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They Don't Get It (Yet): A Look Back at the Rude Awakening that Was SES

By Andrew Goodman, 8/29/2004

[An up-close view of the first ever Search Engine Strategies date in Canada,
May 11-12, 2004]


As Search Engine Strategies' first foray into Canada approached, the buzz was
underwhelming. Had one gone by the lukewarm interest displayed by local media
and the overall tone of mainstream media coverage of trends in online
advertising, one would have despaired that this would be an embarrassing event
that would not generate enough interest to warrant a repeat visit.


An uneducated guess would have led one to predict that a small gaggle of
avant-garde attendees would have the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and nearby
bars and restaurants, to themselves. No such luck. The rank and file, including
local search engine junkies working at companies of varying shapes and sizes,
had long been looking forward to this event. Searchies from nearby towns like
London and Guelph, western cities like Edmonton and Calgary, and big-city tech
industry and marketing professionals from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, came
out in large enough numbers to exceed expectations. Jupitermedia has expanded
the show from two days to three for May 2005.


Of course many of the usual experts and suspects
from south of the border, and some international attendees, made the trek as
well. It seems likely that trend will continue next year if word of our
unseasonably warm May leaks out (I guarantee it again for 2005).


Who didn't show up? The Canadian media. There is no shortage of reporters
assigned to technology beats at papers like the National Post, the Globe and
Mail, and the Toronto Star, to say nothing of cable TV and other news sources.
But at least this time around, they didn't seem to pay much attention to SES. In
their defense, some reporters have made special efforts to cover search from
time to time. It's a question of resource allocation and, particularly with the
Toronto Star's @biz section, the need to pander to an audience who is more
content to gripe about service outages with their Sympatico DSL connection and
to help "the consumer" decide which gizmo to buy at Future Shop, than
to look deeply into what's really happening online on a cultural and economic
level.


In the weeks leading up to SES Toronto, a number of articles confirmed my
sense that most observers have failed to catch up with what's actually going on
with daily online behavior.


David Ticoll, a formidable expert in many facets of online business
(co-author of The
Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business
),
managed to trot out the shortsighted
argument that "search isn't sticky."
Hmm, yes and no. Google isn't
just search any more than Yahoo was after it gained portal status. And even in
search alone, a modest line of argument presented by SES
panelist Shane Wagg
-- that search is habitual behavior like checking email
that gets ingrained and becomes indispensable to the achievement of goals --
contrasts with the uncritical wisdom of those who aren't looking at user
behavior carefully enough. The patterned nature of this mysterious behavior was
underscored by MSN's Mike Sharma, who gave an eye-opening presentation on the
spikes in searches for certain seasonal terms such as "camping
equipment." A generalist might be impressed enough by data exposing the
seasonality of spring and summer searches for camping equipment, but only a
sharp-eyed veteran might be able to unravel reasons why users in Quebec also
searched heavily for this term in January. No, it wasn't about winter camping.
This is around the time the provincial government's online camping reservation
system opens. After you've made reservations, you might suddenly realize you
need a tent that doesn't leak.


Marketing consultant and ClickZ columnist Tessa Wegert was all
about push
this spring. Push? That old thing? In sharp contrast, Wendy
Muller, Head of Canadian Sales for Google, emphasized in her SES panel talk that
AdWords' growth has been so swift because it's "pull-based marketing"
and meets with little resistance from users.


If the Canadian press (or other experts) are looking for a little sizzle in
their coverage, how about some speculation that the next Google could
conceivably come out of research at the University of Waterloo, the same
regional tech hub that produced Research in Motion? Open
Text
, a strong search technology that was once Yahoo's index search provider
(pre-AltaVista), also came out of Waterloo. They're now a profitable enterprise
software company valued at just over $1 billion. They came too early to the
party to make Google-sized waves, but there will be other parties. Most will
emanate from Stanford, Brown, MIT, et al., but if a Canadian reporter is looking
for a local angle and something positive to tell Canadian parents about their
local institutions, a story on whether the next Google could conceivably come
out of Waterloo wouldn't hurt.


(Little-known fact: Open Text was possibly the first web index to pilot
the pay-for-placement business model
, in 1996. The idea received a terrible
reception from users and the press, and flopped. Two years later, GoTo (now
Overture) was launched and got off to a shaky start before eventually hitting on
a successful pay-per-click auction formula that didn't alienate users.)


