Surveying the Search Landscape

Danny Sullivan’s keynote address at Search Engine Strategies has become a must-see event for conference attendees. At the Chicago conference he took the opportunity to look back over the year’s search engine events and gaze into his crystal ball toward the future.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 13-16, 2004, Chicago, IL.

Danny didn’t let it go unnoticed that the year started with all majors (except Google) offering paid inclusion and it ended with only Yahoo When paid inclusion was first introduced by Inktomi, like many others I could see the benefit of faster refreshes in the index. But these days crawling and indexing is a somewhat more efficient process than it used to be.

I do agree with Danny that it would be sensible to remove the grey area between what is paid for in the results and what isn’t by indicating paid items with a marker of some kind. However, if clearly indicated paid inclusion results rarely appeared at the top of the pile, it may not look like such a worth while service anyway. But as we all know, it’s pay up and take pot luck.

Early on in the session, the subject of meta tags and law suits was mentioned, as Danny homed in on trademarks. This was prompted by a report a few months back of a Florida based biopharmaceutical firm which is suing its competitor for using its trademarked terms in their meta tags. Danny commented that he thought that this whole subject had run its course back in 1999.

Me too, and even back then, meta tags were pretty much worthless in optimization terms. Maybe someone wants to bring the legal community up to speed with some real facts. In the case in question you need to do the search equivalent of a journey to the center of the earth to find the pages with the offending meta tags in the first place.

And my personal advice to the bad guys would be to let them know that, if they really want a meta tag to work and help them rank, they’d have more luck taking the competitor’s trademark term out and stuffing it with the Lord’s prayer, clasping their hands together and dropping to their knees with eyes raised to the sky.

Click fraud is a red hot topic at the moment, so that obviously deserved a good mention too. I have to say, issues such as this never existed in my ‘conventional marketing’ days. I mean right now a fraudster can burn somebody’s daily budget up in the space of an hour or so. And that’s it, they’re invisible for the rest of the day, so the target audience never gets to see their ad.

You couldn’t do that in conventional marketing. You know, like, one brand telling everyone to stick their fingers in their ears, close their eyes and sing la, la, la at the top of their voice each time the competitor’s ad came on TV probably wouldn’t work?

Personalization was next on Danny’s menu. So naturally enough, Eurekster got a mention. Personalization can be a misunderstood concept in that it’s not about one person, or just the sites that they click on. It’s much more about networks and peer groups. I’m delighted that Danny has developed a new session for SES New York (Search Algorithm Research & Developments) which zooms in on the various topics of genetic algorithms, machine learning, network theory, vector space model and underlying factors in information retrieval on the web.

Like me, Danny lives in the UK and before he left for the conference his kids made it known that he should return with presents for them (well, it was almost Christmas). So he did a search for ‘toy stores in Chicago’ over at A9 (a personalization forerunner) and was presented with a link to a site which sold, shall we say, somewhat slightly more exotic toys than required. Needless to say, he swiftly moved on to do some personalized stuff over at Yahoo… Only to end up at a nipple piercing web site… No, don’t ask!

There was a quick hark back to the 2003 Google apocalypse, known only by its ad-hoc code name “Florida.” Fortunately, Danny was able to report that he didn’t expect such pre-Christmas presents as that particular one to impact the search marketing community again. So, Florida is gone and the Google dance with it. In my opinion, I believe Google has developed a much more efficient way of segmenting the index and rebuilding it that way as opposed to the complete reorder it used to be.

Desktop search is something that couldn’t be ignored with Google rushing out its own version and then rapidly being followed by MSN, Ask, Yahoo and AOL.

Desktop is good, but I really think it should be supplied with the desktop search default as off when you’re searching the web. You have no idea how much murky material you have residing on your hard drive until you’re doing a demo for a client, searching at Google, and some of those forgotten about personal emails and spurious web pages start to place themselves prominently at the top of the pile for all to see!

Of course, as Danny points out with desktop (add to that news and/or Froogle in the case of Google) and you start to see what were high ranking natural results being pushed down the page as the ‘non web search’ results start to take up screen real estate. Having said that, if you save pages from web searches then you’ll likely get exposed to them over and over again while you’re searching (unless like me, you have the default off to stop the ones you’d forgotten about coming back to you haunt you!).

The industry is blossoming but how big is it? Well, personally, I’m not sure if anyone really knows at this time. But Danny mentioned some Jupiter stats and some research from SEMPO. So, sure, we’ve moved out of the “cottage industry” sector but it would be great to have some empirical joint industry research and figures as opposed to the fairly “dipstick” independent stuff we’re used to seeing.

Heading into the home strait and close to wrapping it up, Danny touched on the media company/technology company identity crisis which Google (and Yahoo and the rest) suffer from. However, it’s pretty much clear cut in my mind. You’re a platform for information and promotional messages to the public at large… You’re a media company.

In the closing stages Danny mentioned the analysts view of search and the billions of predicted revenues that go with it, pointing out that it’s largely based on paid search and doesn’t take a great deal of the optimization side into account. It would be nice to get an indication of how much the optimization side of the industry is worth. But with larger firms charging in the hundreds of thousands a year and smaller shops charging in the thousands, for what clients believe is the same work, it’s sometimes difficult to get a client to put a value on it, let alone an analyst.

Danny’s final reflection was on a something he’d touched on at San Jose about getting a little more tangible support from search engines on the optimization side, such as early warning signals from search engines about potential Florida episodes and complete crawls, that sort of thing.

It’s a nice thought and something, like Danny, I’d be overjoyed to see. But the words “breath” and “not holding” are what immediately spring into mind.

Be sure to be at Danny’s keynote in New York at the next SES conference. It really is the most concise summing up of the state of the industry. And if you find yourself sitting next to a guy wearing ski pants holding his coffee at arms length. You’ll know who it is!

Mike Grehan is the author of Search Engine Marketing: The essential best practice guide.

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