If you are a brand and you do not have a search marketing strategy in place, or you are an agency that is not at least talking about search technology to clients, then you are in trouble. Crucially, as the lines between online, TV, radio and print continue to blur and digital moves closer to becoming the new broadcast medium, search will become the gateway for all media content.
The impact on advertising will be dramatic. Most people think search is just about online ads and text headings, but the reality is bigger (and sexier) than that. The internet is becoming a distribution channel and the place to consume premium content such as video (TV ads, film clips) and audio (podcasts, radio stations). It is enabling customers to access the honest dialogue people are having about you and your business online. And search beats the path to all these things.
All of this has huge implications for brands and agencies and offers both the chance to target users much more precisely than has been possible in the past. But it also means communication and business strategies have to adjust fundamentally to a power shift where content is king, the consumer is more in control and transparency matters.
As if that were not enough, the search giants are starting to threaten the hold traditional media companies have on advertising revenue as they move into their space.
Yahoo!, for example, has just signed a deal with five to allow users to search the broadcaster's website for content, signalling the channel's acceptance that people might want to watch its TV content online.
Google, one of the world's biggest brands, enables advertisers to bid for US magazine adspace via a business-to-business online portal and recently bought DMarc, which uses the internet to sell radio airtime to advertisers. Revenues that were once seen as the territory of broadcasting and publishing giants are no longer sacrosanct.
There are 18.2 million people in the UK using broadband at home, which equates to 71 per cent of all internet users, and 90 per cent of web users have turned to search engines to find products or brand names they saw in a display ad, according to research by Yahoo!. And eight out of ten people habitually use search engines to find website addresses they only partially remember, the same research says.
Search is the gateway to everything we do online, so being visible on it is an absolute must for any brand or product that wants to access people via all the different media touchpoints. In a world where consumers can now "pull" content out of the internet for themselves, when they want and how they want, advertisers are being given the chance to offer them what they are looking for on their own terms.
Opinions are mixed when it comes to the potential of traditional search listings - Yahoo! and Google, the two biggest players, recently announced profits were down nearly 80 per cent and up 77 per cent respectively. But the opportunities search technology affords other advertising media are mushrooming.
Damian Burns, the head of agency relations at Google, says: "There's currently a mindset of segregation where you have analogue media and digital media and digital is still the minority. There's going to be an analogue switch-off in the marketing mindset to a sort of high-definition advertising that transcends all media."
Branding, but not as we know it
"Search is a response-driven 'pull' media and it's much better at converting businesses into sales than it is at building a brand. Anyone who tells you different is smoking dope," Jim Brigden, the managing director of the Search Works, a specialist agency, says.
But the way that search works with other branding tools, such as TV and outdoor advertising, is fascinating.
"The way that people respond to a television ad they are interested in is to search for it online," the regional vice-president of Yahoo! and Yahoo! Search for Europe, Stephen Taylor, says. "They may put in the brand name or a bit of the URL that they remember, or they may put in the sector."
Chrysi Philalithes, the vice-president of global marketing and communications at the search engine Miva, says: "Brand marketers should be looking at search as a tool to help them build up category ownership online. An example of this is Huggies - its website does not sell nappies online; rather, it is a forum to share and learn. And it is using search marketing to bid on key words such as 'nappies' and ensure that it is front of mind."
It gets better. Branding tools as we know them - the rich, engaging ads - could potentially be added to search. Video and rich media is already a huge part of internet content, so what if it appeared in search-engine results rather than just on websites? None of the major search engine operators are doing this yet, but it could happen - Miva has been serving logos on its searches for ages.
However, it is possible the most exciting potential lies in search as a gateway through which people can access TV and radio ads and other content they might be looking for. Google has just launched a service that allows advertisers to serve video clips, in little boxes, to the sites of affiliated publishers, so if you are on a site for IT specialists, you could well see Dell's latest TV ad by clicking on a still that has been served to the page.
Google and its rivals are hoping that if BMW can broadcast its advertising online to people who actually want to see it, it might be possible to persuade BMW to shift some of its media budget out of expensive TV and on to the internet.
The growth of internet protocol TV - television via broadband lines - reduces our most well-known broadcasters to mere content producers. Many are already making tentative steps towards making their content available online.
