Pitches are coming thick and fast in the search marketing industry, as brands analyse their agency relationships in an effort to extract more value, better results and stronger performance.
Anecdotally, agencies report that budgets remain healthy, with as much business up for grabs as there was before the recession.
Statistically, too, search appears to be in rude health, with search engine marketing spend increasing 11% year on year during the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the latest instalment of search specialist Efficient Frontier's Search Engine Performance Report.
Nick Jones, managing director of iSpySearch, reports 'a very busy start to the year, pitch-wise'. He believes that search marketing is better placed than any other channel to see out the current financial difficulties. 'You're only talking to people who are interested in you,' he explains.
There is a raft of other factors in the channel's favour too: it is highly targeted; campaigns can be quickly updated in real time; it is easily and infinitely measurable; and a brand pays only for good leads.
Additionally, it plays into the hands of consumers who are hunting for the best deals, a major trend of the downturn.
Despite all these advantages, though, many commentators are still reluctant to go as far as to call search marketing 'recession-proof'. Jobsite's head of digital, Gary Robinson, for example, says: 'I'd be cautious about labelling search as recession-busting, but, in this economic climate, if it's appropriate to your business, you should certainly be making it an integral part of your marketing mix.'
For Robinson, search's main advantages are that it has a low cost of entry, it is scaleable by budget, highly targeted and measurable and, in the case of pay-per-click (PPC), clients pay only for action, not exposure.
However, he warns marketers not to view search as a quick fix. 'It won't change your fortunes overnight. PPC can bring quick returns but search engine optimisation (SEO) can take several months to reap rewards. They both require commitment if they are going to help you through tough times,' he says.
Just as commentators are divided over whether search can justifiably be called recession-proof, so too are they split as to whether search has reached, or is now on the cusp of, a watershed, ready to secure its place at media's top table.
Robinson claims it was reached some time ago, while Rian Carstens, deputy managing director at online agency Net Media Planet, believes it is only just happening. 'This is the tipping point for search. There will be more focus on search in the future as it is the most accountable media and the return on investment is higher than most other media.'
The truth probably lies somewhere between the two, as Jonathan Beeston, client services director at Efficient Frontier UK, argues. 'Search had already reached maturity before the recession hit, so it's not that recession has provided the tipping point for search as such, it is rather that recession has strengthened the reputation of search,' he says.
As demand for traffic increases, paid search is becoming more expensive, with aggressive keyword bidding leading to a higher cost-per-click (CPC).
Understanding data is therefore crucial. Brands need to carefully monitor which keywords are converting best at a reasonable price so they can focus on these and avoid the most expensive.
As TrafficBroker's client services director Martin McNulty puts it, marketers must 'work the long tail'. He explains: 'Clients need to move away from generic keyword campaigns that drive lots of very expensive traffic and start working the long tail. By this I mean use more detailed searches that typically have lots of permutations.
'For example, rather than buying the keywords "cheap holiday", a travel brand would be much better off buying lots of "long-tail" terms such as "Maldives seven-day all-inclusive June deal".'
This is precisely what TrafficBroker client Hilton International has been doing. Having found that the search market was becoming far more competitive, the hotel chain's director of search and affiliate marketing, Danny Barrasso, decided it was time to devise a more cost-effective approach to the medium.
'We wanted to reduce our cost-per-click without reducing our conversions. We switched tactic and went from a few hundred thousand keywords to a much more built-out, long-tail campaign with more than 5m keywords. This has proved complex, but extremely effective,' he says. Paid search is now the fastest-growing channel for Hilton International.
Testing becomes crucial when dealing with such an abundance of keywords, stresses Alex Hoye, chief executive of search engine marketer Latitude. 'PPC is all about testing, so test, test and test until you can't improve; pitch one ad creative against another and discount the poorer performer until you hone exactly the right message,' he says.
