Search advertising works, perhaps too well. It's easy to use, and the results are easy to measure. That's led many midmarket companies to allocate large chunks of their marketing budgets to search advertising, but while this approach may garner results now, in a few years, an overreliance on search advertising may leave you wondering where all your customers went.
Of all the reasons to cling to search advertising, ease of use may be the most adhesive. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) has made AdWords almost painless; it’s no wonder the search leader dominates, not only the search advertising market, but many companies’ search marketing spend.
A recent New York Times article chronicling the search advertising efforts of custom card maker Tiny Prints described how the self-service nature of Google AdWords makes it possible for a small inhouse team to handle the company’s entire search ad program. More significantly, the article profiled how Tiny Prints allocates 90 percent of its search ad budget to Google AdWords.
For Internet marketing, betting big on AdWords has become the contemporary equivalent of “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” As the safe, established choice, Google dominates the market, and the resulting revenue has fueled Google’s continued success from sprawling data centers to library digitization to cloud computing to smartphones.
But the not-so-secret trend is that, despite the billions flowing to Google from search advertising, growth is slowing. As the search advertising market matured, that was bound to happen, but it’s the recent mass migration to social networks that stands to change search advertising from the dominant vehicle to merely one of many ways to entice customers.
Shifting marketing spend to social networks should, rightly, give midmarket companies pause, because the ROI case is hard to make right now. With search advertising, the results are clear and available; you can make real-time adjustments and see the impact immediately. Businesses simply can’t achieve that type of precision on social networks right now. In fact, 84 percent don't even measure ROI for their social media programs, according to a Mzinga and Babson Executive Education survey conducted earlier this year.
Soon enough, though, the Hobson’s choice of strong ROI versus no ROI may be a quaint memory, as light begins to escape from the social media analytics black hole. Firms like PostRank have introduced analytic tools that measure engagement rather than simply traffic; and the best practices and standards for social media marketing are coming into clearer focus. Not to mention that Google is developing ways to incorporate the sharing, tweeting, linking, and retweeting that have become staples of online interaction into its citation-based search algorithm. The analytics will inevitably follow through internal development -- or acquisition.
Smart midmarket firms can't wait for Google -- or another vendor -- to make advertising on social networks as turnkey as AdWords is for search today. The interest is building; the customers are out there. It's time to go get them.
— Benjamin Tomkins is a frequent contributor to business and consumer publications who has never strayed far from technology in his 15-year career.