Within just a few years, a significant proportion of the population could be watching TV content and using the internet via the same device. In the US, TiVo has talked about becoming the Google of TV by enabling search through television. TiVo customers can already programme their personal video recorders via a partnership Yahoo! website - speculation expects Yahoo! to exploit the potential of the TiVo alliance by putting some of its advertisers on to the PVR service.
Right on target
One of the greatest strengths of search is that it serves relevant links to people who are already looking for specific goods, services or content. The existing targeting capabilities of search engines are largely limited to the keywords users put into the search box - the more keywords a user enters, the more targeted the search can be. If you type "cars", for example, you will be served car brands.
But if the search engine could also tell advertisers how old you were and whether you were a man or a woman, then the car brands would become more relevant.
The major players are building up to this kind of individual behavioural targeting with the creation of a new breed of search engines that use registration data to make ads more tailored. Microsoft's new Ad Centre product, already functioning in the US and due to launch fully in the UK in the next couple of months, links Microsoft's Passport system with search queries. So as long as a user is signed into their Passport account while they search, advertisers will be able to target them based on gender and other factors. They can also use their behaviour online to understand more about the effectiveness of their advertising.
Location, location, location
"Local search is a key growth area. Kelsey Group expects web-based local searches to grow from £1.9 billion globally in 2005 to £7.5 billion by the end of the decade," Philalithes says.
At present, search results can be targeted locally if the user types in a postcode or area with their search query, such as "dentist, E1". Pay-per-call is already a popular local search tool - publishers charge local advertisers for calls generated by search engine listings. "Pay-per-call is likely to be at the crest of the local search wave. For the first time, the 2.7 million small to medium-sized enterprises without websites and the countless more with non-transactional sites are able to use the web as a viable marketing channel. Local search and pay-per-call go hand in hand," Philalithes says.
The flip-side to local search is the ability to deliver search results locally, for example to handheld devices such as mobile phones. "The interesting development for local search will be on mobile. Using GPRS, search engines will know where you are and, based on what you want, it will tell you exactly where to go and download a map to your phone," Ben Wood, Carat Digital's joint managing director, says.
Once this new service starts to take off, users will be able use their mobiles to search for things in their area. They could then be served with a link to a map or phone number of a restaurant, or shop, or hospital just around the corner. Subscribers using mobile search tend to look for an experience that offers answers and actionable results rather than links that lead to more searching, which may lead to higher conversions for advertisers. As well as that, clicks that result in calls, merged with the phone user's data, give advertisers more insight into who their potential customers are.
The art of social networking
Search companies have also set out their stalls to take advantage of the explosion in online community sites such as MySpace and Bebo. Say you want to canvass opinion of something - you are going abroad, for example, and want to find out how people rate a certain Paris hotel. New social search products, such as Yahoo! Answers or Google Co-op, allow you to access the opinions of people who have already stayed there, or to submit your own answers to other people's questions via dedicated engines.
"The challenge is to build a big enough user base for it to have the quality of answers and questions to make it a decent tool," Wood says. "Potentially, it is the future of search marketing - it's better to ask someone for an opinion about something than it is to ask a machine or a robot."
For advertisers, social search raises lots of control issues - what if someone says something negative about your brand online? AOL's Brand New World study says 40 million US consumers changed their minds about an online buy as a result of online information and 77 per cent of online customers say that if they saw a negative internet review about a product or brand, they would think twice about buying it.
For brands, search means the ability to track conversations consumers are having about your products and trying to influence those opinions, identifying influential bloggers in the same way they might have approached print or broadcast journalists in the past.
"There is no definitive model as yet. Consumers are no longer solely influenced by the obvious features of price - they want an independent view, which is why they're seeking reviews from other people who belong to the same communities," Faith Carthy, the group managing director at i-level, says. "You have to be careful as a brand in trying to influence those groups."
Next week: Gaming Uncovered. WHAT SEARCH MEANS FOR ...
- You need to discuss a search strategy with your clients - neither you nor they can afford not to
- The ability to relate what your clients do offline to online. Take the opportunity to think big - search isn't just about text links
- A new tool to mix branding with direct response
- Make sure your brand is visible on all the major search engines
- Connect your website strategy with your search strategy - search is the gateway to sales
- Don't think that no rich media on search means no branding power
- A chance to get involved in the conversations that consumers are having about your brands.