Um, No, Search Is Not The 'Worst' Form of Advertising

GroupM Search Chief Says Branded Search Plays A Bigger Role In Purchase Decisions Than You Think

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I don't know Josh Shatkin-Margolis (author of "Search is the Worst Form of Advertising," AdAge, 4/26/11), but I know his argument. The sales pitch is simple: search is not real advertising, and in his mind, is a small and over-credited piece of the purchase process when compared to a channel of real influence and persuasion, display. Keep in mind Mr. Shatkin-Margolis apparently works at a display media retargeting firm—a business built on the foundation of search and consumer intent. So I'm surprised he'd use such a tired argument to denigrate search to prove his point.

In his article, Mr. Shatkin-Margolis contends search lacks persuasion and is wasted on convincing consumers that they are making the right decision. He also suggests an awkward analogy that you would never credit a checkout clerk for persuading someone to buy Coke over Pepsi.

Yet there are copious amounts of data available proving the role search plays in influencing a purchase decisions. Branded search is more closely associated with in-store product placement than the checkout clerk; and yes, brands often examine sales impact in their overall marketing efforts. And that ignores the impact of generic search and SEO which apparently did not warrant consideration.

In recent research published by GroupM Search, titled The Virtuous Circle – The Role of Search and Social Media in the Purchase Pathway, we found that 86 percent of all consumers found search to be somewhat or very important in their purchase pathway. The research which was designed to explore the impact of two channels together, not push one at the expense of another, also found that more than one-third of all buyers said search helped them decide what brands to buy.

That suggests a decision had to be made by the consumer and search played a role in a significant numbers of instances. Not bad for a channel where Mr. Shatkin-Margolis contends people only spend two percent of their time and do not have the advantage of pretty pictures in the form of graphical ads. Anyone paying attention to the evolution of Rich Ad formats in search could argue the search experience is more robust than ever before.

What bothers me the most is why this is even the basis for an argument in 2011. Mary Meeker, while at Morgan Stanley before moving to Kleiner Perkins, estimated that $50 billion had yet to transition from traditional advertising to digital. Rather than building a case for extending the proven performance of search with retargeting that takes some of the better characteristics into the display environment, Mr. Shatkin-Margolis wants to discuss credit. It is an argument that cross-channel attribution advocates tout – search gets too much credit and display plays a larger role than is recognized.

As a guy who has spent his career squarely in search, I've heard this argument time and again. There is no doubt that search is the beneficiary of being the touchdown maker. Likewise, there is absolutely no dispute from this perspective that when aligned with TV, display and every other media type, search works better and the dollars work smarter. Ironically I have never seen a TV buyer suggest search was taking from their pocket and not properly attributing credit back. Yet it is an all too frequent display and search occurrence. And if you think that's something, wait until we start to see discussion around Facebook/display/search attribution modeling and who really is doing the lifting.

It fascinates me – whenever the display versus search argument is made, it rarely has anything to do with true attribution and shared impact for better performance. Instead, it is a thinly-veiled money grab from what should be the desired partner, not the enemy.

The mentality that to in order advance one sector you have to put down another is not helping the digital industry. Many businesses are being built that use consumer intent and signals combined with data and buying algorithms. Those businesses will truly elevate all sectors of digital without suggesting any one area is so deficient it should be decried to the masses. Every search advertiser should be engaged in search retargeting, just as they should be exploring how to leverage real time auctions, audience based buying and where social media is going to take them.

If you want to make a case for a sound communications strategy built with proper mix models and allocations that complement and maximize investments to reach a more productive ROI, then I'm in. If you want to take your shot at search as a channel in an effort to elevate display advertising as if search is not truly advertising, then you need more data and conviction than this old argument.

To quote Omar Little from HBO's 'The Wire,' "If you come at the King, you better not miss." Distinguishing your line of business by denigrating search is a bullet fired far from the mark.

Chris Copeland is CEO of GroupM Search – The Americas, the search marketing specialist division of GroupM. Chris drives global search strategy for the organization to foster the innovation and application of search as an integrated channel for GroupM's communications planning agencies ( Maxus, MEC, MediaCom and Mindshare) and agency clients.
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