Despite the economic meltdown of the past several months, search still seems to be cruising along with barely a hiccup. To be honest, it’s a little surreal. For those of us in the industry, it seems like we’re in a protective bubble while the world falls down around us. To be sure, the impact has been felt, even in our search world. But all things are relative, and relative to every other marketing channel, search seems invincible.
The question is: Why?
What is it about search that makes it weather economic storms so well? Based on what I’ve seen, the only clients that, once having adopted search as a channel, decide to drop it are the ones that are going completely out of business. In the past year, I’ve seen a lot of budget flow into search from other channels, but almost none flow the other way. Fourth quarter numbers from a number of monitoring services indicated that search volumes and revenue seemed higher than ever. True, the astronomical growth rates of the past have tamed down dramatically, but search is still growing. Name me one other channel where that is true.
So, with apologies to Stephen Covey, I’ve identified 7 habits unique to search that lead it to being seemingly recession proof. Not surprisingly, they all tie back to user behavior.
Habit 1: Search captures demand
Search is unique in its ability to harvest consumer demand. It’s the most efficient mechanism I’m aware of to do so. More and more, all other marketing activities lead prospects to search, where smart marketers can cast a very effective net to capture the potential business. TV ads lead to search. Newspaper and magazine ads lead to search. Direct mail leads to search. Yes, potential business can still find other paths to purchase, but every day, more and more traffic intent on buying crosses through the search intersection.
Now, with this there is a lag effect that marketers have to be aware of. Other marketing creates demand. Search captures demand. The two can’t work independently, at least not in a sustainable way. As overall demand decreases, marketing budgets tend to shift to channels that are more measurable and effective in capturing real revenue. Search benefits from this in the short term, but in the long term neglecting the creation of demand will have an inevitable impact on the amount of demand that can be captured on the back end. In a sustained downturn, all boats will sink eventually, just not at the same time. But, for six other reasons still to follow, I believe search’s vulnerability is far less than other channels.
Habit 2: Search is category agnostic
As consumerism fails, so too does advertising. At least, that’s the theory. But humans have two polar orientation points that guide our buying behaviors. We alternate between the expected rewards of gain and prevention of loss. Both can translate into consumer activity, although the former generates far more activity than the later.
The best way to explore this is with an example. If the economy goes into free fall, advertising luxury vehicles is probably going to be an exercise in futility. However, debt consolidation might find a very receptive market. Search can cover both categories quite effectively. Search volumes will naturally switch from promotion type queries (looking for things to buy) to prevention type queries (looking to hold on to what you have) and queries equal inventory. In an economic downturn, search is rather unique in that another type of inventory for another market is automatically created. And it’s an inventory that will be attractive to a select group of marketers.
Habit 3: Search is democratic
Search campaigns are relatively easy to launch. A search campaign can be up and running in a few minutes. Also, the pricing model of search allows almost anyone to play. So, for any given keyword, you can find advertisers running the gamut from huge, multinational brands to the mom and pop shop down the street from you. This opens a huge pool of potential advertisers that can place their ad budgets on search. Search engines have the luxury of spreading their risk over a much larger pool of customers. If GM cancels their Super Bowl ads, there are a limited number of candidates that can pony up the budget required to grab those 30 second spots. But with the efficiency of the search marketplace, if GM turns down their search spend, other players automatically rise up to take their place. Yes, click prices may trend slightly downwards, but at least it’s not a gaping black hole that can’t be filled.
Habit 4: Search is proactive and interactive
The previous 3 habits had more to do with the nature of advertisers than users, so let’s explore why search is so effective in connecting with prospective customers. Search demand stays strong because it’s demand expressed by the user. If a marketer spends money on a TV ad, they have no idea if anyone is listening, or, if they are, do they care? It’s a gamble based on a rather cloudy mix of rating points, consumer confidence indexes, market research and a number of other fuzzy variables. Compared to that, search volumes are hard and crystal clear numbers: real people expressing intent by searching for things. Short of a customer giving you their credit card and telling you to charge away, there are few more concrete signals of consumer intent. The path from a search click to a customer conversion can still be tricky, but it’s an arrow straight and short path compared to the one that starts from watching a TV ad or reading a magazine.
Habit 5: Search gets our attention
We consciously decide to search. We have a goal that leads us to our favorite search engine and our brain is engaged in the pursuit of relevant information. That means advertisers don’t have to get clever to get our attention—it comes by default with the act of searching. All advertisers have to do is three things: 1) catch our eye on the search page, 2) deliver a message that convinces us to click, and 3) deliver a relevant and compelling path to follow when we get to the landing page. If you’re deciding where to place your advertising dollars to get the best return, the head start that Search has by coming out of the gate with our attention already captured is a huge advantage.
Habit 6: Search is ubiquitous yet focused
Almost everyone I know uses search. In fact, almost everyone I know uses Google. And I can’t think of one other ad channel I can say that about. A few people I know watch The Office or 30 Rock. A few people I know read the newspaper or Time magazine. And increasingly, even fewer people I know listen to the radio.
Everybody searches. And, in the future, they’ll just search more. Right now, the majority of those searches are funneled through Google. Name one other channel where you can reach almost everyone, and you can reach them at the precise time they’re thinking of your product. That’s one extremely focused intersection that almost your entire market may walk through. Other channels can only dream of this combination of reach and targeting.
Habit 7: Search is friction-free
Finally, search is easy. It’s friction-free. You don’t have to worry about production costs or media buying formulas. New advertisers can adopt search without stumbling over a huge learning curve or sunk set up costs. There are virtually no barriers to entry. The biggest hurdle to more advertisers using search is simply lack of awareness and education. And, ironically, the current economic situation will help Search in spreading the word. In the current economic environment, stupid advertisers won’t survive. They will have to become smarter and more efficient. They will have to evolve faster than the competition. And that means they’ll be finding more effective ways to advertise.
There you have it. 7 reasons why I believe Search will do all right, even in the worst economic crisis of our lives. Will there be bumps and scratches? Yes, but no fatal body blows. Unfortunately, the same won’t be true of other ad channels. Having started my career as a radio copywriter, which then led to other traditional marketing channels, I have to say I’m counting my blessings that internet search came along and looked like an interesting area to pursue. In fact, the reasons I made the switch in 1996 were the same ones I shared today. I believed then that search was a fundamentally important shift in the practice of marketing, and I still believe so now.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.