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The Future of Search: Strategy, Execution, Evolution

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There must be something in the water, or maybe it's just this time of year, while we're all focused on how to improve our business strategy for 2008. Or maybe the disturbing news around the search world really has made people edgy.

All I know is that it seems like every article on search I've read in the last couple of weeks is full of angst. I'm usually concerned about my own frustrations coming out in these columns, but I've got nothing to worry about this week (not that I don't have my own issues).

I've seen articles predicting the bursting of the search marketing "bubble"; articles proclaiming advertising agencies will never get search; ones that discuss how current success in search is hurting its future success; and one of the more passionate rounds of the "build it in-house or use an agency" search debates. Here is my take on some of these issues, as well as a few I think people are missing.

Execution -- the Overlooked Enabler

Both paid and natural search projects have many moving parts that require a lot of detailed attention. Yes it's true, relative to other marketing channels, search is hard. Too often this complexity translates to a lack of interest from senior marketing people. The higher we move up the corporate ladder, the less we want to be bothered by minutiae.

The real issue: no one has perfected the art and science of executing search programs. This lack of proven strategy leads many to grasp on to bid/campaign management technology as the holy grail of search.

I wholeheartedly disagree with this approach. What our industry needs is workflow automation, provided in a combination of technologies that both speed and increase the relevance of the tactical decision-making process. Marketers do not want to waste time talking about execution, so we must empirically prove that all the moving parts of search are systematically considered and acted upon with laser sharp consistency.

Can Non-Search Agencies Get Search?

Search experts often ask this question because they worry about the future of their business. In that regard, they believe it's in their interest (especially if they are an independent agency) to continue to foster the idea that the "traditional agency" can't adjust to this new world. This is backwards thinking that doesn't help anyone, including "search agencies."

Those who are concerned with this question should actually be concerned with their business model. The real question is, "How is search defined?" What marketers need is someone to tell them how to structure their marketing investments to capture the increasing opportunities centered on the query. When considered in this light, the question of "who gets search" is meaningless and speaks only to an execution issue.

Agency or In-House (The Endless Debate)

I won't take this topic up for long but want to mention a couple of points generally missed in this discussion. The first issue brings me back to the importance of execution; I've always found it interesting that search, a more difficult undertaking, seems to be at the top of the list of marketers to bring in-house. The premium paid to outsource is fully justified when the value add consulting is the focus of the relationship (instead of execution).

The only way to realize that is to provide top notch and thorough customer service (in all areas of the agency-marketer relationship). Maybe many marketers don't foster strategic thinking from agencies. Perhaps agencies don't always demonstrate the value. Either way, the current challenge in the industry is to reestablish the importance of senior-level strategic resources as part of a marketer's agency team. That's where the real value lies.

Can Google Kill the Search Star?

Google's meteoric rise continues to force it (and therefore Yahoo and MSN) to find dramatic ways to increase their respective slices of the advertising pie. The challenge for these "search engines" is that search inventory represents only a small portion of the inventory available. Therefore, it cannot be the central focus of innovation and evolution.

If the lack of innovation combines with a reduction in results (caused by increasing competition), would marketers move on to "sexier" opportunities? I actually don't think this is possible any time soon, but it is a question worth following.

Meet Matt at SES Chicago from December 3-6.


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