Q&A: Starcom Mediavest's Oscar Romero on mainstreaming search and Google's evolving strategy
Ahead of judging the inaugural The Drum Search Awards, Starcom Mediavest's head of search strategy and product, Oscar Romero, discusses his career so far, his views on Google's dominance of the search market and the potential impact of wearables on search.
How did you get into search?
I began my career as an IT consultant after studying a degree in marketing and advertising. I was drawn to online advertising for two reasons: it was a medium that combined the two disciplines and I saw great potential for growth in the field.
I have over 14 years’ experience of new media and emerging technologies but I started my first search role in 2000 as a SEO consultant working for small and medium-sized companies. From there I then moved on to work for PDV (one of the first online permission marketing companies in the UK). At PDV I was responsible for all marketing functions, including brand, developing existing and new customer acquisition channels across a portfolio of websites.
I joined Starcom Mediavest Group from Hewlett-Packard’s online photo printing division Snapfish/HP. At HP I worked as digital marketing manager across EMEA. I was responsible for the strategic marketing of all digital channels including PPC, SEO, affiliates, display, CRM, and email acquisition activity. Over the years, I had the opportunity to develop and activate award winning organic and paid search strategies in a number of verticals and globally recognised companies including P&G, Honda, Samsung, Blackberry, Europcar, GSK etc.
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Search has quickly become a crucial component to every marketer's brand strategy, but where do you feel it is still falling down generally?
Over recent years, search has become an important mainstream channel and it is now rare to see an advertiser questioning the importance of the channel or the role it plays in the wider marketing mix. A clear illustration of the widespread adoption of search is further supported by the IAB/PWC survey which in 2012 highlighted that FMCG overtook finance as the biggest spender on digital advertising; accounting for 16 per cent of overall spend.
Despite the uplift in spend, I feel that one of the biggest challenges for marketers and search practitioners is the ability to fully track the impact of search activity when it happens at the point of sale (offline). Although recent developments and econometric approaches are closing the gap between online and offline I think this is still an unsolved area.
Are we near an end to seeing people attempt to game the SEO system?
Google has become more efficient at preventing attempts by those utilising techniques that fall outside of its 'white hat' guidelines to influence natural search rankings. Regular Penguin and Panda updates have meant that those relying on guileful techniques have realised that it’s not only difficult to maintain but also an unsustainable business model. It is likely that there will always be people who will want to reverse engineer how rankings are calculated by search engines and use it to their advantage, however the depth and frequency of changes are forcing SEO specialists to focus primarily on content creation and implementing hygiene techniques which are ultimately beneficial to the search engine user.
Google dominates the search landscape – in your opinion, how does this affect the sector?
While Google continues to innovate, it could be argued that its approach has become less radical in recent years. Small changes such as callout extensions and Gmail sponsored promotions could be considered as incipient signs of an industry on the brink of maturity. While I believe that the growth rate of innovation might be showing signs of abating, this does not mean search innovation will become stagnant in the near future. Google is making clear steps to develop audience targeting capabilities and evidence of this can be found by pushing advertisers to use RLSAs and DFSAs. I believe that Google is some way off from marrying traditional keyword buying and audience targeting but this will be a new area of growth and innovation in the future.
While Google is consistently evolving and innovating with regards to its search offering, the lack of serious competition to a large extent, arguably puts less pressure on it to do so. This therefore poses the question of ‘would Google have a more advanced search offering if it was competing against a competitor with a similar market share?’ Its dominance in the space also means it has a significant hold on the shaping and nature of the internet.
Despite Google dominating most markets internationally, it is currently runner up to Baidu in China, one of the fastest growing markets. Whilst this may be only one of the few markets where Google isn’t the dominant search engine, it is however, a hugely significant one, as China has on average twice as many web users as the US and is the country with the most mobile phones per person. It will therefore be interesting to see the role Google plays in this market over the coming years.
How will wearables and the internet of things impact the search sector?
With the internet of things and connected devices gaining prevalence, there will be an overabundance of data about consumers that will be available to the digital marketer. Data about a consumer’s eating habits, how much time they spend on the phone or their exercise preferences can be gathered and used to target them more effectively. The ecosystem of connected devices (also known as the internet of things) will also give marketers huge amounts of data to recognise user patterns which could then be used for highly targeted advertising campaigns. I believe there will be a transition from 'always on' to 'always relevant' activity, which will cut through the noise of irrelevant marketing messages and facilitate better interaction with existing and new customers.
Smartphones have steadily surpassed the number of searches that occur on desktop. The next wave of technology, wearable technology, like Apple’s iWatch, could extend this functionality into uncharted territory. Semantic search also has the potential to become more prevalent, with people inclined to use voice-based search on their internet enabled devices (which would mean keywords being replaced by search phrases).
The benefits of creating a mobile-friendly website are very clear and cannot be highlighted enough. In the future we could see the introduction of smartwatch friendly sites and location-centric search optimisation to serve the needs of consumers donning wearable technologies, who require instant information on the go.
The advertising industry on a whole is evolving at an astounding pace and the rules of what is possible are rewritten on a monthly basis with new platforms and solutions being continually developed and released. Although it’s challenging to foresee how the market will look next year, my prediction for search is that the advertising industry will move away from the existing device centric approach (desktop, tablet and mobile) and towards connected environments such as 'smart homes', 'smart roads', 'smart offices'. This will lay the foundation of what I call “the programmatic of life” which will revolutionise the way we digest and interact with advertising.
What will you be looking for while judging The Drum Search Awards?
Being innovative is becoming more challenging for agencies and advertisers trying to win awards. Competition is fierce and it’s almost impossible to come up with something original. Therefore utilising new and existing features in an innovative way to deliver great client results is something we will be looking for.
Ability to look at the bigger picture when planning and managing search campaigns is also an important factor. Therefore the consideration of other marketing activity and the client’s wider business challenges and goals is something that we will be looking out for along with what metrics (brand awareness, sales etc..) have been selected to assess success.
Search is evolving as channel from static keyword buying to a smart audience buying model. So I would love to get entries where they are able to showcase how search and audience data can work alongside each other to deliver great results.
More details on The Drum Search Awards can be found at thedrumsearchawards.com.