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Good Riddance, 2009

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The economy, unemployment, war, H1N1, Jon and Kate, Tiger Woods and Michael Jackson dominated the headlines this year. It was a year that mixed pop cultural minutiae with the harsh realities of our political and economic landscapes. Clients, friends, family, and strangers all can't wait to close the book on 2009 and begin again with renewed hope in 2010.

That's why we do year-end lists. We want to celebrate the "best" and "worst" of the year so that we can move into the next.

Midway through the year, I reviewed the predictions for 2009 created by my predecessor and found he was pretty spot-on. For my final column of the year, let's talk about the year that was and where we're headed.

Because the year was filled with so many lowlights, let's get the bad out of the way early so we end on a positive note.

Something Happened in the World of Finance

It impacted every industry and American in some way. There was no story bigger than the economic downturn.

The economy wrought havoc on agencies and clients as companies pulled back their spending dramatically. Along with massive layoffs, the pullback on spending made it difficult to find a dollar and forced us all to find ways to stretch money further.

I wrote an article about what the recession can teach us, in which the silver lining was that marketers now see that search performance and volume are both impacted by other forms of media. Hopefully, we've learned to not pull back on search budgets based solely on performance and to better understand how all the pieces work together -- perhaps pulling back equally across the board.

The FDA Still Doesn't Understand Search

The FDA inadvertently started a firestorm in the online marketing world. By warning several companies that they were violating laws by making claims in their paid search copy, the government agency started a chain of events that impacted clients, marketers, and even Google.

Some product makers pulled their paid search campaigns completely. Others significantly rolled back their organic content out of fear that regulation would extend to natural listings. This pullback left consumers to fend for themselves online, having to find information from third party or competitive sites.

An already cautious industry, health care will now be even more apprehensive about what they can do in this space. And this impacts not only the agencies that work with them, but also patients who are searching for the official information.

The End of Free Lunch

Or what we called paid inclusion. In an effort to speed the government approval process, Yahoo will end its paid inclusion program at the end of the year. This was always a little bit of a gray area on the ethical scale. However, one thing is universal: clients and agencies loved and will miss paid inclusion.

Despite the problems of the economy, there were still plenty of great stories that should be highlighted and also give us hope for 2010.

Bing Launches; Yahoo Finally Joins the Party

The launch of Bing is the biggest positive story this year for several reasons. Microsoft truly believes that search is a nine inning game and that we're only in the second inning. Bing is a good product -- not great, but good enough, especially when backed by Steve Ballmer's claim of spending billions on it.

The kicker to this was Yahoo and Bing partnering to consolidate roughly 30 percent of the market. Yes, it's small, but Microsoft doesn't need to get to 50 percent to "win" in search. If the combination of these companies search share nets out at 40 percent, but they layer in the mass amount of targeting and inventory they have to truly execute against search retargeting, isn't that a much bigger win?

Most importantly, Bing kicked off a wave of search innovations. Introducing significant competition will ultimately result in a better experience for the end user. While this may be bad news for BingHoo, let's not pretend that Google didn't hear the whispers of how they haven't innovated since universal search. Speaking of which...

Google Innovates

Caffeine, Goggles, real-time search, and personalized search have all been introduced in the last two months, on top of Wave and Chrome. And while not necessarily innovative, Google dove head first into the ad exchanges. Could they be poised to introduce their model of domination into the display world?

Google's recent output isn't entirely unrelated to all of the attention Bing received. No matter how smart and crafty Google is, they are people. People get jealous when others steal the show.

Real-Time Search

Google and Bing have started entering an arena that represents a significant change in the search space. Real-time search will likely shape a lot of what people do in 2010. Companies that sat on the sidelines trying to figure out their Twitter strategy now have to bring this conversation to the forefront.

Google and Bing now provide tremendous distribution for Twitter, and people who had no concept of Twitter will now be exposed. With Facebook making moves to introduce user status updates to real-time search, the service will only grow more robust. Marketers may have to rethink organic rankings to accommodate these new scrolling listings, as they may throw off eye tracking worse than universal results already do.

I've Got a Good Feeling

Call me optimistic, but the approach of 2010 feels like we're shedding a lot of the hardships we've felt over the last year. In many ways, a great deal of the concerns we've had have already come to a head.

Increasingly, search is being viewed as a vital component of the marketing mix, no doubt influenced by shifting budgets in hard economic times. In the social media space, the conversation has shifted from "why we should" to "how we can" -- an excellent sign of things to come. When viewed in the right light, even the FDA's paid search debacle can be seen as tacit acceptance of the search channel as an influential medium.

Next year should be exciting because of strong integration, both in online and offline marketing. We should see more sophisticated online strategies -- incorporating paid, organic, social, mobile, and analytics. And we've learned enough to know that online and offline campaigns don't exist in their own bubbles.

Maybe the lowlights of 2009 helped us lose our apprehensions and confront the climate of the real world head on. And maybe now we can confront the challenges of the next year swiftly, adeptly, and confidently.


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