The slippery slope of search semantics
By Charlene Li
I’m embarking on a new research project, which involves sizing online advertising’s growth over the next five years. One of the issues I’ve come across is trying to define and size search marketing.
Here’s the problem – it’s pretty clear what “real” search marketing is – it’s putting text ads next to search results on sites like Google, Yahoo, MSN, et. al. The next variation is putting text ads next to search results on non-search sites like the nytimes.com. It’s still ads around search results, just not necessarily on search “sites”.
Now it gets trickier with contextual ads. The marketing logic is that someone who types in a keyword(s) in a search box is expressing a specific intent to find content on a particular subject. That intent is implied when looking at an actual content piece, hence, contextual advertising where the keyword is inferred from the content, and purchased explicitly by the advertiser.
Is this search? Contextual ad providers are typically also keyword search providers (think Google, Overture, Kanoodle). But this is more an extension of an existing marketer relationship than of the actual “search” product.
Another variation and extension – what if that intent is expressed as behavior rather than content? This has led to the birth of contextual advertising, offered via providers like Tacoda and Revenue Science on content sites like weather.com – and provided on a grander scale by Yahoo via their Fusion Targeting program. In most cases, these ads have been sold as graphical display ads targeting users who are designed “interested car buyers”, for example. But they are increasingly offered also as text ads, again, targeted to a specific group of users based on their intent as expressed in behavior.
So can we just call this space “sponsored links” and be done with it? Not so fast -- let’s go even further now with the image ad alternative that Google offers as part of AdSense for Content. Marketers have the option of showing an image ad instead of a text link on these content pages. It’s a thin line between these image ads that may appear on the side and bottom of the content, and the high-priced, CPM-based display ads that appear at the top of the page. In fact, doesn’t it make sense in the future for Yahoo! to extend its Content Match capabilities and place display ads contextually throughout the Yahoo! Network sites?
I think you begin to understand why I see such a slippery slope – once you take search though its natural evolution, it becomes hard to separate and size where search beings and traditional display online ads begin.
Now here’s the rub – I believe that in five years’ time (the scope of my sizing report) that marketers will be buying search and display ads in very similar ways. Marketers will be able to target display ads based on a combination of audience demographics and implied, contextual keywords. They will also be able to buy text ads that appear next to search results based on a combination of keyword search but targeted with different creative for men versus women, or customers versus non-customers.
So, what’s really “search” in 2010? How do you think we’ll be defining search in five years? Share your thoughts in comments below, or if you’re feeling shy or proprietary, send me an email.