Search Engine Marketing is a sensible vocation. Driven by many of the same basic tenets that inform the traditional marketing sector, the goal is to be sure one’s clients’ products are among the first people think of when looking for that certain something those clients create. In the olden days it was all about placement, positioning and repetition. Elaborate campaigns involving radio, television and print would be conceived and executed with the goal of establishing a foothold for new products in the households of the nation or solidifying the stability of a pre-existing brand. Those olden days may be, like so ’80’s, in relation to the crazed new world that search brings however, humans being humans, the ideas of an older generation often remain the ones that play best on the Internet today.

The overall impression left from Jupiter Media’s Toronto Search Engine Strategies Conference is that the business of search has gotten a lot more serious about itself. 2005 is going to be another watershed year for the search marketing industry with the combined revenues of Google and Yahoo projected to outstrip those of the three major TV networks by years end. Search marketing has firmly become one of the streams that make up mainstream advertising. This is not fresh news for most of the folks already populating the search industry but it might come as a surprise to smaller advertising and marketing firms who make their minor fortunes in the traditional ad market. Search is arguably the most important facet of a marketing campaign. A word to the wise; if you like arguments, get in on this one now because in a few years the debate will most certainly be settled on the side of search.

As things stand today, the search marketing industry is on the cusp of tremendous growth with several sub-streams of search marketing evolving and interacting with each other. The sector still seems to divide down two main lines labeled Organic and Paid however that division seems smaller as both streams of SEM have a symbiotic relationship with each other and are often practiced in the same shop. From that division come several sub-streams such as PR Marketing, Blog-casting, Second-Tier PPC and Highly Strategic PPC. The rapid growth of the paid search sector has even prompted the creation of firms dedicated to click-fraud forensics such as Alchemist Media. By the end of the two-day conference, attendees were very clear on these basic points. Search is an advertising and marketing medium built on the foundation of placement, positioning and branding through repetition.

Organic Search

The field of organic search engine optimization has changed subtly. In previous years, a wide division existed between SEO practitioners who identify as “white-hat” and those who identify as “dark-hat”. While that divide is still very much present, the numbers on the darker side seem much smaller this year due in part perhaps to Google’s recent de-listing of a couple very well known SEO firms. Another reason many SEO shops are moving away from what are considered questionable tactics is that clients have become more educated and sophisticated. With many already understanding the potential volatility of organic placements they are expressing their clear desire to be represented ethically.

Another client-driven shift in the SEO landscape is the increasing tendency for SEO shops to provide other forms of website analysis and business service including, usability studies, competitive market research, visitor tracking and inter-business networking. This movement is reflected by the rebranding efforts underway at a number of SEO / SEM shops and was written about by UK tech-writer, Suzy Bashford in an article published on Monday in Revolution Magazine.

A third shift in the search-marketing sphere is a renewed respect for SEO practitioners in the industry. Though the SEO sector predates the paid-search sector by almost five years, paid-search has generated far more interest in terms of page real estate and subsequently, in terms of dollars invested by advertisers. For the most part, the mainstream media has ignored SEO over the past two years focusing almost exclusively on the easier to understand and highly profitable paid-advertising arm of search marketing. Organic optimization was consistently under-reported on likely because it is harder to explain than paid-advertising and much more difficult to quantify long-term results aside from the simple metric of Top10 placement.

According to a survey done by SEMPO in December 2004, 82% of money invested in search marketing went to paid-search. Organic optimization accounted for only 12% of search advertising dollars. While there are many more dollars invested in paid-search advertising than in organic search engine placement, an October 2004 study of search engine user’s click-through habits by Enquiro’s CEO Gord Hotchkiss shows that 69% of the users chose organic listings over the 25% that tended towards paid listings. While they do not bring the instant but often expensive instant gratification of same-day first-page placement, organic listings are again being recognized as a solid foundation to build a long-term search marketing campaign off of. A drawback to the organic listings is that many search-users see these as “free”, with a greater commercial weight initially placed on links found in the sponsored or paid listings.

Paid Search Advertising

The Paid-Search marketing sector is healthy and growing rapidly. Led in Canada by firms such as PageZero Media, PPC and other forms of paid-search form the backbone of the search-engine economy. Working the paid-search sector is becoming more complex thus prompting the development of in-house specialization at growing SEM shops. Job tasks such as designing customized landing pages, campaign analytics, and ad-copywriting could once be performed by individual employees but are now often sent to a staff/team member specialist. The increasing sophistication of expanding SEM firms is directly related to the seriousness of the sector and the increasing presence of larger traditional ad-firms such as Avenue A/Razorfish in addition to the massive advertiser support offered by the various search firms.

