Stop Pretending That Search Engine Marketing Is Advertising

It's Really Search, Driven by Algorithms That Connect Words and Phrases to Consumers

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Since my op-ed piece on search engine marketing ran in DigitalNext a few weeks ago, Ad Age and other digital marketing publications have run well thought out responses. There are two schools of thought. One: SEM is the best form of advertising. Two: SEM is not advertising. Those who subscribe to school number two also believe that the current state of the industry needs to evolve. Rattle the SEM cage, and you'll get roared at. It will be a good, loud, intelligent roar especially if you contend that SEM is the worst form of advertising.

Let's requalify a bit. SEM is the worst form of advertising, but bear in mind that it is the best form of targeting. SEM is actually not even advertising. It's search. It is driven by algorithms that connect words and phrases with customers and, as such, it's extremely effective. However, this effectiveness loses the persuasive power of display. It's time to delineate between the two in the digital marketing business. Search is search. Search retargeting is the logical evolution of SEM that picks up what search lacks -- an understanding of how to effectively target across display. Search retargeting is a more effective and intelligent intersection of search and display advertising.

With that in mind, and the understanding that search and search retargeting are both necessary for effective digital marketing, three points become critical:

1. Search needs a future. Industry innovators looking for new ways to drive digital marketing need to lead this charge. Take a look at how the leading search firm is addressing this challenge. On May 2, Google announced that it plans to introduce a suite of new features that will give advertisers "smarter tools aimed at retargeting dynamic ads to potential and existing customers." Again, SEM needs a future. Google sees the need to evolve and to aspire to be better. It is this desire that made digital marketing what it is today.

2. The connection between search and display ads provides marketers with a huge opportunity to increase ROI and increase customer relevance. Suppose a mobile phone company is crafting a search campaign in support of its back-to-school sales effort. That company can create a campaign that allows them to capture an interaction from a potentially in-market consumer. Search retargeting goes a step further. The mobile phone company can now create ad groups and text ads on a PPC basis for search retargeting and, instead of paying $25 a click to have their ad show up alongside a Google search result, they can pay far less (even $1 or $2 a click less) to have a display ad show up targeted at the same audience after they've left the search engine and, most likely, after they have moved along in their decision process.

3. Search retargeting and search will (and should) live together. Agencies play a critical role in this new living arrangement. It's a mistake to ignore the opportunity of search retargeting. It would be akin to leaving money on the table. Search retargeting combines the best parts of search -- its ability to target -- with the best parts of display -- the ability to entice users to buy a product or service. Search retargeting combines these strengths to let you reach the in-market customer during the 98% of online time spent outside of the search engine.

At one level, this debate is about strategy and tactics. On another level, it's about dollars. At the bottom line it's about evangelizing for digital marketing, a common interest amongst many of us. The future of media will naturally include search retargeting and other ways to combine search with other digital technologies and channels. In other words, all of this supports the fact that we need to keep the momentum behind digital marketing building at a steady pace. And a big part of that momentum is exploring the future of SEM without leaving it behind. Now, as Michael Corleone once said: "Do we understand each other?"

Josh Shatkin-Margolis founded Magnetic in 2008, and has 10 years of experience in the field of online marketing and data. Previously, he spent three years at Yahoo, where he was the director of engineering, responsible for data processing within the advertising division.
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