Marketers snare in-house search gurus

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Search marketing is a complex and expensive discipline with its own rules, and forward-thinking marketers are appointing their own in-house search managers as they realize that an agency alone cannot manage the complex, round-the-clock responsibilities of keyword choosing and bidding. "Traditional marketers are moving from test phase to full deployment of search marketing," said David Hirsch, director, B2B vertical markets group at Google. Leading the charge are dedicated dot-coms such as Amazon and eBay, followed by a handful of Fortune 500 retail, travel, financial- services and consumer-electronics companies.

"The days of managing search in a silo are coming to an end," said Jeff Lanctot, VP-media, aQuantive's Avenue A| Razorfish, which claims to be the largest buyer of paid search, spending $87.5 million in 2004 through its search unit. "Marketers are demanding an integrated view of their digital marketing."

Meanwhile agencies are striving to sharpen up their search expertise, as a plethora of recent acquisitions and startups show. While an agency may be able to juggle the thousands of keywords the typical marketer bids on at one time from 20 different search engines, marketers need someone in-house to tie in all these keyword campaigns with the overall marketing strategy. "Search is the rocket science of marketing," said Frederick Marckini, CEO and founder of iProspect, a division of U.K-based Aegis Group's Isobar digital network.

`chief evangelist'

Plus, keyword prices have spiked 50% over the last year. Search represented about 40% of the $9.6 billion online advertising dollars in 2004. And some brands, like Hewlett-Packard, which this month appointed Amanda Evans as search manager, are jacking up their search spending by about 40% in 2005, according to HP and interactive media buyers.

HP retains an agency that handles paid search and another that handles natural search optimization. Ms. Evans, who oversees a staff of 10, is described by her boss, Mary Bermel, manager of interactive, as "chief evangelist and policy developer," educating different units throughout the company about how search fits into their marketing mix.

Her responsibilities include not only sorting and balancing campaigns attached to the thousands of keywords, but keeping divisions from competing against each other. For instance, both the business-to-business and consumer groups may want to bid on the word "laptop." Ms. Evans would mediate and determine how those bids would dovetail. She also oversees each landing page that is connected to each keyword campaign so a transaction is seamless. And none of this is static. Keywords may change many times in a 24-hour period to maintain their return on investment.

An in-house expert has to speak the language of the search agencies merely to understand the results they deliver. How did the brand's name place in natural search as well as in paid search campaigns? What keyword brought each customer to the marketer's site? Which search engine did each customer use? What level of conversion was achieved from each keyword and each search engine? What was the return on investment for each keyword? And finally, how did that ROI fit into the overall goals of the campaign?

"If you can't bring in someone who understands all that, they are not going to do the job properly," said Matt Naeger, VP at Pittsburgh-based search agency Impaqt.

`game over'

And if they don't do the job properly, the marketer loses its edge. "When a search happens, the customer will find you or they will find your competitor: Game over," Mr. Marckini said.

HP formalized its search department's role as it realized that search is no longer just a direct-marketing function, Ms. Bermel said. She pointed to a DoubleClick/ComScore study that shows consumers research products up to 12 weeks before making an online purchase. Shoppers start their search using generic terms and, closer to the point at which they are ready to buy, narrow their search down to the brand name, like "HP laptop."

"It's about the brand being available at the beginning when the customer starts his search all the way to when they make their purchase," Ms. Bermel said.

Another ComScore study looked at the buying cycle for computers and consumer electronics, and found that 92% of conversion activity actually occurs offline. That means shoppers research for weeks online, then bop into a bricks-and-mortar store to buy. Another justification for an in-house search manager. "If the offline marketing team doesn't have access to that search data, they lose out on how to reach and target prospective customers," said analyst James Lamberti, VP-marketing solutions, ComScore.

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