Ads that click all the right boxes
It may not be pretty, but online search marketing is the new way to advertise
IN the uber glamorous adland, search marketing is about as unsexy as it gets. On the information super highway of sponsored links there are no catchy jingles. There are no titillating pictures. There are no hilarious clips or powerful scene setters.
Creative brilliance is replaced with mathematical genius as IT types ponder the most successful algorhythms for ad placement and financial types ponder their bid levels.
For the metaphorically inclined, TV advertising is hot, radio advertising is tepid and search marketing is positively sub zero.
Yet despite the medium's complete lack of creative credentials, search marketing spending is positively soaring, rising by about 50pc in the last year alone.
That 50pc compares with a 4pc jump in print spending, a 15pc rise in TV, a 13pc rise in radio and a 9pc rise in outdoor.
It may be a creative wasteland, but it's a wasteland set to grow exponentially in the coming years as advertisers pile in to pursue search marketing's higher "return on investment" rates in an increasingly challenging economic climate.
A testament to the medium's passage into the mainstream comes next Thursday when a Dublin hotel plays host to the second annual Search Marketing World Conference & Expo.
A gaggle of search marketing experts from Ireland and across the world, and there are a surprising number of them, will crowd the venue to ponder a vast range of topics on the evolving search marketing environment in Ireland with separate running orders for newcomers ("the fundamentals track"), informed ("the advanced track") and expert ("the cutting edge track").
Chief among the topics will be the recent boom in search engine activity in the Irish market.
A 2007 survey by consultants Amárach found that just 48pc of the online population used search engines every day. This time round, Amárach found that percentage had soared to 83pc.
The survey sample is just over 500 people, but Amárach boss Gerard O'Neill insists the methodology is robust, with the group weighted so they are representative of the online community.
While the apparent boom in search engine activity will be welcomed by 'search marketers' a more crucial point is how these search engine users interact with "sponsored links".
Irish companies paid more than €25m for these 'sponsored links' last year, according to Dublin-based Interactive Return, handing over money to search engines (chiefly Google) for every person who clicked on their prominently displayed sponsored link.
"We found only one in ten never use a sponsored link, but when they do use sponsored links it's not that often, most use them 'rarely' or 'occasionally'," says O'Neill.
"We also found consumers are more likely to trust websites in the top five or six search results than sponsored links, so advertisers and agencies still have a job to do to reassure consumers about the trustworthiness of links."
Another industry issue is click fraud, which can see advertisers billed for hoards of computer-generated "clicks" on their sponsored links.
"We'd always tell clients to set up something to measure their traffic themselves rather than just accepting the clicks they're given," says Interactive Return boss Martin Murray.
"Most of the time fraud is something we're raising with them, rather than something they've given a lot of thought to themselves."
While there may be room for improvement, industry insiders speak of the medium's massive potential.
"Search is the most trackable media on the planet, you live and die by your research," says John Myres, head of Search with UK-based MidiVest Interactive. 48pc of the online population used search engines every day. "With search you can understand every piece of traffic, where it has come from and where it has gone too, so you know exactly what's happening in real time."
The absence of barriers to entry for businesses is also a major plus for search says Murray.
"To buy a banner ad on a major website you'd be talking about a minimum spend of €10,000, for a search marketing campaign with Google there are no set-up costs, you just pay an amount each time someone clicks on your ad," he says.
While search marketing may have plenty to offer small offline businesses, the sector's incumbents and major players are undoubtedly big business and online offerings as simple perusal of the net will quickly reveal.
"One of the biggest battle grounds in the UK is car insurance, there are companies paying tens of pounds for every click through they get in some cases," says Myres.
Meanwhile back in the homeland, "early adapters" include "travel and accommodation, consumer financial services, mortgages, credit cards, car traders and recruitment", says Myres.
Those incumbents are becoming increasingly demanding in their ever earnest pursuit of that vital return on investment.
Cue Microsoft's adCentre, the software giant's latest ploy to lure market share away from the massively dominant Google and towards its own MSN.
Launched in August 2006, adCentre offers "demographic profiling" that delivers investment returns far higher than those of Google, says the project's European boss Mel Carson, who'll be speaking at next week's Dublin forum.
"MSN has been around for well over 10 years and a significant proportion of our users have MSN messenger and hotmail, when they're logged in we have their date of birth and gender so that helps advertisers pitch their products in a more targeted way," says Carson.
"We're the only ones who can give them that kind of demographic profiling, we've done case studies where the cost per acquisition (of new customers) was reduced by up to 76pc when companies doubled their bid for a particular age or gender."
AdCentre's rollout has so far been confined to the UK, the US, France and Canada, and has yet to put much of a dent in Google's 50pc market share in the US and 80pc European share.
Carson insists, however, that growth has been "exponential" as the market catches onto the unique potential of Microsoft's offering.
With annual search marketing revenues growing by more than 40pc in the UK and Ireland, one thinks Google's competitive response can't be far away.