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Is Search Engine Marketing Advertising?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Former Yahoo engineer and current agency CEO, Josh Shatkin-Margolis, is stirring the digital marketing pot at Ad Age.A few weeks ago Shatkin-Margolis declared that Search is the Worst Form of Advertising,  essentially arguing that paid search can’t really persuade (more on that below). He’s followed that up with another piece, where he asks digital marketers to Stop Pretending That Search Engine Marketing is Advertising.

My initial reaction was to completely disagree. What Shatkin-Margolis is really saying, though, is that search marketing is most effective when paired with other forms of advertising like online display retargeting (not surprising, since the agency he founded deals exclusively in forms of retargeting). I largely agree with that sentiment; you will always get more bang for your search buck when it’s backed up by solid positioning through awareness advertising.

However, he loses me when he makes the point that search marketing is not persuasive. Done correctly, search engine marketing can be highly persuasive throughout the purchase cycle. For instance, a manufacturer of desktop printers can serve a search ad to a consumer who is researching which printer to buy, using those precious lines of text to communicate the features and benefits that make the product attractive to the consumer. When that consumer makes a decision and indicates through their search query that they are ready to buy, that same manufacturer can serve an ad that directs the consumer to a deal on that printer at a local retailer. What could be more persuasive than that?

Could a campaign like this be even more effective with a display retargeting campaign that follows the consumer around the web throughout the purchase cycle, reiterating the features and benefits of the product? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that search engine marketing is not advertising. It simply means that search engine marketing is an extremely effective form of advertising that integrates nicely with other channels. You could say the same thing about online display; it’s an effective form of advertising, but it’s even better when paired with a highly targeted search campaign.

Shatkin-Margolis goes on to say that digital marketers need to innovate and create a future for search engine marketing. For him, this future includes lots of display retargeting (again, not surprising, given what his agency does). I agree that search engine marketing needs to evolve, but display retargeting is not at the center of that evolution.

Search engines like Google and Bing are relying more on user history and social signals to deliver relevant results. Search engine marketers must also embrace a highly personalized approach. In an environment where traditional advertising messages are seen as avoidable interruptions, giving consumers what they’re looking for when and where they’re looking for it is critical. It is this trend toward personalization that makes search engine marketing one of the most persuasive and effective forms of, yes, advertising.

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