Lee Odden

Why Search Marketing Is So Hard – Mike Moran

Editor’s Note: I am excited to introduce the next in our series of guest articles from IBM Distinguished Engineer Mike Moran.


The credentials list on Mike is a mile long including 20+ years experience in search technology, co-author of the best selling book “Search Engine Marketing Inc” as well as his recent book, “Do It Wrong Quickly“, 4 patents on search and retrieval technology, a sought after speaker at SES, DMA and AMA events and a great blogger with Biznology. Even though he’s one of the busiest people I’ve ever known, Mike stole some free time on a plane to write this post on the difficulties of search marketing for readers of Online Marketing Blog.

At first I didn’t know what to say in response. The head of marketing continued to fix his gaze on me to see my reaction. But what’s your comeback when someone yells, “I don’t care what you say. It’s my budget and we won’t spend one dime on search marketing. Period.”?

No matter how important search marketing is to your business, some people just won’t get it. While you may search for all sorts of different logical reasons, the truth is that their reasons are not logical. They are emotional.

When someone is confronted with something they don’t understand, they may respond by dismissing it as unimportant or they may react angrily or defensively. At that moment, you have two choices—to go get them out of your way or to become their therapist.

No, you don’t literally need to psychoanalyze them, but you might have to work with them on an emotional level. Search marketing, and most Internet marketing in fact, can be very threatening because there are no rules. There’s no safe haven. To do it right, you need to be willing to be wrong.

Most people hate being wrong. Being wrong is embarrassing. It makes you feel like a flop. People will do almost anything to avoid feeling that way.

But search marketing done right is all about being wrong. Experimentation is the only way. No one really knows whether that page will rank #1 in Google, No one really knows which paid search copy will get the highest click rate. Even experts can’t tell you which content will attract the most links. You just have to try it and see.

Some veteran marketers just can’t come to grips with this. They’ve grown up in a world where you needed to do it right no matter what. I have heard them tell me, “Millions were spent filming TV commercials and buying ad time—don’t tell me that campaign was wrong.” So, understandably, they’ve held dozens of meetings to reach consensus. They’ve conducted focus groups. They fixed all the showstoppers. Finally, now that they are sure it’s right, they are ready to launch. They’ve always done it that way and they have succeeded.

But search marketing doesn’t work that way. You launch your paid search ad at 9 am and by 10:30 you can see the click rate is lousy. So, by noon, you’ve tweaked the copy and by 2 pm you see the click rate nudging up. Conversions seem to be almost on track with what you projected, but you have an idea for something else to try. And on and on it goes.

This is not your father’s marketing. Instead of do it right no matter what, search marketing demands that you do it wrong quickly and then fix it.

And what about that that marketing executive who wouldn’t do search marketing? I’d love to tell you that I helped him work through his fears over making mistakes and that he is now a successful interactive marketer. Instead, I just showed him the search marketing business case and told him, “Either you can approve this or your boss will.” His boss did approve it, over his objections, and a few months later we had a new marketing executive.

Such is the power of our deeply-held fears and beliefs, that our discomfort can be so strong that we imperil our livelihoods. That’s why search marketing is so hard—because some people need to throw off years of success from doing it right so that now they can do it wrong quickly.

Mike Moran is an IBM Distinguished Engineer for IBM’s OmniFind search and analytics products and he can be reached through his Web site at mikemoran.com.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Beautifully put, succinct and spot on! Search marketing is a process, an open-ended constantly evolving process. I hope marketing departments are beginning to understand this, but I fear there’s still a long way to go… client education will likely remain a big part of the SEM process too.

  2. I agree Adam, Mike’s spot on. Whether it’s SEM or marketing with social media, there will always be a need to provide ongoing client education. It’s one of the biggest reasons companies should retain ongoing SEM consulting services.

  3. “It’s my budget and we won’t spend one dime on search marketing.”

    And then how many small businesses fall into the gap where they’ll spend $49 bucks a week on “SEM”, get burned, and reinforce their beliefs that it’s a waste of money?

  4. Michael, exactly. That’s further reinforcement for the education piece especially with setting expectations for search marketing as a channel.

  5. I have a quotes collection from marketers over the years. I’ve just added a great one to it.

    “This is not your father’s marketing. Instead of do it right no matter what, search marketing demands that you do it wrong quickly and then fix it.”

    Pure gold. Thanks Mike. Great stuff.


  6. Where is education in saying

    Either you can approve this or your boss will.

    I wonder 🙂

    Some people just don’t get it, really. And if you don’t have many clients, you’ll probably have to work with them anyway.

  7. Avatar Charles Thrasher says

    Resistance to learning by trial and error (failing quickly) is endemic to really large corporations. How do you retain agility and an almost childish, creative glee in a corporation with a management hierarchy as deep as an oceanic trench? The answer to that would make a lot of corporate jobs much more interesting.

  8. Charles, I just finished eight 10-15 minute podcasts with Mike Moran, who wrote this article and he answers your question about how to revitalize a lethargic corporate culture for web marketing initiatives. It should be coming out at ibmpressbooks.com in the coming weeks.

  9. Hey Mike,

    I received an advance copy of your book, which I’m still reading and about to wrap-up. How about an interview about your book? I’m up for it!


  10. Avatar Peter Justason says

    Has anyone seen a survey for marketers on their attitudes towards SEM?


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