Raising Search Standards and the Compliance Bar

The search industry has been showing real signs of growing up in the last two or three years. Last week’s release of the Interactive Advertising Bureau/United Kingdom (IAB U.K.) search marketing charter updated with affiliate guidelines moved search a bit closer to an official seat at the big kids’ table.

Any move toward standardization is a good move, right? The road to standardization is littered with large potholes and dead end turnoffs that may seem like a good idea until we realize a left turn should have been a right turn.

Standardization and best practices have been a dedicated interest of mine over the years as a contributor and volunteer with the IAB and SEMPO in the United States. I’ve enjoyed working with these groups and have firsthand knowledge of how difficult it is to orchestrate change.

Why aren’t the standardization/best practices implementations moving faster? Where are the roadblocks and potholes? Let’s take a stroll down the search marketing superhighway to find out.

Hacking into the guidelines

I’m no stranger to corporate bureaucracy — the driving factor for many who become entrepreneurs — and the associated frustrations of having to live inside the corporate world. Every time new guidelines are issued, criticism (some captious) begins to fly.

While the search guidelines were released some time ago, there are still a couple interesting tidbits worth reviewing along with the new affiliate guidelines:

Guideline: Mandatory search engine accreditation.

Observation: The only sanctioned certification entity in the U.K. is Google. The first requirement for a Google AdWords Professional is accepting the terms of service (TOS). Second and third are managing a program and meeting minimum spend requirements. It’s just too bad if you have a problem with Google’s TOS and generally speaking, being qualified by any search site really only means you’re qualified as re-seller for that search site.

Guideline: Compliance is mandatory but self-policing.

Observation: So you’re telling me I’m not grown up enough to meet some basic requirements on my own, but I can regulate it myself? Firms wishing to fly the best practices flag (read: place logo on Web site) must meet all the requirements for search and affiliate marketing. I’m sure there will be some finger pointing in our future and oh yes, you must join one of the following industry organizations:

  • IAB U.K.
  • DMA
  • ABBA
  • Other (TBD)

Guideline: Firms must declare to the client if they do affiliate work on an account they manage.

Observation: Disclosure doesn’t make a conflict of interest acceptable. This guideline is intended to prevent a worst practice I find terrifying, yet somehow very common. Advertisers have actually come and asked if it was alright to have the same firm managing their search program while acting as an affiliate. Answer: not so much. There are plenty of companies out there. Choose another one.

Guideline: Search firm and client must provide a clear dispute procedure.

Observation: This guideline centers on “keyword policy” and providing a defined method of clearing up miscommunications. Most of the affiliates I have met are hardcore entrepreneurs. If there are weaknesses in a brand’s search marketing program, they will find and exploit it. This practice becomes a vicious cycle of the affiliate attempting to locate a leak while the brand attempts to plug it.

There are other requirements, such as providing affiliates with the appropriate marketing materials, and facilitating communication, along with the search firm must be in business at least six months. Some of these guidelines seem so basic it is difficult to digest even needing them, but we do.

A need for dictating the basics should tell you a little something about our industry; it is still so young and unregulated that training wheels like this have to be mandatory, even if you already know how to ride a bike like the big kids.

Insatiable constituency

It’s been over a decade and the industry is worth billions, so why is this taking so long? I have to giggle every time I hear anyone (myself included) talking about search “growing up.” The search marketing industry was founded by a group of entrepreneurs trying to manipulate search query-to-listing relationships.

In my experience, said entrepreneurs aren’t all that hot on standardization and best practice guidelines. First, they view published best practices as revealing business disciplines that help them maintain a competitive edge. Second, any variation of formalizing is perceived as “going corporate” and “selling out” by those in the business who would prefer to keep search marketing a private club.

Those on the side of expanding the business are negatively labeled “suits” or “corporate lackeys,” and the blog flames light up like a napalm drop on a forest fire. Then again, blog flaming often serves only as link bait and can be categorized as self indulgent Internet flatulence, but that is another discussion entirely.

My personal favorites are alleged (and often self-proclaimed) “Super Gurus” simultaneously chiming in with the “down with the suits” chants while building their own corporate dynasties.

People, I beg you, don’t be fooled by false prophets. There are a lot of people working to help build the industry. Some wear suits, while others only recently started to wear suits.

THX isn’t Satan’s tool

I like to compare the old search/new search folks to the old Star Wars/new Star Wars folks; two camps that share common interests with diametrically opposed views. One group hates all those newfangled computer graphics and amazing technology while the other welcomes the change. Ironically, both groups spend a great deal of disposable income on movie tickets, DVDs, and themed merchandise.

Back on earth, it’s hard to simultaneously complain about regulation while crying foul about the rampant abuses and bad behavior that exist in the business. Remember, a lot of the regulations thrown our way were inspired by bottom feeders or those who simply didn’t know any better.

At the end of the day, we may not like the growing pains of adding more “corporate” sounding guidelines, but that’s where the business is headed. You can sit on the sidelines and complain or you can jump in and contribute.

Tell me, what’s so terrible about being taken seriously by the rest of the world?

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