I finally made it out to see Goodnight, and Good Luck, the film about life inside the CBS newsroom during the McCarthy era. Thinking about the powerful role that news media play in filtering reality, I couldn't help but notice the parallel between news programming executives in that day and Internet search company execs today. Both make their living purveying "information"; neither are supposed to "make" the news themselves; and both must (as trite as this sounds to the jaded observer) grapple daily with what it means to play this role in society without being "evil".

Then and now, it would be accepted by the info-gatekeepers that undue bias (either advertiser-induced or through political interference) would constitute a descent into evil. The most disturbing parallel, possibly, is that today's Internet companies, like their TV news counterparts, are subject to potentially draconian interference from government authorities for reasons of national security, but that's a story for another day.

Particularly compelling imagery in the film centered around the ubiquitous plumes of cigarette smoke that filled any given newsroom in the day. Reporters lived smoke-filled lives in more ways than one. Sponsors such as tobacco companies paid the bills for the networks' "balanced" news coverage. Most everyone who put together the news, by coincidence, used the product—sometimes onscreen. At times, sponsors like Alcoa threatened to pull their funding if they didn't like the tone of Edward R. Murrow's newscast.

As much as the news organization tried to present the "facts," the plumes of smoke in Clooney's movie symbolize the lingering potential for bias, and the hazy but not invisible pressures to self-censor controversial views. Even while bravely standing up to Senator McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow couldn't help but to "balance out" his coverage in other ways, such as avoiding controversy in nonessential news items, and agreeing to interview celebrities like Liberace for lighter pieces. Did I mention he smoked onscreen?

In news coverage, as in Internet search, good and evil are discernible through the smoke, but only if one is able and willing to distinguish between one shade of gray and another. The room will be filled with smoke. That's a given. This ain't no kindergarten.

The role of SearchEngineWatch.com and Search Engine Strategies conferences is doubly interesting because it is in some way "the news broadcast" for the new media industry itself. It's a conference funded partly by exhibitors, talking about an industry funded largely by advertisers. Held at a Hilton in December 2005 and not a Westin in 2006, Search Engine Strategies Chicago was not a completely smoke-free event. But the air seemed clear enough in the ballroom as Danny Sullivan cracked the first joke to signal the beginning of another immensely popular keynote speech.

Sullivan's theme would soon come into clear focus: the search engine marketing industry has evolved to the point where there are recognizable camps, players, specialties, and personalities. Thus it's a far more fascinating world than it appears at first glance; it's not just about algorithms and stock tickers. It hasn't escaped the mainstream press either, nor the authors of recent books on the industry (John Battelle, David Vise), that the search marketing industry is about people and the way they interact with one another, represent themselves to the public, and conduct themselves in the larger moral sense. Sullivan, of course, has a much better idea than the casual observer as to what these people are really all about. His subsequent analysis served as a useful corrective to surface accounts. Let's turn to these details.

Debate about the role of different camps within the search marketing community too often consists of a series of obloquys—a word I'd define for you, dear reader, if I felt you would have any trouble at all looking it up (but I know you won't)—against blameless individuals. Sullivan came to the defense of the blameless, not just against outsiders' attacks, but also with the message: "quit slagging each other!"

Obloquy #1: "Blame the Black Hats." In much media coverage of search marketers, the "unscrupulous" search engine optimizers are singled out. This is typically done in an uncritical way, and often implies guilt by association (though we've never heard anyone asked "are you now or have you ever been a member of a link farm" at a Congressional hearing). Even mainstream optimizers are unfairly tarred with the "evil" brush by association, as anyone who's seen the Wired magazine mention of Bruce Clay will recognize.

Sullivan cited a variety of so-called black-hat techniques that become "perfectly OK" when used by larger companies, search engines' friends, and generally aboveboard organizations. National Public Radio's site is allowed to engage in cloaking; snooty bloggers think it's just fine to "blogroll" as if it weren't a link scheme; major publications can sell links based on their impressive PageRank, but smaller ones are advised not to; and so on. Optimization techniques are called "black hat techniques" for some, but are more euphemistically referred to as "front of the line treatment" for others. (This point becomes particularly salient in light of rumored favors being done for AOL and its content creators after Google acquired a stake in the company.) In this respect, Sullivan isn't defending the black hats so much as suggesting that they are people too, and unless they're engaging in tactics that are clearly distinguishable as anti-social or illegal, the search engines lack the moral grounds to censure them when they look the other way as friends and partners employ the same tactics.

Obloquy #2: "Blame the White Hats." Some of those who rely most on their pristine "ethical search marketing" image come under fire from others within the industry who point out that these marketers are no different from anyone else. Without taking their claims at face value, Sullivan listed a number of solid practices that have been perfected by those who style themselves as "white hats." In particular, they've focused on improved project management methods.

Obloquy #3: "Blame the Organics." Those who focus on paid search campaign management point fingers at those who only focus on free traffic, arguing that search engines couldn't fund themselves without paid search advertising. But organic search simply cannot be ignored, Sullivan reminds us, as it's one of the most important and cost-effective forms of public relations in the contemporary economy. And the "organic optimizers" have helped search engines and the Internet as a whole improve over the years by battle-testing their algorithms against spam, publicizing the importance of search engines as a marketing tool, and encouraging clients to create quality content.

Obloquy #4: "Blame the Search Advertisers." The diehard organic optimizers might have a few sly words to say about those who focus only on paid search, since they won't work with small-budget clients and might not appear to understand search behavior as well as more technically inclined SEO's. But at least, points out Sullivan, the paid search specialists aren't heard whining and making excuses about the latest algorithm change. They provide faster results for clients, and help clients to "close the loop" on measuring campaign ROI. Most importantly, paid search dollars keep search engines in business.

Sullivan then turned to what he jokingly referred to the "pump-up part" of this "motivational" keynote. The success of search marketing has been so rapid that a serious talent war has emerged as experienced marketers have been snapped up by consolidating search marketing agencies and for the in-house efforts at larger companies. (Conclusion: if you're one of the talented ones, you should feel good about the accomplishment.) Because search marketing as a viable industry grew rapidly in a fertile soil left by the ashes of the rest of the online advertising industry, those who built and stood by SEM as a craft actually served as a shining example of what online advertising is really all about: measurable results. There is much to commend, from a business standpoint, in what search engine marketers do.

Moreover, Sullivan feels it's high time search marketers stuck together. It's going to be awfully hard to stand up to baseless criticisms if infighting focuses on the shortcomings of other search marketers. Don't knock your immediate competition, Sullivan seemed to say, and the industry as a whole will improve its image.

So what do search marketers have in common? Sullivan jokingly suggested that it's that they were all "crazy enough to go into search." Now that this "oddball" industry is getting so much attention, it's fair to accept a pat on the back: the decision to get into it wasn't so crazy after all. Times are good. Search people are beginning to get their due. Factionalism is counterproductive now, as it always is when you've got something established to defend. What search marketers need to do now, then, is to rally together, suggested Sullivan. The starting point here seems to be mutual respect. Your colleagues were smart (not crazy) enough to become leading-edge search technology and marketing experts. When one member of the SEM family is unfairly attacked, stand up for them.

Part two of this article is Search Marketing's About People and Principles, Not Just Algorithms, Part 2.

Andrew Goodman is the founder and principal of Page Zero Media and author of the forthcoming book Winning Results with Google AdWords.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Blame the Search Marketers discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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