Is it time to re-label search marketing?

Last week, I asked the question, “Is the word “search” the right label for what we do on Google, Bing, Yahoo and other engines?” When Internet search debuted in the early 90’s, it was probably pretty accurate. But today, the concept may have passed the label by.

And, if that is true, then the same is probably true for “search marketing.” The main gist of my argument last week was that the word “search” implies the expenditure of a significant effort with no guarantee of a successful outcome. But today, more than ever, we look to these engines to connect us with information and functionality. We want to “do” things when we click through to the other side of the search results.

I also said that it was difficult to find any one label that covers all our intentions when we turn to a “search” engine. In the beginning, when the Web was one large bucket of ill-formed data, “search” worked as a universal label. But that’s not true today. Now, the web is becoming increasingly structured, and a search engine that excels at bringing order to unstructured data often falls disappointingly short when it comes to actually getting stuff done. In trying to be the universal Swiss Army Knife of the web, we increasingly find that for many common tasks, Google (or Bing) doesn’t do any of them particularly well. For those, a dedicated and specialized app often does a far better job of meeting our expectations.

Again, this starts to define the conundrum currently facing search marketers. When the label we used was “search” our job was simply to make sure our sites were “found.” Within the parameters defined by “searching” (to explore in order to discover) our job was straightforward: reduce the exploration effort required on the part of the searcher by moving our sites into a more “discoverable” position.

But what if we substitute some of the other labels I suggested last week for the word “search?” Suddenly, our job becomes much more complex.

Let’s start with “connection.” In this case, the buyer already has an idea that the right online destination exists, so they also have a preconceived notion of what they would find there. In game theory, this is called “expected utility.” In this case, our job is not simply to make the site easy to find but also to make sure it’s a relevant match for our prospect’s expectations. If it isn’t, we may capture the click but miss the conversion. And that puts a whole new spin on search marketing. To understand how to create a “connection” we have to understand what happens on both sides of the click: pre-connection and post-connection.

This requires us to delve into our prospects “frame of mind”. Again, the words used here provide a clue for what’s required as a marketer. A “frame” colors our entire view of things. There’s even a term for it in psychology – they call it the “framing effect.” It’s categorized as a cognitive bias, which means that our frames determine our reality. To be a successful “connection” marketer, we have to be familiar with our prospects “frame” of reference. When we are, we can provide a relevant and persuasive post-click path.

But “connection” wasn’t the only alternative label I proposed. What about “action” or “fulfillment?” Again, both ask us to substantially stretch our horizons as a marketer.

“Action” is an even more determinant label than connection. If we’re looking to take “action”, each step interposed between the end goal and the prospect is another level of frustration for them. Here, our job as “action” marketers is to remove as many of the steps as possible between intent and action. Actions are usually well defined and specific. We should be equally as specific in the alternatives we provide our prospects. Our calls to action should be a clear invitation to “do” things.

“Fulfillment” is a little tougher nut to crack. To be “fulfilled” can take several forms. Is there an emotional component? How would the prospect define “fulfillment?” Is the post-click result a step towards fulfillment, or does it take a prospect all the way there? A successful “fulfillment” marketer should be part psychologist and part clairvoyant.

Given the challenge we have in even attaching label to what it is we do, it’s no wonder that recent analyst reports are all reporting a common theme: the best search marketers are expanding into other services. We’re expanding beyond “search” into “social”, “mobile”, “local”, “display” and other channels. It’s not so much that “search” is passé, rather it’s that “search” isn’t really the right label anymore. I’m not sure that “social” or “local” are any better. Personally, I think the perfect word, whatever it turns out to be, should clearly identify “why” people are online rather than “what” they’re doing online.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider Sep­tem­ber 15, 2011