2007: The year that search grew up

It's that time of year again, where we look back on the last 12 months and try to make sense of it all. As is customary in these instances, I'm trying to put a simple label on the year that will take into account all the various trends we saw in the search industry. It could be the "Year of Social Media," considering the explosion of sites like Facebook, Digg and Twitter. Or it could be the "Year of Blended Search," considering the changes made by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Ask.com. For many, it might be considered the "Beginning of the End of SEO," since the rise of personalized and customized search results, as well as quality-based ad ranking, will change the way search marketers go about their jobs. With these trends and others taken in total, it seems to me that the best way to sum up the events of 2007 is to call it the "Year the Search Industry Grew Up." Between the consolidation of players in the search and online advertising space, the increasing ability of search marketers to get the attention of the larger marketing groups, and the spread of search marketing to both very large and very small companies, many will look back on 2007 as a coming-of-age year for the industry. The Year of Blended and Universal Search One of the most significant changes for search engine optimizers (SEOs) this year was the introduction of universal, or blended search results. Instead of the familiar "ten blue links," searchers are now beginning to see more than just HTML pages mixed into search results. Video and images, news stories, blog posts, local business data, and more are now appearing alongside other sites. The trend began in May with Google's launch of Universal Search. That was followed closely by Ask.com's blended search results in the form of Ask3D. Microsoft followed suit in September, and Yahoo added its blended search results in October. The moves were alternately greeted with great enthusiasm or a yawn, but none denied the significance to advertisers. The need to get your sites in more places, consider the effects of personalized search and expand the traditional definition of SEO became more important, as did the need to work and play well with other marketers in your organization. It's All About the Quality (Score) On the search advertising side, the top search ad networks all incorporated a measure of quality into their ad ranking algorithms. Instead of competing solely on bid price, now search marketers have to take into account factors like click-through rates, as well as more ethereal factors like historical performance and an ad's expected performance relative to other ads. Yahoo launched its ad ranking system in February as part of its Panama project. Soon after, Google updated its 18-month-old ad quality scoring algorithm. Microsoft followed in April, adding a quality score element to adCenter. Year of Social Media Looking at the surge in popularity of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, social elements of networks like Flickr and YouTube, the rise and fall of social news sites like Digg and Netscape, and the beginnings of social search sites like Mahalo and Search Wikia, it would be fair to call 2007 the Year of Social Media. Even Google got involved, with the launch of its OpenSocial APIs. While much of social media is seen as a diversion, there are clear reasons for search marketers to get involved. The definition of what is and isn't search marketing began expanding to include other related disciplines, most notably social media. The skills developed by SEOs in linkbuilding, which themselves are similar to those of public relations, apply to social media marketing. It's also an important element of reputation management. Social networks like Facebook have been eyed by advertisers for their potential targeting capabilities, but as evidenced by Facebook's missteps in implementing the Beacon program, advertisers need to tread carefully in that area. Beginning of the End of SEO Search marketing is changing, both expanding into areas like social media and moving away from old stand-bys like on-page optimization. Not that on-page SEO is obsolete, but its importance has diminished, first with the increasing importance of inbound links in search engine algorithms, and more recently in the changing search results pages themselves. Universal and blended search results are now requiring search marketers to think beyond the basic Web page to consider optimizing images, videos, and other types of vertical content now showing up for many search queries. Besides that, many of the search engines are beginning to experiment with personalized and customized results. Google expanded its personalized results in February, and launched iGoogle in May. Yahoo added query refinement tools like Search Assist for users, which are already found in Google Suggest and Ask3D. There are two sides to that coin, however. On the one side are SEOs' concerns of no longer having universal control over the search results page. On the other is the fact that this may push search marketers to think more about marketing. Year the Search Industry Grew Up All in all, 2007 was a year that saw the industry mature. The theme showed up notably at SES Toronto and again at SES Chicago. In Chicago, Don Shultz, professor (Emeritus-in-Service) of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University, told the crowd of SEMs that if they want to get their share of marketing dollars, they need to adapt to the existing establishment instead of waiting around for the establishment to come to them. "It's not about how good you become at search. It's about how good you become at fitting into the marketing organization," he said. "You have to do different things, not get better at what you do now." Finding a place for search in the overall marketing mix was the goal of many in-house marketers and search agencies. By Kevin Newcomb, Search Engine Watch.

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