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Marketers prepare for ‘blended search'

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Two major search engines have introduced so-called "blended search" interfaces that expand the content of a search results page beyond text links to many kinds of content, such as maps, video, images, audio, news and blogs.

This one change, say observers, will drastically increase the complexity of developing search marketing strategies.

It may also mean an increase in spending.

"The cost to do fancier keyword ads will go up," said Shar Van Boskirk, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "If you want to do a keyword that has video in it, those will certainly be more expensive than just a text-based ad."

More inventory, lower prices

But Van Boskirk said that search ad pricing could actually come down in the long term.

"It will open additional inventory," she said, noting that at the moment there is more demand than supply for keywords. "With more inventory, those prices will come down," she said.

Also referred to as "universal search," which is the name Google uses to brand its new interface, blended search displays several different kinds of content on the search results page.

Google announced its Universal Search interface in May. A month later, search engine Ask.com, a unit of IAC Search and Media, launched Ask3D–essentially a re-engineered version of Ask.com that makes a variety of content—including video clips, music clips, news items and blogs—available on a single page of search results.

Both Yahoo Search and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Live Search have components of blended search, but neither is as comprehensive as those of Google or Ask. For example, a search on Yahoo typically only generates blue text links and, in some cases, video links.

Already, some marketers, particularly those in high-tech segments, are thinking about the opportunities and how blended search will affect their search marketing strategies.

"In the past when we spoke about creating an integrated marketing strategy, it usually meant tying together online and offline components or having divisions work together to create a consistent message," said Josh Kidd, Internet marketing specialist at Siemens Medical, the health care division of Siemens AG. "But we rarely spoke about the idea of creating comprehensive plans across our current online mediums, whether that be videos, image brochures, press releases [or] RSS."

Kidd added: "We will have to adapt to go from simply optimizing our existing content to creating universal content optimized for ranking."

Tanya Vaughan, global search engine optimization manager at Hewlett-Packard Co.'s HP.com, said, "Entire marketing strategies will likely shift to adapt to significant changes or improvements in search experiences since search engines are where so much b-to-b product, solution and service research is being initiated."

With universal search, other media, like images and videos that are increasingly popular and effective marketing vehicles for business customers, will gain more of an emphasis in the marketing mix, Vaughan said. "Universal search will cause you to focus on optimizing all content, not just text,"she said.

All this means marketers will need to begin to optimize much more than text elements on their Web sites in the near future. They will need to optimize other types of content such as videos and podcasts.

"There's this realization now [among marketers] that it's beyond just tweaking listings," said Bill Hunt, president of Global Strategies International, an SEO and brand management consultancy now owned by Neo@Ogilvy.

"Tagging all content appropriately will need to become a requirement versus an option," said Kara Jariwala, a search marketing strategist, Web marketing at Cisco Systems.

"Because you've got different content types showing up, you're now obligated to do more than just optimize your Web site," said Greg Sterling, principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting company that specializes in search marketing.

Up until now, search strategy has involved a combination of buying keywords from the search engine for sponsored links and optimizing the company's own Web assets to be ranked highly by the search engine's organic search listings

Search marketers haven't moved beyond the basics, Van Boskirk said. "Most marketers buy fewer than 500 keywords. Your general mainstream marketer is just trying to get the mechanics of their existing program running."

She added: "They buy keywords that are the most generic descriptors of their business. That's a bad approach. The smart marketer thinks, `Who is my customer? What is the language they use to describe my business? Which content will answer their questions?' "

Sterling agreed marketers will have to do much more. "You now need a more holistic strategy," he said. "Marketers need to think about a broader range of content types."

Jochen Specht, director of Web strategy at Siemens, is working toward that goal.

"We are already creating things like videos and online image brochures, which we market on an individual basis through banner and text ads, but we are not giving enough thought to the organic impact this content could have on our overall Web presence," he said.

While universal search still needs a lot of testing, Siemens is beginning to adapt its overall online strategy to include all the pieces of content it already generates, Specht said. The goal is to get "a greater return on our marketing and communication efforts," he said.

Another marketer, CIT Group, a commercial and consumer finance company, is beginning to tag its video content with search-friendly tags. "At CIT, we are developing more and more video-based content, which can have a great positive impact on [customers]," said Daniel Infanti, who was named VP-director of brand marketing at CIT last month.

For example, Infanti said CIT has worked the concept into its Behind the Business, an integrated communications series in partnership with Conde Nast Publications. The series, introduced in April, includes a print campaign, in-depth, live interviews with an audience, a Web site and webcasts featuring business leaders offering their business insights.

Ken Dichter, CEO of Marquis Jets, is the business executive currently featured in the series.

"If someone Googled Ken's name, they could get back news articles, the Behind the Business Web site where the interview is featured, YouTube videos of the Behind the Business series segments, press releases, etc.," Infanti said.

Infanti called blended search a great opportunity for b-to-b marketers.

Cisco's Jariwala was likewise bullish.

"Universal search provides us a very unique opportunity for our brand," she said. "We can showcase broader content capabilities within the search results, such as a video of how a router works rather than a flat, html text page. Universal search increases our engagement with our customers since this is the way many customers find content today."

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