SMX Advanced 2014 Recap: Facing the New Realities
After last year’s SMX Advanced conference in Seattle, I wrote about how the pace of change seems to be accelerating in the search marketing space. The evidence of that rate of change was certainly on display at this year’s conference. The good news is that as marketers, the possibilities are nearly limitless. What’s possible today for search marketers would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. The bad news is more or less the same. With so many possibilities, come significant challenges, not the least of which is knowing where to start. Some of these changes and challenges are even redefining what search means. Let’s take a look at a couple of the key themes from this year’s conference.
Mobile is Now Calling the Shots
The talk track about mobile changed dramatically in the space of a year. No one is talking about mobile strategies as something you need to be thinking about. It’s just assumed that mobile is a significant, even preeminent, part of your search program.
The mobile search stats being thrown around were quite dizzying. Jeremy Evans from Marin talked about seeing 34% of clicks across the board from mobile devices in 2013. Jaclyn Jordan from Wordstream talked about mobile CPC’s being up 150%. But as Reid Spice from iCrossing pointed out, this presents some pretty serious challenges. The auction model on mobile is crowded, and with only two ads that matter on Google, that is pretty quickly pricing some folks out of traditional search spaces and into other channels, particularly in categories that have traditionally been very competitive. It’s not surprising that Ad Age is reporting that mobile dollars are fragmenting significantly, but what will this mean for the future of mobile search marketing? How will the players like Google and Bing try to solve this problem?
Then there are the myriad of technical challenges that mobile poses to search marketers. Tracking users across devices continues to bewilder just about everyone. While there were some helpful tips and tricks on this issue, it’s clear that no one really has it figured out. The same goes for creating mobile websites and landing pages. It was two years ago at SMX Advanced that Google’s Matt Cutts announced that Google prefers responsive web design, making it the de facto choice of SEOs. However, that technology is far from perfect or straightforward. As Cindy Crum from MobileMoxie pointed out, responsive design applications can result in very heavy code scenarios for mobile devices with large images and multiple server calls that can materially slow down page load times. We all know that's very bad for SEO, particularly on mobile. There are ways to get at this by streamlining code and being clever, but the shine is no doubt coming off responsive design a bit, prompting more and more talk about dynamic (or adaptive) design options. The lack of clarity around this issue was underscored as Michael Martin from Covario and Jimmy Yu from BrightEdge presented seemingly directly contradicting stats on the SEO performance of responsive vs. dynamic design web content in back to back presentations.
What everyone seemed to be in agreement about, though, was that organic listing results differ significantly on the same searches between desktop and mobile devices, with Martin citing a 58% difference from their data. But Google (and now Bing) has forced desktop and mobile campaigns together, making it more difficult to craft discrete strategies for audiences that the organic algorithms clearly view as having very different intent and expectations. So, just to be clear, Google wants us to have one set of code (through responsive design) and one set of campaigns for audiences that it knows want very different things even when they use the same keywords. But, hey, no one said this stuff would be easy.
Predictive Search is Coming Fast
Day two opened with folks from Bing talking about Cortana (yes, that’s a Halo reference) – their voice activated personal assistant for Windows phones. While much of this seems like a real “me too” feature to things like Apple’s Siri and Google Now, Bing did have some pretty compelling features and use cases. One of the biggest things was enhanced third party app integration, so you can, for example, search specifically for movie times within the Flixster app. People-based reminders let you set reminders to prompt you to take action when you get texts or calls from certain people. Of course, it also does the Google Now stuff like proactively showing you directions to places it knows you’re going from your calendar appointments and showing you news based on interests that you’ve indicated explicitly through the feature or implicitly through your search behavior. These kinds of things seem pretty useful as mobile devices cement their places as the other halves of our brains. The biggest problem with Cortana, which will likely be publicly released later this year, is that it’s only available on Windows phones, which currently have 3% market share, according to ABI Research. However, their play might not ultimately be in the US market, as they reported that they've seen strong uptake from China in their development tests and plan to release a low-price handset with Cortana in that market early on in the product life cycle.
Something really struck me, though, in Bing’s presentation of this new technology. They said pretty adamantly that this predictive search will never replace the traditional search box. They expect it to be incremental, giving people more useful information more often and only increasing the overall search pie. I’m not so sure about that. That’s what people said early on about mobile, but now, of course, we see desktop search revenues actually declining in the face of mobile’s lightning-fast growth. That just makes sense. If I have my phone on me and can quickly search for something, why would I need to stop what I’m doing and go to my computer to search? Similarly, if I can ask my phone a question and get an answer, or if my phone is proactively pushing me the information I need through services like Cortana and Google Now, why do I need to conduct a search at all?
That begs a big question about the future of search marketing. Google Now has no ads, and Microsoft says Cortana won’t either. Of course, that’s subject to change at any time, but the bigger issue here is the fundamental shift in user behavior that these major players are simultaneously predicting and actively promoting. Search has gone from the ability to go to your computer to find anything you want to having that same information at your fingertips on your phone 24/7 to now having that information presented to you in context without even asking for it. As a marketer, this makes me think that things like native ads will only become more and more prevalent on mobile devices as user expectations shift over time. Also, given the reliance of these technologies on natural language processing, cluing the engines in to what your content is really about through things like schema markup (another big topic at this year’s conference) is only going to get more important for SEO.
Whatever it ends up looking like, I think it’s safe to say that these new realities will continue to change the way we think about and approach search marketing. I for one can’t wait to see how.