Thursday, March 6, 2008

Is search advertising?

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

In 1928, universities in the USA announced that continental drift was impossible, and banned the teaching of it – a ban that largely remained in place until the theory of Plate Tectonics was published in the sixties.

It’s not unusual for the old to struggle with the new. But perhaps we should be more surprised when the old struggle with the established.

It’s been ten years since Google launched, and five years since they started charging for search. Since then there’s been an explosion in search marketing, and it’s become a vital weapon in the marketer’s armoury – making Google one of the biggest media companies in the world.

So if search isn’t new, we’re hearing some remarkable thinking about it from the traditional media world.

I was at the WARC research conference a couple of weeks ago, and was struck when one of the speakers opined that he “wasn’t sure that search was really advertising – it’s really just distribution.”

Nobody picked him up on it, and clearly smoking the same meme, M&C Saatchi chairman Moray MacLennan at the FT Digital Media Conference a couple of days later picked up on the same theme:

“When you’re putting money into search you’re taking it out of marketing,” he said. “All you’re doing is buying a space on the internet high street. You’re commoditising your brand.”

So are they right? Is search ‘advertising’ or ‘marketing’ at all? Is it just distribution?

Let’s for a moment assume that MacLennan’s right – search is just buying space on the internet high street. If he means that it’s a part of distribution, then that would certainly make it part of McCarthy’s four P’s of marketing. If he means that it’s part of what many marketers call ‘the last six feet’, then to dismiss it as commoditisation of the brand is to similarly exclude in-store merchandising.

And are you commoditising your brand by using search? A commodity has no differentiating characteristics, and is bought on price only – so is search leading brands this way?

In reality, that’s up to us. If we choose as marketers to throw up our hands in resignation at this challenge, then the brands we nurture will probably wither – either becoming commoditised, or more likely, beaten into submission by those who rise to the challenge.

Because consumers make brand choices in search.

This isn’t speculation – it’s empirically demonstrated by the data. Search engine users don’t just make one search before a purchase – they typically make several. We can track this behaviour, and understand how the process works as they progress – “flat screen TV”, “Sony TV”, “Bravia”, and often the model number. We can see where they were diverted to competitors, and where competitors lost them to us – and most importantly we can influence this with the copy we use in the listing (and A/B test that copy to refine its effectiveness).

If we say the right things, and do so in the right places, we can work to protect and even build our brand premium.

This is marketing alright, and moreover, it’s advertising – in a pure, analytical and rather detail-obsessive way. To master it truly, we must understand how it creates value in the marketing and media mix – where and how it influences users on their journey to being customers (either of ours or of the competition). And we’re not going to get there if we dismiss it.

I suspect MacLennan was being deliberately provocative. But what he said plays to the prejudices of the luddite faction, and is on the lips of many in what for want of a better term might be referred to as ‘traditional’ advertising. For these increasingly beleaguered folk, these new forms of advertising/marketing are sparking a semantic debate – rather than a determined attempt to master new techniques that bring real value to marketers.

For these folk, the barbarians really are at the gate – and they’re using Google to get in.