Search-engine marketing may like to portray itself as the most transparent and accountable marketing channel ever invented, and in many respects there is more than a grain of truth in this. But it is equally true that it can be a murky old business.
Take, for instance, the unfortunate case of BMW - hardly the worst or most persistent offender when it comes to sharp practice in the online world, but one that had the terrible misfortune not only to get found out, but to have its jiggery pokery picked over in public.
In 2006, Google caught it using duplicitous "doorway pages" to boost its search rankings and, ultimately, to deceive the public. Google responded by downgrading BMW's website, effectively removing it from Google searches altogether. BMW eventually apologised and promised in future to play by the rules, but it somehow managed to compound the original offence by insisting that it had acted with honourable intentions.
Doorway pages are text-rich areas of websites that are designed to interact with a search engine's information-gathering and classification technologies - but they are completely hidden from the view of the general user. For example, you might have a phrase like "the best car ever made" repeated on a doorway page, ensuring that when Muggins the average web surfer types "the best car ever made" into a search engine, he or she might end up at the website of a car manufacturer whose cars are not universally heralded as the best ever made.
True, the BMW incident involved a "natural" or unpaid-for search. If you want to load a search outcome in your favour, you can quite legitimately pay to ensure you get top listing against your chosen keywords, and this is where the likes of Google make their billions.
But even this supposedly transparent world can be subject to abuse, and for some advertisers, especially those in the mortgage and car insurance sectors, this is a serious issue.
Some of these companies acquire the vast majority of their custom online, and if they fail, for whatever reason, to appear in the first page of search results, where click-through rates are at their highest, it can have a disastrous effect on their business.
So last week's news from the IPA will be warmly received in some quarters of the industry. The IPA has launched Search Group to set best-practice standards and address several contentious issues. In a parallel move - the timing of which was not entirely coincidental - the Internet Advertising Bureau's Search Council, whose members include Google, Yahoo! and MSN, has set up a "best practice resource" to help advertisers "conduct search marketing effectively and responsibly".
1. The IPA Search Group is chaired by Arjo Ghosh, the chief executive of iCrossing. As well as iCrossing, 16 agencies will have representation on the body. These are: The Search Works International, Zed Media, i-level, Isobar, Universal McCann, I Spy Search, LBi, Media Planning Group, VCCP Search, DBD Media, MediaVest Manchester, Cheeze, Profero, Steak Media, agency.com and agenda21.
2. Search Group has already issued agency recommendations that are aimed at guarding against the misuse of client trademarks. For example, companies that have developed well-known branding straplines to underpin their marketing efforts will often find rivals trying to hijack those phrases in their search-marketing strategies. Its other aim is to encourage search engines to tackle issues such as clarity, service levels and advertiser protection.
3. The body will also offer advice on how a company should dovetail its search efforts with those of organisations involved in the sale of its product.
4. Tellingly, it will also promote the notion that paid-for search placements are not always the most cost-effective approach. Its initial manifesto states: "Seventy per cent of search-engine referrals are generated via organic or natural search-engine results."
5. While doing its best to sound enthusiastic about the IPA initiative, the IAB is clearly miffed. In announcing its scheme, Guy Phillipson, the IAB's chief executive, said: "We listened to all different parties to ensure that (our) new best practice resource meets the needs of the industry in 2008. No other trade body could get this kind of co-operation."
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- The likes of Google, Yahoo! and MSN will view the emergence of this body with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is further confirmation that search is now utterly embedded in the marketing mainstream - and that can only hold out the promise of continued growth.- On the other hand, it's an indication that those same mainstream advertisers and their agencies are now minded to ask far more probing questions about the business than have been asked before.- The search sales pitch is arguably not as straightforward and conclusive as has been made out in the past. So this should make life interesting, especially as, during 2008, the focus in online advertising was always likely to move slightly away from search and onto formats more conducive to audio-visual branded content.
- According to the IPA Search Group chairman, Arjo Ghosh, the bottom line is that standards will undoubtedly improve. He says: "This is a good barometer of how far search has come - and it's an opportunity to raise the bar for the search industry. We need to get to the point where agencies feel they can approach this area in complete confidence."