In search of search maturity

The search engine marketing business is booming. While the good times are set to roll for some time yet, older hands are concerned that the business needs to get out of the gold rush mentality that characterised the dot com boom and bust.

The British Search Marketing Association has been set up to share information among its members and to promote the industry both to businesses and to government and share best practice. The hope is that the association will help the industry mature without suffering the growing pains that have been experienced in the US.

Search engine marketing has become hugely important over the past two years. As the implications that over 90 per cent of online visits now start from a search engine results page, companies large and small have realised that they need to get to their potential customers at the point of entry. As a result, search engine marketing – the process of appearing high on both organic and sponsored listings – has boomed. Forrester Research says that total US online advertising and marketing spending will hit a staggering $14.7 billion in 2005 which represents a 23 percent increase over 2004.

It is generally acknowledged by those in the industry that the UK is about 18 months behind the US in its growth curve. As a result, more and more companies are likely to turn to professional search marketers to get the best from their online investments.

For companies which base their business model on monetising their web site through e-commerce or simply raising their brand awareness, getting their website into the so-called Google Golden Triangle, that small section of the screen where searchers’ eyes land first, is becoming a commercial priority.

SMA Vice President Mike Grehan met with us to talk about the development of the SMA and the future of search engine marketing in the UK.

The Search Marketing Association has been set up to present a professional face to the world aware that many individuals are setting themselves up as search marketers to cash in on the boom while having little knowledge or background in the discipline. ‘If we don’t do something to rationalise the business then it will end up like the dot com bust,’ he said.

‘Today, everyone has an SEM department, but some of these people have no idea what they are doing. There are cowboys out there and the purpose of the SMA is to set business best practice’

While the industry looks forward to boom times ahead, everyone still has memories of the dot com boom and bust. The rapid expansion is bound to be followed, if not by bust, then by a period of consolidation. ‘The SEM sector is bound to change,’ said Grehan.

‘There will be some fallout as companies consolidate. If you look at what’s happening, SEM is becoming an integral part of the mix. For example, I-prospect has bought a web development agency and companies are looking much more like full service agencies.’

The top priorities for the SMA are its membership. The organisation is acutely aware of the problems with the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organisation (SEMPO) in the US which was nearly wrecked by infighting a year or more ago and is keen to avoid the mistakes made.

‘Fundamentally the difference between us and SEMPO is that we are a membership driven organisation and our key priority is listening to the membership,’ Grehan claimed.

‘We aren’t keen on search engines driving the association through their funding as with SEMPO. SEMPO has a lack of communication with its members and is driven by the large cash rich companies in America’.

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