Before search marketing became a 40.6 billion dollar industry it was just another online advertising tactic that sounded cool and needed to be tested. The first paid search engine was GoTo.com started by Bill Gross, the brilliant inventor and entrepreneur who created paid search 20 years ago.
I met multiple members of the GoTo.com sales team at Internet World 1997 convention in New York. I signed up immediately and a few weeks later I was part of an early test advertising vitamins and nutritional supplements on GoTo.com.
I’m sure others had a similar experience. The Internet World conference reportedly attracted more than 60,000 attendees.
Goto.com offered a real-time online auction with positions ordered by bid. A pure capitalistic auction that often produced useful results for shopping-related searches.
Goto.com rebranded as Overture in September 2001 and adopted a strategy of syndicating search and sharing ad revenue with search engines including MSN and Yahoo. Overture bought Alta Vista and All The Web in 2003. Overture was acquired by Yahoo for $1.63 billion later that year. Did anyone make the leap from Goto, Overture, Yahoo, Yahoo-Bing and all the way to Oath?
For a detailed yet concise review of the Goto to Yahoo years, I’d recommend Brad Geddes article, GoTo to Overture to YSM – Timeline. Reviewing Brad’s timeline we can see that the self-service version of Goto launched 20 years ago this month (June 1st).
Meanwhile Google started advertising on a CPM basis like all the banner deals of that era switched to a pay per click model in early 2002. GoTo.com had failed to file patents on key pay per click and instant auctions within a required one-year period after announcing the invention, as well-reported in Steven Levy’s excellent book, In The Plex.
Google also brought innovation and a very different approach to paid search auctions.
In recent years the pace of change seems to be increasing. It’s been widely reported that Google tests hundreds of features and changes annually. Huge changes we’ve seen include development of quality score, Google Analytics, audience marketing, algorithmic bidding, the shift to mobile and the power of machine learning in automated bidding.
In the face of such constant change, the only option for survival is upping our learning game.
As the industry has grown we’ve seen a growing number of news, information and training opportunities, including ClickZ, Hero Conf, PPCChat, PPC Hero, Search Engine Land, SMX Conferences, Search Engine Watch and more. As a commuter I love Podcasts like PPC Rock Stars and the PPC Show. We have many great teachers including everyone on the PPC Hero Top 25 Most Influential PPC Experts of 2018.
What other resources would you recommend?
In 2018, amid the increasing change and explosion of possibilities related to machine learning and voice search, a renewed focus on fundamentals and better execution just might help us build the best foundation for the next generation of search marketing. To further that focus, it seems useful to consider what has not changed in the last 20 years of search marketing.
THE FIRST LESSONS LEARNED
The impact of many small transactions
In his great book, The Search, John Battelle writes about how GoTo.com inventor Bill Gross learned the value of many small transactions by buying candy in bulk and making just two-thirds of a penny on each candy netted roughly an 8% margin. But with increased volume and demand he could grow his margin to 40%, Battelle reported. Most search marketers were constantly surprised by the growth in click, lead and sales volume in the early years.
The power of keyword intent
We realized pretty early that putting buy or order in front of product or service keywords often led to profitable search queries.
The opportunity offered by long tail keywords
The Long Tail by Chris Anderson wasn’t published until 2006, but in 1998 I could see that keywords like “vitamins” and “nutritional supplement” had click volume and cost but seldom converted to a sale. Keywords like “pharmaceutical grade coenzyme q10” or “melatonin for sleep” had less volume and cost but offered a high conversion rate and were typically profitable. We often saw an inverse relationship between cost and conversion by focusing on longer tail keywords that indicate intent.
The value of ad and landing page testing
The banner ad platforms that predated pay per click taught us to test different ad creative. I found that thinking about keyword intent helped and including important keywords in ads usually improved performance. Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg started writing about conversion optimization in the mid-90s and shared significant research in the book Waiting for Your Cat to Bark and other books on the topic.
The importance of continuity across keywords, ads and landing pages
E-commerce marketers could see that if the focus on the same product was maintained from keyword to ad and ad to product landing page conversion was usually better than when more general content was used.
The value of relevant offers and appeals
Discounts, premiums, limited-time offers, coupons and loyalty offers were early tactics used in paid search ads to grow conversions and conversion rate.
The power of a clear call to action
Pretty early on e-commerce marketers learned that the wording and visual look of a call to action can significantly impact sales. I once changed the color of a “buy now” and saw a 50% increase in sales.
These lessons remain true 20 years later.
In 1997 we were fascinated by the promise of AI when we saw IBM’s Deep Blue defeat Gary Kasparov. The new Netflix documentary AlphaGo showed how Alpha Go won a game roughly one google more complicated than chess. This year, 20 years after Deep Blue’s victory, Alpha Zero mastered chess in just hours.
20 years ago we were fascinated by the promise of AI. Today we use AI in many aspects of search marketing, including automated bidding, dynamic ads and smart display ads.
Another thing that has not changed is the strength of our community and the willingness of search marketers to share information, knowledge and even code. I’ve seen amazing acts of kindness from both friends and strangers involved in paid search.
Forrester Research recently published a report, Search Advertising Enters 2018 On The Cusp Of A Renaissance, which found that paid search might grow even more than expected in the coming years.
The next 20 years will require more advanced learning and complex work. We’ll get there with a little help from our friends.