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SEM Snake Oil

June 18, 2014

SEODo you remember when online advertising first started?

I was chatting to an industry colleague this week about social media experts (SMEs) and the recent news from eBay’s own research that advertising in search engines has “no measurable benefits”. We both agreed that there is a lot of snake oil being sold in the market today, especially in the area of SEM – search engine marketing – and that the complex data that is often presented by SMEs to show how your business is performing on social media and in search engines may not be all that it seems.

The conversation reminded me a lot of the early days of online advertising – which is it not that long ago. The first clickable web ad was published in 1993 by Global Network Navigator and the first banner ad by HotWire in 1994. The first ad server was released in mid-1995, with this FocaLink press release claiming to use proprietary technology to be the “first firm to focus exclusively on Web advertising brokerage services.” Online advertising was certainly around in Australia in 1996 when I started out in marketing and, at the time, we were excited by the promise of real measurement and visibility on reader engagement, even though overall online audience numbers were still relatively low compared to print. Unlike the print world, now we could see real data in terms of page impressions and click-throughs. However, what puzzled me at the time was why media companies largely operated separate sales teams – one for print and one for online – and why the sales pitch they gave was so different.

The online advertising reps were all about transactional benefits – how often they’d report on the stats, what sort of click-through percentages to expect, and the frequency of your ads appearing across different pages on their site. It sounded like a sophisticated sales pitch, but it was largely self-referential, without any connection to real business outcomes. I saw a lot of people falling into the trap of measuring success just by the click-through rates achieved from a campaign.

The print ad guys had a more mature approach. While it was still founded on audience statistics (as most advertising is), there was a lot more thought put into how that advertising would support the brand and the client’s go-to-market strategy, and how it would align to editorial subject matter and target audiences.

The pitch for online advertising has evolved considerably since then. Now, we are seeing more integrated campaigns, which might be a package of online and print advertising, or a combination of banner advertising, an email blast to a targeted list, a whitepaper to download and even some telemarketing to qualify leads. Now it’s all about real outcomes for the client.

That said, it’s arguable as to whether or not Google AdWords has evolved a great deal since its launch in October 2000 (I remember battling with Google and competitors’ trademark violations on AdWords for most of the Noughties). If anything has changed, it’s just sheer volume.

It all seems very one-dimensional. A case in point is another story that caught my attention last week – a piece in the SMH’s small business section “What’s the nasty new Internet trend?”. In the article, a small business owner (funnily enough, in the web marketing space) described how negative SEO (search engine optimisation) resulted in the company’s website link, which was on the front page of Google, “disappearing completely” after the attack, costing the company thousands of dollars in lost revenue. What worries me is that these companies seem to be so intent on getting to the top of the Google search listings, that they are forgetting that there might be more effective ways to achieve their marketing objectives – and ones that are not so easily torpedoed by competitors.

The SMH article also points out that “big Australian brands can spend upwards of $20,000 a month on SEO”. I wonder how many are seeing a return on their investment.

(Pictured above: “Search-Engine-Marketing”, By Danard Vincente, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.)


2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2014 10:35 am

    This is interesting, but I suspect that the experience of a large player, like eBay, is different to that of a small player, like me. I make on average 3 sales a day of a fairly targeted iPhone app based purely on Google advertising. There is a small web site that supports the app, but it doesn’t rank anywhere near the top search results for the relevant keywords, so for a few dollars a day I get straight to the top of the results.


  1. #Mobilegeddon Scaremongering | Explore Communications

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