Parsing the future of search marketing

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Eli Goodman leads the business development team for the search division at marketing research company comScore. Hands On: Search recently asked Goodman about evolving trends in search marketing:

HOS: You've blogged that search engine algorithms are evolving to more accurately reflect searcher intent. How close are they?

Goodman: If the search engine knew exactly who you were and the way you searched, you'd get perfect query results. But we're a long way away from that.

Instead of relying on search engines to come up with a better way to judge search intent, it's up to marketers to do what they can to understand individuals or groups of individuals. We've been working on ways to analyze all the activity of a particular searcher, including his activity long before a particular search. From a b-to-b perspective, this entails gathering information from all visitors who may have come to a Web site through search and creating profiles.

HOS: Aren't b-to-b searchers identifying their habits through the keywords they search for?

Goodman: Yes. In particular, b-to-b researchers are very specific about what they search for. Let's assume you have a list of search terms that people type in to find your products. You can define who these people are, and their roles, by matching them with their queried keywords. You want to define people and their roles by the lingo they use.

[You can then] use this lingo in groups, in what I call “thematic-term sets.” Some terms may represent, say, application developers, while others represent CMOs, procurement officers and so on. Then, you cross-reference these theme sets with the results you're seeing from visits. You start to look at the pages people visit, how much time they spend on site and other metrics, and cross-reference that with qualified leads or people who've made calls or purchases. In this way, you can pretty precisely serve up the correct [search] results to the appropriate searchers.

HOS: It's probably a good bet that these theme sets are dynamic and change over time, right?

Goodman: Absolutely. That is why search terms are a fantastic focus group in their own right. They give you insight into what people are interested in, relative to your industry. You can sift through that data and see, for example, that over the past six months a particular topic has risen 70% in frequency. If you can learn from this, you can increase your search engine optimization and, eventually, your sales.

Further, you always want to look at competitive traffic. You know what's working for you, but you also want to know what's working for the competition. The reason is, at the most basic level, you need a baseline to measure yourself against. It's not enough to be satisfied with 10% growth in traffic a month if the competition is growing at 20% a month.

HOS: You've said that, in the future, search will be used as much for branding as lead-generation. What do you mean?

Goodman: Think about what marketing used to look like up to the mid-to-late '90s. Most everything tended to be about branding. When the Internet was launched, all those classic ad roles were thrown away. But search today provides a latent value in the exposure it gives you. Yes, search is about direct response. But it's also about the soft-dollar value that goes with a person's exposure to search.

Since the sales cycle of b-to-b purchases is so long, what this comes down to is telling the searcher, “Just remember me when it's time to make your decision.” I would say that the branding value of search has been overlooked, but companies may now be coming to embrace it.

HOS: ComScore has noted that the total amount of searches is increasing as consumers research what they want to buy. How is this trend affecting b-to-b decision making?

Goodman: In b-to-b, people are searching earlier in the sales process. Thus, you need to hit them earlier by finding alternative ways to get out your message. That means not only paid search via the search engines but also in alternative places such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.

Later on, down the sales funnel, when the prospect is ready to compare brands and companies to make a final decision, he'll conduct a final set of searches. But he's not going to put in 10 company names in that search field; he'll put in only three. You want to make sure you're among those three.

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