Colm Bracken, head of search advertising, Microsoft UK and a judge for The Drum Search Awards, discusses his career path into the search sector, the data generation that will be created by the Internet of Things and what he'll be looking for from entrants.
How did you get into working in search?
Two years after graduating in the post dotcom era, I stumbled, like many others, into search advertising. Having studied IT, I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to pursue a purely technical career. I heard that a company called Overture were hiring in Dublin and when I learned more about what they did, I instantly bought into what search advertising was and where it was heading. Six months later I became a Yahoo! employee following the acquisition. I took the opportunity to join Microsoft in 2006 to be part of a team that launched adCenter in the UK.
Search has quickly become a crucial component to every marketer's brand strategy - but where do you feel it is still falling down generally?
The area where I feel search is still falling down is that it’s still very much reactive. Much of the legwork is being done by consumers who use search engines to manually find what they are looking for. At Microsoft, we believe that we need to stop thinking about search solely in terms of typing a search query into a box on a website, in a browser, or on a PC.
Search can be a hugely powerful tool in understanding intent, and when combined with other data, it can understand more about the context of what the user is looking for and in return show better results. Marketers will need to keep pace with consumers who are now starting to expect much of their searching to be proactive on their behalf. So if marketers want their brands to be found, they will need to anticipate these expectations of searchers who are increasingly using personal assistants such as Cortana.
Are we near an end to seeing people attempt to game the SEO system?
Ultimately, it only harms brands to put completely irrelevant content, whether through SEO or advertising, in front of consumers who will either not notice or actively ignore. Good SEO is relatively straightforward and is underpinned by great content which remains a primary factor in ranking. That will never change. Being authoritative in your domain, providing great depth and utility and making content easy to find on your website will always trump anybody attempting to game the “system”.
Google dominates the search landscape - in your opinion, how does this affect the sector?
Google’s contribution to search is undeniable and they have, in large part, made search what it is today. However, you don’t need to be an economist to understand that a less competitive environment can lead to less choice and less innovation. Time and time again, agencies and advertisers alike tell me that they want to be able to decide where to spend their search budgets. At Microsoft, we are passionate about providing an alternative and this shines through in the progress we’ve made with Bing Ads, our ad platform, and in the investment we’ve made in developing Bing as a platform, integrating it across many Microsoft devices and services and beyond. Search is very much a marathon and not a sprint.
Will wearables or the Internet of Things (IoT) impact the search sector and if so, how you see that evolving?
The huge amount of data that will be generated by the IoT will require intelligent algorithms to make sense of it all and process this data to make it useful. Search already does that to a large degree and is evolving into a more and more intelligent platform. As I alluded to earlier, Microsoft’s search capabilities already power many of the responses for queries where Internet data is required. What will be interesting to see is how brand connections evolve in that new era where intelligent platforms will be able to make sophisticated decisions for consumers based on machine-to-machine data, should the consumer so wish.
One of Microsoft’s prominent technical evangelists James Whittaker uses his hot tub as an example: in the future, if the hot tub is monitoring the chemical levels of the water and is connected to other machines, it can tell when it’s time to order more and can even place that order on his behalf. Therefore brands selling chemicals for hot tubs will need to ensure their value proposition is also understood by the machine, and not just him when making its purchase decision, which is where I believe search can play an important role.
What will you be looking for while judging The Drum Search Awards?
Sometimes the most elaborate campaign doesn’t always deliver the best results. I’ll be looking for entries that don’t try to be everything and become nothing at the same time. Despite what some might say, there is lots of scope to be creative with search. Anything that breaks new ground and hasn’t done before should always be appreciated and recognised, provided it demonstrates real impact.
More details on The Drum Search Awards can be found on the dedicated website.