Somebody recently asked me, what is the future of paid search marketing?  At first, I thought, the simple answer to this question is:

The future of search marketing is whatever Google says it is.

After all, Microsoft Bing merely mimics Google, and there’s really no other competition.

Plus history doesn’t lead us to think search marketing often changes in a revolutionary way. Since I started doing search marketing in 2004, we have seen the arrival of new devices to accommodate (phones! tablets!), new ways to target customers (by location! by time of day!), new ad formats (sitelinks!) better reporting (actual search queries!). And we now have a much improved Bing to replace Yahoo’s old broken system.

Yet despite increased complexity, to me it still feels the same: We’re still trying to provide the best and most cost-effective marketing experience for a given search query.

Nevertheless, I thought the problem was worthy of further analysis. I talked to some friends who are deep practitioners in the search marketing space, and we agreed on two main concepts:

    1. In the short run, focus on getting the basics right. Forget the future: most companies aren’t getting the present right. There are lots of things which search marketers can do today to improve results, and many companies – and perhaps most? — aren’t doing them.
    2. In the long run, mobile changes everything. Ubiquitous computing means people are no longer sitting on their computers, browsers at the ready for classic searching. People will seek information in new ways — or have it pushed to them — and advertising will have to follow suit, upending traditional search marketing.

Here’s more detail on both:

1.  Getting the search marketing basics right

As William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The same goes for best practices in search marketing: they exist today but people don’t use them.  When I work with a new company, perhaps 95 percent of the time I see one or more of the following problems:

  • Poor campaign structure for testing & learning
  • No separation of search and display campaigns
  • No separation of brand and non-brand keywords
  • Overuse of phrase and broad match
  • No ongoing process to identify and isolate best and worst search queries
  • No negative keywords to avoid bad searches and guide keywords to lowest cost ad groups
  • Insufficient ad copy testing
  • Poor quality scores due to poor keyword/ad/landing page agreement
  • No or insufficient conversion tracking

When any one of these elements is broken, the whole search marketing channel is usually suboptimal: that is, the campaigns can’t be scaled up and cost per conversion is much higher than it should be. With automation it can be even worse, because you’ve often mechanized ignorance.

Luckily, all these problems are easy to handle if someone in charge knows what they are doing. Fix these and you’ve made progress toward search marketing nirvana.

But even in companies that get it right, there are some advanced best practices that more companies will be adopting in the future:

1.a.  Calculating the long-term value of conversions

Search marketing used to be one of the few channels that measured whether your online marketing actually resulted in “conversions” – that is, signups, sales leads, actual purchases, or whatever. Conversion tracking is now fairly standard in most forms of online advertising (except for you, LinkedIn), but what’s still hard is relating the value of that conversion to the long term value of that customer.

Here the big challenge is closing the loop: when a sale take months or even years to develop into real return, which is often the case when selling a service, how do you get that ROI data back into your marketing analysis so you can spend appropriately? And if multiple channels are attributable to one sale, how much credit should each receive? These problems can sometimes be solved with better data, but sometimes scientific testing is impossible, and they have to be judgment calls.

1.b.  Automation that is not Garbage In, Garbage Out

Is automated search marketing the future?  Big automation is one component of a massive search marketing system, but it may not be the magic bullet. As Terry Whalen of Sum Digital attests, big search marketing management platforms like Marin Software and Kenshoo have definitely gotten better with time, but they still require smart humans to manage them. If your campaign structure is designed poorly, these tools simply weaponize your mistakes and waste money faster.  Disappointment with automation has led many companies to using  homegrown scripting to automate common tasks, such as cleaning out keywords with low clickthrough rates.

2.  Increased use of mobile devices is changing everything

When thinking about the future of search marketing, there is no question that mobile devices are upending traditional models of search and shopping. Today more than half of all searches are done on mobile devices like phones, tablets, or watches, and we’re already seeing the implications of this today:

2.a.  More “near me” queries & more local search results

Google already assumes that for certain queries, searchers want local results – even when they don’t explicitly add “near me” to their query. Look up “yoga studios” on your computer, for example, and Google shows you results from your local area. Do the same on your phone and the effect is identical, if not more pronounced.

