Search’s disappearing act

Search engines are changing the way they compose their lists bad news for marketers with a multiple brand portfolio, says Siobhan Tyrell.

Multiple brand management can be a marketing tightrope trick at the best of times. But a new dimension to that perennial question – who or what defines a brand – has marketers tottering on the high wire. The consumer ultimately determines brand value, and it is the marketer’s job to influence perception and encourage resolution. Nothing new there. But now search engines are playing an increasingly vital role in the management of brands – and they’ve got their own particular rules and regulations about what constitutes a brand.

Search engines are filters for modern life. It’s a powerful position to hold, as AOL showed recently, and as guardians of information their success is determined by the relevancy and usefulness of the results they serve. From a branding perspective search engines are a crucial channel for introduction but especially for fostering brand engagement and prompting consumer action.

So how should brand marketers leverage the power of search? It varies in level of sophistication between sectors but, on the whole, most brands are investing time and budget in achieving strong visibility using natural and paid-search campaigns. Search is being integrated into marketing campaigns to ensure other media messaging is harnessed, cross-media spend is maximised and targets met. By using the search engines, marketers are creating coverage for brand name, brand attributes, product categories and features.

Exploiting online, marketers are migrating their brand positioning strategy to the search platform, refining the concepts of high street and supermarket shelf space to provide brand visibility and ease of access for online consumers.

So far so good. But there is a fundamental dichotomy between what the search engines wish to provide and what multiple brand managers wish to achieve. A search engine is only as good as the relevance of information it provides the searcher, and after the initial race for volume of content, the engines are now cleaning their indexes, consolidating valuable content and culling irrelevancy. In other words, the engines are increasing the quality of their results. Unfortunately some propositions in a multiple brand portfolio might fall victim to this activity.

There are two key areas that multiple brand marketers need to look at immediately. First, the repurposing or re-skinning of content across multiple brands. While superficial rebranding of product offers may be different enough to attract and persuade segmented audiences, it might not be recognised as unique, valuable content by the search engines. If this is the case, the search engine index may favour what looks to be the originator brand, diminishing the visibility of the brand portfolio. For example, in some cases brand content is only being indexed under a parent brand. On paid-search platforms some brand portfolios have been restricted in their ability to buy pay-per-click advertising.

The second area is the actual infrastructure and coding. The search engine algorithms "decide" on visibility and relevancy of content based on such criteria as infrastructure, link popularity, code and content, not on brand value or indeed equity. As a result, marketers are now at risk of being held hostage by the very publishing systems designed to provide manageable communication to multiple audiences with multiple offerings. Multiple sites hanging from the same infrastructure or intellectual property can be recognised as one single entity. This trend towards consolidating content under one brand is already being seen in sponsored campaigns and some directory listings.

The irony is pretty apparent. Search, heralded as the most democratic medium, the online equivalent of impartiality and editorial integrity, could actually be reducing consumer choice. Supermarkets stock multiple brands from the same manufacturer but consumers ultimately make the choice. Now "search shelf space" has become another marketing battleground with its own rules of engagement.

So the issue for brand marketers is not just whether listings in a search engine actively engage consumers, but rather how they might be precluded from getting their brand in front of the consumer.

If search starts to limit consumer choice, what’s to stop consumers relying even more heavily on social networks that already fulfil consumer choice based on the same principles as those that exist in the real world? Will the search engines start to loose their supremacy to the YouTubes, Bebos and MySpaces of the digital world? These are interesting times for brand managers.

Siobhan Tyrell is account director at Ambergreen