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What good is digital content if no one can find it? That's a question driving growth at agencies as marketers rediscover search-engine-optimization's role in making or breaking a campaign -- and selling product.
"A lot of our clients are starting to put a heavy focus on organic search," said Huge's director of marketing and SEO, David Sosnowski, referring to services meant to boost a marketer's search results often without the use of paid media. "Traditionally in the past it's been almost left out of the process." He attributes much of the growth in SEO to brands' emphasis on content marketing.
While search-engine-marketing services are as old as Google itself, they're seeing a resurgence as an agency moneymaker. Some large shops are getting around 20% revenue growth from search while others are beefing up their teams.
For example, Interpublic's Huge in 2014 doubled its team to more than 10 staffers. One of the shop's largest clients increased its marketing spending on an SEO initiative from 10% of its budget to 30%, said Mr. Sosnowski. Other clients are seeing almost 50% of their e-commerce revenue driven by optimized search.
In 2015, the agency plans to double or even triple its search team as voice prompts and new mobile platforms complicate the landscape.
Profero, which was acquired by IPG last year, also doubled its search team in 2014. While part of that growth came from new-client opportunities within the network, "content is the biggest opportunity for us," said Lavall Chichester, director-search and content marketing for Lowe Profero.
"The SEO department is growing faster than even the paid-search department," he added. "[Brands] are switching to publishing models and the ones working are powered by search."
Search engines surpassed general media as the most-trusted source for general news and information in 2014, according to PR giant Edelman's latest Trust Barometer. Search engines were up 8% on the Trust Barometer compared with the year before.
It also helps that more clients who control budgets understand the importance of search. Trip Advisor, although not a Profero client, is one of those companies that gets search, he said. He cited a campaign that encouraged consumers to search for "Trip Advisor and San Francisco," rather than just "San Francisco." "Doing this creates keyword searches that increase in volume over time." said Mr. Chichester.
Much of that online discovery is also now happening on mobile devices, which is leading to demand for responsive website design. Brands also want to optimize for local Yelp and Google business pages, and local search efforts power mobile search, Mr. Chichester said.
Benefiting are search specialists like iProspect. Paid search, which makes up 60% of its revenue, grew 20% in 2014 while total revenue was up 16%, thanks in large part to new content opportunities. For client GMC, iProspect identified three un-branded search topics: towing and trailering, fuel efficiency and vehicle performance. It then worked with a partner shop to create lifestyle articles and targeted consumers as they searched these topics. GMC secured the top ranking for numerous unbranded terms and drove around 14,000 incremental organic site visits per month, the shop said.
Much of that online discovery is also now happening on mobile devices, which is leading to demand for responsive website design. Brands want to optimize for local Yelp and Google business pages, and local search efforts power mobile search, Mr. Chichester said.
"Depending on the client, we are seeing at least a 50% growth in client revenue from mobile," said Jeremy Cornfeldt, U.S. president of iProspect. He referenced Google's 92% growth in mobile ad search revenue from 2013 to 2014. "It's safe to say that clients are seeing massive growth in mobile traffic and sales."
At the same time, more shops are automating much of the process using new proprietary technology, third-party vendors and APIs. Using new tools, they're also capturing more data.
"The learnings we get from search help us identify new targets," said 360i CEO Sarah Hofstetter. "It's not just search as a mechanism; it's search as a research vehicle."
Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that Trip Advisor is a Profero client; it is not.