For local businesses, this means smart local SEO is essential. For larger businesses, this means geotargeting and location-specific ads are very important – although this isn’t perfect, because Google’s geotargeting may cause you to lose exposure to geographically unidentifiable audiences.

2.b.  Voice recognition changes search queries

On mobile devices people can easily search using voice recognition, not typing. This means that the wording of queries is going to become more informal and conversational (reflecting how people speak) and the queries themselves will become longer and more diverse (because there is no “suggested search” to guide people toward standardized queries). Google has been responding to this since 2013 with its Hummingbird algorithm update, which is supposed to better understand the intention of these more natural language queries. The challenge for search marketers is how to best find and match more of these longer-tail queries.

2.c.  Keywords will become less powerful (but probably slowly)

Google is always on a quest to personalize your results based on your context: what you’re interested in, where you are, what you’re doing, and even your time of day and weather conditions.  And this may occur not just in search, but also in “personal assistant” apps like Google Now, Siri, and Cortana. This not only means that keywords alone are not a sufficient guide to what people are searching for; it also means that ads are going to appear in new places (like inside mobile apps).

In this new world, we’re no longer targeting keywords; we have to target the semantics and intent of a particular query. Will Google and Bing make this a seamless transition or not? Lowell Orelup, CMO of eDriving, wonders how will we identify these new “keyword-less” search queries? We don’t know at this point.

Update 12/29/2017: It looks like Google is displaying ads where it perceives you would want to be, not just where you think you should be. As a result, we’re seeing more strange or partial search queries trigger ads.

2.d.  More in-app search

In the mobile world, apps are the predominant form of interaction, not websites viewed on browsers, with over 80% of time spent on apps. Google is recognizing this by now indexing search results inside these apps – which means if you have an app on your phone, your results might send you into that app, rather than a traditional website. Plus searches are increasingly being done inside specialized apps like Yelp, pulling away volume from traditional search engines. Not to mention personal assistant apps that may end run traditional search by pushing relevant, just-in-time data to your phone. How will search marketing access this “lost” volume? Will we have to use more mobile display to make up for the gap? We don’t yet know.

2.e.  More comparison shopping in stores

If you’re in the e-commerce space, you already know that cost-conscious consumers may now research or comparison shop on their phones before making a purchase, to make sure they got the best price. This is a great opportunity for SEO, but is it possible to poach these customers doing search marketing?

2.f.  More cross-device conversion tracking

In the bad old days (e.g., before 2015), you could pay a lot of money for clicks on a user’s computer and have no idea whether those transactions converted on that same user’s mobile devices. Google is now changing this by rolling up conversions across all devices, and Bing says they’re working on it too. It may or may not be that accurate right now, but it’s going to mean that it’s a lot safer for desktop-focused marketers to focus on mobile, and mobile-focused marketers to think about the desktop again.

Implications for search marketing in the future

While all of these changes in mobile have major impacts on SEO, the implications for search marketing are still unclear.  To me the most apparent recommendations are:

  • Set up separate mobile campaigns — regardless of the space you’re in — to experiment with and monitor mobile search marketing in your sector.
  • Test looser keyword matching, such as phrase and modified broad, to go after voice recognition queries that are becoming more loose and conversational.
  • Use geotargeting to competitively target local queries.
  • Bid for the top 2 ranks — there often isn’t space for lower ranking ads on mobile devices.
  • Get your ads into the apps by expanding mobile display and app notifications. With so many eyeballs mostly viewing apps, you can’t afford not to test and monitor these opportunities.
  • Make your site SEO and structured data strong, because Knowledge Graph and digital assistants are increasingly providing answers without the use of search engine results pages.
  • Always be testing, and always be paranoid. Monitor competitors who might use mobile to pursue breakthrough strategies to access markets you can’t, and test their methods for effectiveness.

I would also add that a lot depends on your industry and sector. If you’re in a space where most people do research and convert while sitting in front of a computer, like B2B software or financial services, then this change may be less momentous for the next 2 to 3 years. In other spaces like travel or shopping, you’re already on red alert, and you had better closely be watching use shopping and purchase behavior to understand what’s next.

Any other ideas? Did I miss anything? Feel free to leave a comment below.


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