Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The art of search

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

"All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved."

Sun Tzu was writing about war in the 4th century BC, but his words continue to resonate today in the world of business and marketing, where confusion still clouds the difference between tactics and strategy. Nowhere more so than in search marketing, where the proximity of search to the end of a consumer journey tends to focus practitioners solely on the tactical.

The General knew that the tactics he employed were just the visible part of his activities. His enemies and friends could see his tactics, and they knew when he won – but Sun Tzu knew that most wouldn’t look beyond the visible, and many wouldn’t even be aware that a strategy existed – let alone understand the decisive role it played in achieving victory.

In search, as in every other part of business, strategy is critical. But most people when asked about their strategy in search will start to talk about their tactics – few really understand what a strategy represents here, and even fewer how to go about creating one.

The easy results achieved by search in improving the accountability and effectiveness of advertising have created the marketing phenomenon of the century. But this ease has also led to a casual approach to the long-term value of the medium and a failure to look beyond the obvious when approaching the discipline.

So what do I mean by a strategy in search?

Like any area, we start with an objective. There may be more than one of these, but they need to be prioritised and distilled down to the clearest expression of what we want to achieve.

Once objectives are clear, there are a number of questions that a strategy for search should answer. Four of the most important are:

Competition – how do competitors use search, and what is the competition for our message? If rivals’ brand names aren’t protected from competitive bidding, this can provide real opportunities. If your brand name is a generic that can’t be protected in this way, then other means can be employed to gain prominence in search – for instance producing relevant content that helps promote the brand’s ranking.

Customers – how do people search for my product, and what is their interest? Are people searching for brands or for solutions to problems? How important is my brand in this, and how does natural search key in with delivering brand visibility?

Co-dependence – where does search fit, and how does it relate to other marketing? Can an analysis of the data give us an insight into the searches made two or three steps before the final search that resulted in a sale, and do we have the tools to give us this? The systems and analytical techniques exist to create this understanding, and form an important building block for strategy.

Capability – can I meet my customers’ search needs? We need to understand whether customers are typically in a purchasing or an information-gathering need state, and how their choice of keyword might reveal this – it may be appropriate to direct searchers to different types of content dependent on their need state, and understanding this both informs our site (content) planning and our landing page strategy.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.“

He knew his stuff. Tactics are vital – responding to opportunities and threats as they arise – with speed, awareness and ability to change direction critical success factors here. But a purely tactical approach is an approach that’s designed to fail.

So if you ask what your search strategy is and they start talking about keyword groups, bid strategy or optimisation, then you might start to hear alarm bells ringing. As Sun Tzu would have it, the sound of those bells is the noise before defeat.