The Beginning of the Fragmentation of Search

On July 4, as I sat in front of my awesome New Braunfels smoker watching a brisket simmer, slowly soaking up the wonderful mesquite smoke I kept pumping through, I started to ponder the path my career as a search marketer has taken.

When I first started in this business in late 1998, the idea was to put a few keywords on your pages and in Meta tags, submit your site to the search engines, and watch as the rankings poured in. Then came GoTo and auction-style bidding for placement. As a former journalist, I’ll admit I was extremely reluctant at first. My J-school instilled ethics screamed for separation of editorial and advertising. Soon after, I realized that there was separation, and I was on the PPC bandwagon.

Evolution of Search

Since then, my tolerance for change has increased due to necessity. I’ve watched as search marketing evolved from mere on-page optimization to a completely integrated discipline that covers aspects of media buying, public relations, content creation, social media, reputation management, branding, and statistical analysis.

Now, search marketers are being asked to dip their hats into radio advertising (Google Audio) as well as the print medium (Google Print). And with YouTube being owned by Google, we’re getting into television as well. Just wait until the major search engines partner with the digital satellite companies and cable providers. Soon our craft will include television production as well. I know we’re planning on that, and hence the reason we moved our offices from a plush location in the heart of Dallas to a nice but not so fancy television studio on the edge of town. We have to be ready for the inevitable change.

Fragmentation of Search

All of this to bring up an observation that seems to be the inevitable result of so much change in such a short period of time. We are experiencing what I’m calling the great CTR decline of 2007. Historically, July is the worst month for click-through rates. But I think that we are seeing something beyond a seasonality issue here. I think we’re dealing with fragmentation. Perhaps even a cannibalization of our own customer base as a direct result of the major search engines trying to increase their reach to what is beyond a reasonable level in such a short period of time.

My former colleague and friend Tyson Kirksey summed up one such issue in his blog. I believe that Tyson’s concerns about Google’s universal search are well founded. With so much information on a search engine results page, who wants to be in the top PPC spot? That’s almost like decreased visibility. And that’s not even taking into account the fragmentation of budgets that occurs in contextual networks and site-targeted campaigns. Sure, you can now spend the national debt with Google for each campaign, but your return sure won’t be what it was just a few months ago.

And Google isn’t the only one offering increased visibility, perhaps at the expense of relevance and results. Yahoo! and MSN are also trying to increase their reach through contextual offerings and other partner site opportunities. And of course, there are a plethora of behavioral marketing opportunities designed to “catch” the search traffic that didn’t convert through the initial search activity. These programs, which usually involve some sort of contextual element, are great for re-targeting your messaging elements, but they definitely can eat up budget, and they certainly aren’t as effective as straight search. And when the re-targeting is going after visitors who initially visited from a low-converting contextual campaign in the first place, you can very quickly send lots of wasted money after more wasted money.

So, are we seeing the beginnings of the fragmentation of search? When cable became prolific in the landscape of the United States, we saw a fragmentation of the audience that ended up being good for consumers as well as advertising because of increased targeting opportunities. Right now, I see the opposite happening in search. I’m seeing search budgets being sent after increasingly less relevant consumers.

So, what’s a search marketer to do? Next week, we’ll discuss some strategies, tips and techniques to make sure that your search traffic stays relevant and successful. I’d love to hear some tips from readers on what they are doing to combat the fragmentation of search themselves. I promise to include and give credit for the best ones in next week’s column. So get to the forums and let us know what you do. Until next week…

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