Is Search Innovative?

During a recent conversation with a few clients, they surprised me by remarking, “Well, search really isn’t all that innovative.”

Their rationale: for the better part of the last 10 years, there have been only three engines (and depending on your budget, you may only be working with one) and their offerings have remained more or less the same.

As I polled more clients about their campaigns, they fell into two groups.

The first group approaches search by constantly tweaking their strategies, testing new offerings, leveraging SEO, and generally staying on top of the latest trends. Though the basics of search haven’t changed much, they realize they can still make tactical improvements to stay ahead of the curve and maximize spend.

The second group consists of clients that set their search strategy, typically meet their goals, but treat search with a “set it and forget it” mentality. These are typically companies with softer metrics, such as traffic goals. They view search as a landscape that makes changes here and there, but they don’t see these changes as innovation.

I couldn’t disagree more. Look at the latest batch of headlines and you can easily see that search is incredibly innovative and something you need to constantly manage.

The Engines Change

Just a few weeks ago, Google announced their Caffeine update. It’s an architecture change that focuses on how they crawl and index. In an interview with WebProNews, Matt Cutts explained that the goal for Caffeine is to improve how they crawl, but hopefully not dramatically change the rankings.

Our initial testing indicates this is accurate, but it also appears social media and video will become more prominent, likely in response to Bing.

With the deal still pending, the Yahoo and Bing partnership is sure to bring changes to the landscape that can’t be ignored. Yahoo announced that it’s testing a new search interface featuring a three-column page, apparently in preparation for their Bing integration.

Aside from pushing the envelope on how information is displayed, Bing also appears to have cut a deal with the folks at Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram fits nicely into the Bing positioning of being a “decision engine,” as it computes the answers for you when asked fact-based questions.

Think Outside the Engines

Campaigns can be extended into many new areas that may not feel innovative, but deliver great results. Videos are now appearing in paid search listings, as highlighted by the trailer for the new Mike Judge movie “Extract.”

This year’s NFL Super Bowl featured at least five movie advertisements. You know how many of them had uploaded their trailers into YouTube so they could be shown on the results page? None. Expect to see the studios embrace this en masse heading forward.

There are also opportunities with paid inclusion, local search, and shopping engines that most companies aren’t fully leveraging.

Look outside the engines and you’ll see several opportunities to broaden your search programs. Content networks, YouTube, Quigo, Marchex, and Vibrant Media are just a few prospects that work but may not feel innovative — depending on your definition.

How Do You Define Innovation?

Our society loves glitz. When clients ask about innovation, they usually hold that word for game-changing, big-buzz opportunities such as an iPhone app. We do ourselves and our clients a disservice when we look at innovation this way; we may miss something that isn’t glamorous but will better serve their business objectives.

For example, a shoe store could develop an iPhone app where customers could create profiles of the types of shoes they love and the price points they’re willing to pay. When those shoes went on sale, they could be alerted to the location of the store where they could find their desired deals.

This sounds innovative, but how difficult would it be to track success? What does 1,000 downloads of the app really translate into? What infrastructure would have to be in place to alert customers?

Conversely, you could optimize your shopping and local feeds so that people searching for “LeBron James sneakers” or “sneaker store” actually find your business. When users click on either of these, they could be presented with a 10-percent off coupon. This may sound less than innovative, but you’re developing additional search channels and created a trackable metric.

You may look to your agency for innovation, but sometimes pushing boundaries and meeting business needs don’t go hand in hand. Remember, your agency is there to help you drive conversions. In this economy, taking advantage of lower cost search opportunities that lead to sales is pretty innovative.

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