Paid search is where the truly revolutionary action is focused these days. Paid-search is by far the fastest growing section of the Internet economy generating annual revenues measured in billions. Paid search is the reason Google surpasses itself each quarter and Yahoo is going Hollywood . Paid search drives the industry and the potentials for advertisers and providers continue to be astounding. The paid-search sphere is populated by the ENORMOUS, the Big, the small to medium sized, and the start-ups. From the search marketing perspective, every inch counts and there are too many unique factors to each client to make sweeping general statements about the merits of one program or another.

Google is the first in line for congratulations in growing the paid-search marketing sector this year. They are enormous. While GoTo/Overture might have started it all, Google made it sexy and had the IPO to prove it. Awash with fortune and high expectation, Google has plastered major portions of the web with paid-search advertising. Approximately 95% of their revenues stem from paid search advertising and their ingenuity in acquiring or developing greater cyber-real estate assets to place it on is key to their growth. Google, by the way, is growing and that growth pushes the buttons of everyone else in the industry. This growth has a downside though. Google has a number of dark clouds gathering over what was once the rain-shadow of their Mountain View home. They have attracted the lion’s share of attention over the past few years and some of that attention has brought unwanted results. Webmasters and search marketers no longer see Google as an innocent friend but more as an invaluable business partner who is capable of turning on them at a moment’s notice. From complaining of client poaching in Europe to Network-ad distribution partners grumbling about payout irregularities to the growing concerns about Click-Fraud, Google has a wide array of rainy days on the public relations front ahead of them.

Yahoo (Overture), MSN and ASK make up the next level, collectively known as the Big 3. Of these three, Yahoo is by far the largest with a massive contextual ad-distribution network and the power of the original brand name behind them. MSN is entering the paid-search ad distribution market with MSN Paid Search Solutions a webmaster focused program that will likely resemble AdSense. ASK also provides a high level of contextually driven paid-advertising traffic and is exceptionally popular in Britain .

Rounding out the pack are the small to medium sized paid-search programs, the Tier 2 and 3’s. PPC engines such as FindWhat, Go-Click, Snap, LookSmart, and populate this part of the sector. While they may seem like small potatoes when compared to their much larger competitors they can drive a significant amount of traffic through affiliations with regional portal sites, promotional advertising companies (think your local radio station), local ISPs and other online business relationships.

A recent adage states that a ton of money will attract a mass equal to fifteen thousand times its weight. The number of start-ups on the paid-search scene indicates there is validity to this highly unscientific statement. There is simply so much money to go around every pair of geniuses along with five or six friendly investors are starting their own paid-search engines. Many of these start-ups have very limited marketing budgets and don’t make it to the trade shows and conferences. There were a few paid-search startups at the conference including Toronto based What made SearchforIt more interesting than others was their focus on solving the greatest challenge to the paid-search industry, click-fraud. Unfortunately they don’t talk about it on their website but at the conference trade-show they were extremely optimistic about its ability to detect and identify unwanted clicks.

There were a number of other forms of search engine marketing represented at SES Toronto, the most interesting of which was Press Release marketing as practiced by Greg Jarboe of SEO-PR. Greg made one of the most interesting points last week when he mentioned how the first three Google News results are displayed above organic listings on a typical search results page. Along with the valuable service of getting his client’s message out to the media, Greg gets clients’ news releases placed on the first page of search results under their target keyword phrases. Coupled with positive link-building potential (news sources can offer highly relevant links), front-page placement on Google drives large amounts of traffic.

Last week I mentioned an incident that happened at a session Greg was speaking at. An unnamed representative from Google happened to be sitting in the front row and I couldn’t help but notice his look of surprise when Greg showed a slide that looked as if a press release he wrote had captured 6 of the 10 first page references at Google News under the keyword phrase “home improvement guide”. A closer look reveals that these are different press releases with text relating to the phrase as part of a springtime promotion run by Verizon’s Yellow Pages. I reported on it, mostly because it was quite humourous and also because Google is intensely interesting. I did not intend to imply that Greg was spamming Google in any way. He is not. I regret the use of the word manipulated though only because of negative connotations associated with the word, not because I think it unfit for the sentence. This is advertising after-all eh? I apologize if the reference caused him or his partners any concerns. (Y’all should have been there though. It was pretty funny.)

The search engines, as we know them today are rapidly changing. Those changes in turn alter the environment in which SEO and SEM practitioners work. The past couple of weeks have seemed like the eye of a hurricane compared to the barrage of changes and initiatives announced in the first quarter. Even though we are involved in the most rapidly evolving advertising medium of all time, the old notions of product placement and branding continue to dictate the direction of our thinking. In that, the future philosophy of search can likely be found in the past.