The most important search engine is in our minds

A laboured analogy for the way search engine marketing works. Image courtesy of Glennfinlas

People are very keen on search these days.

Whether Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) or Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

It is not much of a business to be in (since it is becoming rapidly commoditised) but it’s something every business should be into.

However, my view is that SEO and SEM should be viewed as a safety net and not a marketing panacea.

A recent comment suggested that search had replaced TV as the number one priority on the marketing plan.
This made me sad.
Sad that this assertion wasn’t backed up with some evidence and sad because I’m not sure the obsession with search is altogether healthy.
Don’t get me wrong, the TV thing is neither here nor there. I seek neither to fetishise nor demonise TV since both positions bore me rigid. No, it is the idea that if you are optimised in search all your problems will go away.
Search seems to do two things for a brand.
It gives you visibility in the natural searches that people make for terms that relate to your business and the services it provides.
And it gives you ownership of your brand name online if people decide to search you out.
Both of which strike me as hideously passive activities.
The first is remarkably random, a shit fight with all of your competitors to climb to the top of natural or paid for search around terms losely associated with your business. The whole endevour resembles a flock of seagulls following a plough in the hope of some juicy worms. And how many search terms is enough search terms?
The latter is a no brainer but its efficacy is rather dependent on whether anybody can be bothered to look you up.
Both are necessary but neither are sufficient.
The reality is that search optimisation of either colour should be seen as a safety net for a brand. It should be working as a final attempt to secure the attention of consumers if everything else has failed. But it is far better (and probably rather cheaper) if people approach their browsers with your brand already in pole position in their mental search engine – already ahead of the field because people know more about you and they care more about you.
That instead of searching for low cost air fares to Barcelona they are looking up or Travelocity.
And instead of searching for vehicle recovery services they are searching for the AA
And instead of searching for cheap home insurance they are checking out Norwich Union (yeah right)
After all how many of us search for ‘book sellers’ on Google rather than going straight Amazon?
Any monkey can buy up some search terms but the real value that marketers can add is making us care about the brand in the first place.
That’s what we might call brand optimisation.
And thats what I want to do.
By the way for a more helpful and considered point of view on the role of search try out my favourite brand search consultants Hayward Carbery.

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7 Replies to “The most important search engine is in our minds”

  1. Sad? This post actually angers me.
    Whereas search is increasingly the first or at least constant thing on your marketing plan, (spoken to any clients recently?) of course it is not the only thing.
    As information becomes increasingly available navigating it becomes exponentially more important and search is the number one activity online.
    It is not my job to educate you about the merits of search advertising quoting facts and figures but suffice to say a much more sophisticated tool than you give it credit for not just at the bottom end of the funnel but across the whole of the purchase cycle.
    It is hugely accountable, it allows you to optimise in real time, it gives you a cost effective way to have a constant presence and manage volume. Also, as you point out, it provides an indispensable safety net.
    Most importantly however rather than, as with most other channels, taking a proxy for audience intentions deduced from the content they read, we actually know what their intentions are because they type them into a little box or a clever little spider analyses the content they are reading. It is obviously not a bad model as Google’s advances into print, TV and radio seems to indicate.
    It would be remiss of us as brands not to be there for these; our most important and qualified audience; advertising is about relevancy after all.
    Of course the rest of the marketing mix and how it all works together is vital but for you to dismiss this offhand and a necessary evil is irresponsible.

  2. I have met businesses for whom Google natural search rankings are number one on the list (I’m thinking of one in particular).
    It’s interesting though that they wanted to meet me;
    – they tend to be clever geeky people who are working out new marketing angles (eg hundreds of press releases are a great tactic, lots of sites link to them/back to your site)
    – they have a lot in common with CRM/direct people; they think in data and channels, leads, conversion, ROI etc.
    – they tend to value the brand too; eg when people see the name on the first page, does it make any connection?
    You could regard Google search enthusiasts as being about as much of a threat to what you do as the people who help retailers find the optimum sites for their stores?
    Oh but hang on, life is a struggle to get your share of the marketing budget and also retain your place at the top of the top table & also to defend your model of marketing vs rival paradigms isnt it? Oh well, then yes its a threat.
    The competing paradigms thing is perhaps a bigger struggle:
    – marketing as data/analytics/direct interaction
    – marketing as psychology/persuasion/communication
    The interesting third term in this debate – all the stuff that falls within 2.0 like brand utility ( marketing enthusiasm schemes – tends to work with both direct interaction and cultural position.
    just my 2p

  3. Surely search is just a manifestation of the way consumers are relating to brands nowadays (i.e. they value Google’s advice more than HSBC’s for example) and hence something we need to be interested in and take account of when creating brand ideas. And also, it’s just one of a number of different media channels through which ideas can be executed. Search can be used bluntly (buy a category descriptor e.g. “credit cards” and then your brand appears “HSBC”) or creatively (buy a signal of a need state “food ideas” and then your brand appears “Sainsbury’s”). It’s all just about ideas is it not? Didn’t we all live through the “driect marketing’s going to kill advertising because it’s more accountable”-era? Here we go again…

  4. ok r, so maybe i was a little harsh. i think we are violently agreeing on the broad point that search is a necessity supported by, and supporting other communications. that no matter what other comms you do for the majority of products online search will be a touch point and therefore warrants a permanent place on the media plan.

  5. consumers are so fluid these days that our approach to reaching them has to be fluid.
    Some of those consumers will search by category or product (because the advertising has failed) and will by default listen to anything that is returned in their search…
    Others will search specifically for brands…
    Either way, both are going to search for comparisons, because they can and because brands, as highlighted in other posts, have failed to be truthful.
    Thus, I see those two paradigms which John highlighted as one single model because all those factors need to be taken into consideration and the reality is that no-one worth their salt would favour one channel over another.
    Even through something as binary/scientific as search needs to engage/persuade and stimulate the right kind of conversations. If those conversations, don’t match the perceptions and expections..then like advertising – search will have done nothing but throw up a few interesting alternates…

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