Recession – it might just be what the search industry needs to separate the wheat from the chaff

So here we are, 2009, and as tends to the be the case at the turn of a new year, search marketers everywhere are making their predictions for search, social media, mobile and so on.

Amongst the articles that have caught my eye are those concerned with 2009 being the ‘year of ROI’. They all follow a similar theme; that due to the dire economic situation, now more than ever we need to be focusing our search marketing efforts on delivering, and being able to accurately measure, ROI, whilst at the same time moving away from measuring meaningless metrics, such as rankings. But should it really take an economic downturn for everyone to do what they should have been doing in the first place and measure the impact of search against real goals, not rankings? Perhaps not, but it has got me thinking. Will we see a whole host of ‘consultants’ and agencies, who sell their services purely on the basis of improved rank, fall by the wayside (and in many cases crawl back into the hole from whence they came!)?

We have already seen a whole host of companies in the UK go out of business in the last few months including major high street brands such as Woolworths and MFI. I hope not to see too many more fail in such dramatic fashion but turning back to the search industry I am rather hoping (with a somewhat evil glint in my eye!) that we do see some casualties; namely the sharks, the opportunists and the charlatans who knowingly cheat those looking to improve their search engine visibility with classic gems, such as;

– We guarantee top search engine rankings!
– Want Top Website Rank? Call the experts
– Top 10 search engine results or we refund you!
– Top 3 on Yahoo and 13 engines or first Page on G!
– If we can’t get your site there you don’t pay a penny
– We submit your site to 1000’s of engines for guaranteed listings

Sometimes I just want to find these people and ring their necks. They prey on the naivety of what remains a relatively uninformed audience in an immature market. They rarely deliver, don’t even pay up on their ‘guarantees’ when they don’t deliver (due to their cleverly written contracts), devalue the better agencies and ultimately inflict great damage on the reputation of the search industry.

Arrghhhhh!!!! OK….calm down Ben…..breathe….because there may be hope. This economic downturn could just be what the industry needs. Coupled with the continued changes to the way in which search engine results are displayed, the downturn in the economy will, in my view, separate the wheat from some of the chaff.

So let’s take a look at each of these points in turn. Firstly, rankings (as a metric) are just about dead. Personalised search, blended search and Google’s ‘SearchWiki’ mean that the variation in search engine results is increasing by the day and will continue to do so; in other words no two searchers are seeing the same set of results when using the same search query. This makes measurement by rankings obsolete. Of course, rankings should never have been a measure of success in the first place; as we have always professed to our clients ‘rankings are a means to end’. A number one ranking on Google means absolutely nothing if your site fails to convert the traffic that you receive as a result! So what does this mean for the so called ‘marketers’ above? Well, it makes their offering more meaningless than ever before because search results differ significantly between searchers; one person’s number one ranking could be another’s number 20.

Secondly, due to the downturn in the market budgets have been tightened and businesses need to know exactly what they are getting in return for their investment in search. Again, rankings offer nothing of value in attempting to measure ROI. Even a decent stats package such as Google Analytics does not provide the full picture. Agencies need to press for, and clients need to be open in providing data including offline conversion rates, value of sale, margins and revenue. Armed with this information agencies can demonstrate the true value of their search marketing campaigns. If you want to retain clients in 2009, this is absolutely essential. Again, agencies focusing only on rankings as a reporting metric will be unable to prove the true value of their work to demanding clients. Will clients keep spending money on something where the return cannot be accurately measured?

So if you are a so-called ‘search marketer’ selling yourself on the basis of ‘guarantees’, ‘top website ranks’ and ‘first page G’s’, step up or get out. It is as simple as that. Clients need to see, now more than ever, that their search marketing campaigns are delivering. Rankings do not equal success in a buoyant market, let alone one dying on its arse. Therefore, 2009 could well be the year that we see both ROI come to the forefront of clients minds and many of the search marketing charlatans get their coats and head for the exit door.

We can only hope.

P.S. Of course, I am not so naive to realise that this time next year many of charlatans will still be around; whilst there are people selling crap there will be people suckered into buying it! But my one hope for 2009 is that the combination of major changes to search engine results, along with the downturn in the economy will at least see some of them either significantly improve or get out of town.

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