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Online Media of the Year: Safety in search

Marketers’ attitudes towards targeting consumers in Singapore online have yet to shift away from the safe harbour of search engines, with our polled senior marketers naming the two biggest search engines, Yahoo and Google, as their preferred media across a significant number of categories. There were some notable specialist sites making an appearance in some categories, including technology, property, teens and C suitors but even in these, categories it was rare for either or both search engines not to occupy second and third slots.

Out of 28 separate demographic and category segments the two search engines dominated the results in 16 of these, being named first and second choice for marketers to reach online audiences. The consistency with which Yahoo and Google held the two top spots across many categories gave Yahoo the number one position, closely followed by Google at number two.

A trend emerged where the two swapped each other out across various categories for slot one and two. For instance when it came to reaching the highly educated, high income, very high income and high net worth individuals, survey participants preferred Google over Yahoo while to reach opinion leaders, the environmentally and health conscious, supermarket shoppers and parents Yahoo was the preferred media.

It is an interesting trend in that it paints Google as the more conservative and corporatised search offering while, in the eyes of those surveyed, Yahoo appears to be seen as the good option for a more left-brain driven consumer audience. However there were some results which bucked that trend, like for buyers of luxury goods where the survey showed a preference for Yahoo over Google.

Search engines have an easier path to mass market acceptance because of the perception among marketers and also consumers that they have heritage and essentially veterans of the online business model. Google launched in the late 90’s while Yahoo was born in the mid 90’s and as such both have survived the tough times as well as maximising the potential of the current online boom times. Constant innovation means both the name Yahoo and Google carry weight in a time when you often here people say things like “where the hell was Facebook or YouTube five years ago?”.

Since the Marketing Online Media of the Year survey is a polling of intentions and perceptions of the most effective media to reach online audiences, the two search platforms are seen as proven entities. Once you move out of the search space to seek out more specialised online media offerings, it gets a lot more fragmented and much harder to create a connection with consumers and therefore get onto a marketers’ radar. As a relatively conservative market in the online space, Singapore’s marketers have clearly indicated there is a consistency in the search engines, and in consumers’ constant hands-on interaction with them, that they find comfortable.

In attempting to split the two search engines there are several factors that may have come into play for the 2008 survey.

Despite a reasonable share of voice advantage Google enjoys as a global business beacon for the new, new economy and aggressive targeting of it’s closest competitor Yahoo by Microsoft, the latter still emerged as the number one choice for marketers in Singapore to target consumers online. Yahoo has been a prolific news maker over the past 12 months, since the last Marketing magazine Online Media of the Year special edition, most notably for it’s bold rejection of Microsoft’s US$47.5 billion takeover bid.

The decision caused Yahoo’s share price to head south briefly before recovering and also created a sense of uncertainty over exactly who would be the brand’s custodian in the near future. But the company is far too big, established and profitable for any potential new owner to drastically mess with the formula even if the deeds to the Sunnyvale, California headquarters do change hands this year. Microsoft’s pugilistic CEO Steve Ballmer has made it very clear he wants a piece of the search market and so even if he has been rebuffed several times already this year by Yahoo, he is unlikely to allow the current talks between Yahoo and Google to progress too far without putting another bid on the table.

However it is more likely to be longer term trends that drove marketers’ decision to name the search engine, long a higher performer in this neck of the woods than Google (which owns large chunks of the rest of the world), as the number one preferred online media advertising vehicle. Yahoo has long been closer to the hearts of Asian searchers and also had an early lead in the mobile web market with, for instance, the tie in with Nokia and its relationship with the Starhub Gee offering of oneSearch. However Google earlier this year began working with Nokia for mobile search.

The mobile online market will become more interesting in the coming years to consumers and therefor to marketers, as fully functioning mobile computers and more sophisticated agile and powerful operating systems, like Google’s open source Android project and the Nokia-sponsored Symbian Foundation platform, get ready for further media fragmentation. This would make any search engine consolidation, including the lassoing in of Yahoo by either Microsoft or even Google, seem not quite so important.

Both Yahoo and Google have a lot invested in getting marketers globally inside their tent and there are clear signs that this will go well beyond the paid search campaigns which started the search engine marketing ball rolling. Yahoo for instance in late June this year announced it was teaming with Publicis to improve the opportunities for advertisers in the online search space and streamline media buying and planning across mobile.

Yahoo president Sue Decker, made the ambitious statement that through the tie-in, “Yahoo and Publicis will empower the next generation of innovative advertising solutions”.

Google isn’t sitting on its hands and is equally determined to drive forward mobile marketing. It is work pushing the Android project forward which, while it may not be immediately apparent at launch, will likely have the end goal of integrating advertising opportunities into the mobile operating system.

Of course any arguments over who is the better search engine, Yahoo or Google, to advertise with to reach consumers across a range of categories and demographic slices could seem less important next time the Marketing Online Media of the Year survey is run. At press time the ink had hardly dried on a non-exclusive deal between Google and Yahoo which allows the latter to show Google ads along with its organic search results in the US and Canada. It is a small step which points to great cooperation between the two, and one which Google CEO Eric Schmidt says provides “advertisers and publishers with better advertising technology to help them succeed in their own businesses” but also preserves the competitiveness of online advertising.

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