According to Ryan Scott, director of digital agency twentysix, it is also worth investing in bespoke landing pages, which are specifically created for PPC traffic. 'These satellite destinations for PPC traffic are proven at increasing the contextual relevance and effectiveness of PPC campaigns,' he says. 'You're paying for the traffic so you should treat it with the utmost respect.'
As PPC is becoming more expensive, many are focusing on SEO. Once perceived as something of a dark art, thanks to the high level of technical know-how required, it is now seen as a key, low-cost medium.
'The economic conditions mean that natural search is going to be more important than ever for all brands. A cost-effective, hugely impactful mechanic like that is too good an opportunity to miss in this market,' says Arjo Ghosh, chief executive of search marketing specialist iCrossing UK.
Pete Markey, marketing director at insurance company More Th>n, one of iCrossing's clients, agrees. He spends about 60% of his search budget on PPC and the remainder on SEO, but believes this will change. 'I can see that shifting more to natural search. Some sales we get through natural search cost less than £5 per customer, unlike PPC, which is getting more expensive,' he says.
'We're very cost-per-sale-driven and in future we're just going to get smarter. I'm not prepared to pay silly prices for PPC traffic. That just makes us focus more on natural search.'
One of Markey's tips for improving natural search rankings is to populate a site with constantly updated, relevant content. 'We got lots of traffic on our site when we displayed timely information about floods, which showed we had our finger on the pulse,' he says. 'There is nothing worse than irrelevant links.'
Ghosh agrees: 'Useful, exclusive content can be hugely powerful in catching the attention of users and search engines. If you make yourself a useful content resource, then Google will begin to see you as one and rank you accordingly.'
However, it is no good having strong visibility if the user experience lets the site down. Most experts urge brands to keep things simple and monitor how users navigate a site, noting in particular at which point they drop out.
Chris Murphy, chairman at integrated marketing agency Balloon Dog, adds: 'Allow people to ask you questions or get quotes or offer them news. Make it relevant and engaging. Keep it updated. Link it to offline activity - many customers see both online and offline branding and must not be confused about who you are, what you stand for and what you offer.'
Most agencies are reluctant to predict search's future share of the marketing pie, but they do expect it to keep growing. As Murphy says: 'In such unprecedented times, who can make accurate predictions any more? Suffice to say that digital in general, and search in particular, stand every chance of being winners, maybe even the biggest winners, in this economic downturn.'
SHOULD BRANDS MANAGE THEIR OWN SEARCH ACTIVITY?
It is not surprising that agencies argue that brands should hire an experienced search engine marketing partner rather than trying to do it themselves. However, in such a technical area, this can certainly make sense.
Despite this, not all marketers are in agreement. Gary Robinson, head of digital at Jobsite, has both worked with agencies and managed the function in-house. He recommends that, whichever route marketers take, they should ensure the activity is controlled and overseen by an internal team. 'It's important for a business to have a good understanding of any marketing activity they undertake and not just outsource it to a third party, otherwise you lose so much knowledge about your own customers' behaviour and you're unable to learn and grow as a business,' he says.
Nonetheless, John Baker, joint managing director of Iris Digital, points out that it can be time-consuming for a client. 'Performance needs to be constantly monitored. Changes to results have to be reacted to regularly,' he says. 'It is also constantly changing as the search engines improve their systems, new software is developed and search intermediaries come up with new techniques to arbitrage brand listings. All of this points to hiring an agency that can build a bigger team across multiple clients and invest in more advanced software to be effective.'
As for managing pitches, Robinson's top tip is to 'insist on getting the person who will be your day-to-day account manager in on the pitch and ask them all your questions'. He adds: 'This is the person that matters, not the directors. Can you work with them?'
- £2.42bn is predicted to be spent on paid search in 2009 - a rise of 23% on last year, according to E-consultancy
- 80% of marketers predict that their search spend will increase in the next two years, according to the Marketers' Internet Ad Barometer 2008, produced by the European Advertising Association
- 11% Growth of UK search marketing spend in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007.