Search engine marketing is not advertising...apparently

By Warren Cowan | 05 Mar 2007

Had a very pleasant conversation this morning with a journalist from Media Week on search, who was at pains to relay that some people had been telling him that search engine marketing is not really advertising, and that the huge and ever increasing percentage on online ad spend being funneled in that direction is skewing the figures on online ad spend. Those weren't his views per se, but certainly they we're being impresed on him by others operating in the wider digital space.

Now half of me wanted to drive round there and get the names out of him, so I could pull them from their desks and drive round the M25 dragging them behind me, but then the other half of me thought...interesting point!

Save for it being a pathetic whiney excuse ladeled out by some inept SEM'less media planning agency to explain their dwindling sense of self importance and revenue figures, it does raise an interesting debate.

When you look at traditional online advertising and media consumption, the whole model revolves around the user beign motivated to consume literary, aduio or visual content for entertainment, educational or informative purposes, and brands attempt to interrupt that consumption to try and change your points of view, make you aware of something, or get you to take some sort of action.

However in search engine media, the advertiser is the content itself, and the motivation behind the users consumption of that very media is in complete synch with that. That's what the searcher is there for in most cases, hence the astounding effectiveness of the medium and the subsequent immense advertiser participation.

I'll say that again to hound the point and perhaps coin it.

Traditional media...user consumes content, and advertiser interrupts the content consumption.
Search engine media....advertiser IS the content, and user is there to consume it.

Now, if we want to attach labels to things then I can see how one could argue that SEM certainly isn't interrupting a conventional user's media consumption pattern to encourage action, and if we want to call that advertising then I guess OK search engine marketing isn't advertising. Many dictionary definitions cite the act of promoting, or of drawing attention, as a key part of advertising, and given the alternative motivation in search for the user to consume the advertiser, those defintiions may support this notion.

However, some of those defintitions mention quite correctly, about what the user perceives to be as advertising, which is generally any sort of paid communication or occupation of space for that intention, which would secure SEM in the online advertising stable.

The other alternative, is as I suggested earlier, that this is of course a completely baseless and waste of time argument, started as a semantic smoke screen to cloud judgement and perception on investing budgets in to search as opposed to more traditinal stock marketing forms that the arguments perpetrators would prefer their clients to do, despite it being at their peril.

The fact remains , that no matter how you tag it, search engine marketing works, and works far better than most other forms of online advertising, online marketing, online promotion or whatever else you want to call it. And trying to rebox it into another semantic area of the brain, won't imporve your client's ROI, Bring your budgets back, top up your ego, get the CEO or your back or reassert your position as an expert.

Maybe I will get in my car after all.

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