It might also help if government revamped its budgetary priorities towards
technology transfer. Or even if they revamped the power structure in federal
cabinet to better reflect the new economy rather than being calibrated for
perpetual politicking. [Oddly, in doing some hasty research for this piece, this
related article by my cousin, Lesley
McKarney
(a real scientist), came to light.]


For now, coverage of search is still at the gawking, incredulous stage. If
they're to remain credible commentators on technology, search is going to have
to take up considerably more of the average business and tech reporter's radar
screen. Google's still being treated as if it were a $500 million company, not a
$30 billion company.


Coverage of the IPO was one thing we weren't short on this spring. I always
figured that fixating on that part of it was attractive to mainstream media
because it allowed them to look wise and to distance themselves from what could
prove to be an embarrassing bubble down the road. The tone of Google media
coverage everywhere continues to be heavily valuation-centric. It's also focused
heavily on perceived scandals and unorthodox management styles. There needs to
be more coverage of technological innovation and the shift in the advertising
business model that is affecting large and small companies alike at the micro
level.


If Canadian businesses large and small are about 12-18 months behind in their
adoption of paid search marketing tactics, some purported tech industry pundits
need to be held accountable for their lack of vision. Maybe the daily Nortel
deathwatch and perpetual convening of the Blackberry fan club really is so
fascinating that it can satisfy every viewer's curiosity about high tech, but I
doubt it.


Soon, some of the talking heads will discover trendy stuff like blogs,
bypassing completely the changes in content business economics (better ad
models) that threaten to make the most popular weblogs (and many other content
formats) economically viable.


For now, the real movers and shakers and grassroots players in search have no
choice but to convene and share their own, closer-to-the-ground, reality. SES
Toronto provided that satisfying feeling. A strong lineup of initial exhibitors
and sponsors took a flyer on this one; for 2005, the availability of exhibit and
sponsor slots seems already to be tightening.


Content-wise the show offered a stripped-down program, so there were probably
fewer highlights than at the recent larger SES events in San Jose and New York.
But some sessions were gratifying insofar as real insiders in the industry came
to present fresh numbers about trends and to offer clear ideas about where they
saw their companies heading, both in general and with specific reference to
Canadian audiences. (I read a couple of reviews indicating that Google and other
search engine representatives were "tight-lipped," but that must have
been with specific reference to sessions that drilled them on the inner workings
of their algorithms. Of course they're a lot more forthcoming when you attend
sessions on how the ad programs work, or general overviews of how users today
are using search to find what they need.)


A session on shopping
search
was particularly interesting. Reps from Bizrate, Shopping.com, and
Pricegrabber offered proof of the rapid growth of the segment. Marketer Adam
Jewell provided his own third-party quantitative study that included Yahoo!
Shopping in the mix with the above three. Jewell's case study showed that
shopping search generally has a higher ROI than any other kind of paid search
(including pay-for-placement near search results), but due to the relatively
slow pace of consumer adoption, click volume is still quite low. Due to various
factors, adoption has been much slower in Canada than in the US. At least one of
the leaders in this sector plans a made-in-Canada initiative to overcome the
current resistance in the marketplace; others demurred on the question. In
general, the panelists were unable to answer the difficult audience questions
specifically relating to the foibles of Canadian consumer markets.


The shopping search session, while groundbreaking, was lightly attended.
About 40 serious note-takers were scattered around the room. In the same time
slot, I was informed that a session on link-building was standing-room-only.
This betrays an obsession with "getting it for free" that again feels
-- at least as far as Search Engine Strategies session attendance goes -- at
least 18 months out of date. Or it might simply mean that the word is out on Mike
Grehan
's ruthlessly entertaining takes on the link-building subject.


comScore Networks' James Lamberti, after dropping the bombshell that Google
holds a commanding market share of 62% when measured as "share of monthly
searches" in Canada (Yahoo, 15%; MSN, 12%), presented fresh data showing
that Canadians are
more active searchers
than Americans. But he made it clear to the audience
that he felt that those searchers weren't being well served by the Canadian
corporate sector, who simply don't seem as aggressive in their efforts to become
more visible on search engines.


Increasingly, marketing is data-driven. Until the
media start paying more attention to the data about the rapidly growing search
phenomenon here (and elsewhere, of course), Canadian businesses will continue to
underestimate the opportunities for customer acquisition that are transacting
every day, every time one of their customers types in “camping information,”
“formal wear,” or “high interest rate chequing account.” Those
who attend the
2005 event
will be getting in on a good thing. Those who don't will be missing
a helluva party
.


Andrew Goodman is Editor-at-Large of Traffick.com and the author of "Winning Results with Google Adwords". 

 

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