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SEM: Searching for What’s Next

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What so many companies are searching for is the next big advance in search engine marketing (SEM), which promotes web sites by increasing their visibility in the search engine results pages.

There’s plenty at stake. A recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP’s new media group for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) claims internet advertising revenue jumped 35 percent last year to $16.9 billion. Fourth-quarter 2006 internet ad revenue was also up 35 percent to $4.8 billion from the year-ago period. Keyword search, at $5.37 billion, accounted for 40 percent of online ad spending last year versus $5.14 billion and a 41 percent share in 2005. Display advertising was $3.69 billion last year, with a 22 percent share as compared to $2.5 billion and a 20 percent slice in 2005.

1st Quarter 2006

What the numbers show is that marketers are “experiencing first-hand how this medium enhances their ability to target and engage the audience like no other,” Sheryl Draizen, Senior Vice President and General Manager at the IAB, told trade pub DMNews.

So what does the future hold?

“One of the ways that one can skin the cat of looking 10 years into the future is to look backwards and ask himself, ‘Did anyone see 10 years ago where we would be today?” says Greg Jarboe, a spokesperson for Wakefield, MA-based Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO) and President of his own company, SEO – PR (Search Engine Optimization Public Relations). “And if we can, can we draw a line toward the future?’”

The time traveler returning to 1997 will find search engines with names like Alta Vista, Lycos, Infoseek and Excite. “There was also this thing out there called Yahoo,” Jarboe recalls. “Of all those guys, Yahoo is still around and pretty good, but a lot of the rest of them have come and gone. And if you looked around and said, ‘Wait a second – where’s Google?’ I think it was still a couple of guys in a dorm room.”

And in 2017? Says Jarboe, “My guess is that maybe some of the names we know today will still be around. But there could also be a couple of women in a dorm room who come out of left field and change it again so that when we talk about search it doesn’t look anything like what we know today. Remember, 10 years in this industry is a very long time.”

The next innovation in search engine marketing, Jarboe says, “is already here. Google just rolled out a couple of weeks ago. It’s called Universal search. What Google said is, ‘We know that this is what people want. We’re not quite there yet, but I’ll tell you what: you’re beginning to see other things than just the 10 blue links we’ve all gotten used to. It’s still in the rudimentary stages, it’s the early days, it’s not quite rolled out entirely yet… but Google understands that when people are searching for Spiderman III what they’re also looking for is a theater nearby and movie times.”

What else might the future of search engines hold? “Most of us are used to the little text box,” says Jarboe, “where you type in some words and it goes out and fetches results. It still doesn’t deal with spoken language very well, and image search is still pretty rudimentary.”

People are also increasingly searching for video and audio, “and again we’re still at the really rudimentary stages of how people find those,” says Jarboe, “or that podcasts that they’ve been searching for. My guess is that 10 years from now, what people would like is a search that gives them more options than just what those typed words fetches back. They’ll want the relevant thing they’re actually looking for, no matter what the format it’s in.”

Search engines are beginning “not quite to read your mind,” Jarboe concludes, “but to understand what many of the people who do that search look for next.”

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