James Lamberti on the Future of Search Marketing

Published: January 28, 2008

James Lamberti

James M. Lamberti is the Senior Vice President, Search and Media for comScore Inc. He leads the Search practice at comScore Networks within the Media Division. Since joining comScore in 2001, James has led the development of the firm's qSearch data stream into an industry leading data and analytics tool widely used by search engines, portals, publishers, marketers and analysts all around the globe. James is a 15 year veteran of the market research industry with a background in all facets of marketing research, marketing, product development, and database management.

James began his career at Information Resources, Inc. (IRI) in 1992 and learned the fundamentals of panel based research working with wineries in California's Napa and Sonoma Valleys. A transition to the Clorox Company in 1995 cemented James' skills as both a qualitative and quantitative researcher with the one of the CPG industries most respected companies.

Interview Transcript

Eric Enge: Let's talk about where search marketing has been, and your thoughts about that, particularly in light of how it's going to evolve and change.

James Lamberti: Search marketing has been very specialized, very direct response oriented, and even more specifically it's been digitally direct response oriented, and it has been exclusively a digital one. The economics around search, the power of search, and the energy around it from the industry in general is astounding. So, I applaud the pioneers in the field who got us to this point, but I feel like there is need for change, and that it isn't just a direct response medium.

It isn't just digital. Furthermore, the full value of search is certainly not captured in a direct response world. That change is going to be what the future of search is all about.

Eric Enge: Right, it's time to grow up and to actually play nice with everybody else.

James Lamberti: Yes, and have everyone else play nice with you as well. I do think it's a two way street, and I think that the specialists in search can help themselves out by speaking the language of their forbearers, the people who have been in the business fifty years before in other forms of media. I also believe that the offline agencies community has to understand how search should fit in as well. The economic incentives around it for the agencies have not been there to encourage them to pursue search.

From both ends of the spectrum these worlds need to come together. That's really for me what the heart of the issue is in terms of the future of search marketing.

Eric Enge: One of the things that I noted from the keynote by Don Schultz at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago was his point that even if the ROI on search is 600%, it doesn't matter. You have such a small percentage of a major brand's marketing budget that no one is going to pay any attention. A 600% ROI on 2/10th of a percent of your marketing spend just doesn't affect the results of your overall campaign. Is that consistent with your understanding?

James Lamberti: That's a big part of it. What's interesting about Don's comment if you think about it is that you should work in the customer lifetime value of someone into the search equation. The example I love to use which is an extreme one is actually the feminine care category. Among young women the first place they are likely to go is not their mother or their sister, but the internet, via search.

At that point, they are going to create an opinion about a brand that's going to last their entire lifetime. If the brand is doing its job in search, the lifetime value of that customer from the age of thirteen years to fifty-five years is enormous.

If you think about the economics of it in that sense, you start to understand that the ROI is maybe ten times, twenty times, fifty times higher than the way it's being measured today. Suddenly, 1% of the budget becomes 10% or 20%.

Just because search is measured as a direct response and a cost per click, doesn't mean that's it's full value. I think if brands would understand that actually the contribution to my overall sales or the lifetime value contribution is fifty times what I currently measure, you would certainly get their attention. To me it's about understanding the value.

That's what I really focus on, and I think the brands are starting to focus on it too. If you start really focusing on the value of search as a medium, the value is enormously higher than we understand it today. Once that value is better understood regardless of the economics of it, I think brands will pay more attention.

Eric Enge: Once it gets to 10% of the potential benefit of your marketing campaigns, now, it's on the radar.

James Lamberti: I think we'll start to advance and we will have customer lifetime value models flow in like the one I gave you in Femine Care. There has not been enough conversation about the consumer here. It's always about click fraud, keyword performance indexes, and my ranking. All this is technical jargon which is necessary and part of how we execute it. But, there seems to be no discussion about the consumer and how important this is in our lives, and how it integrates the rest of the media. That type of discussion is going to get the brands to pay a lot more of attention overtime regardless of the budgets. I do believe that.

Eric Enge: Right. It's also a factor isn't it that there are the measurement methods that traditional marketers want to use, and these don't line up with the measurement methods that we use in search. So, we don't speak their language.

James Lamberti: Absolutely. You and I have talked about this in the past. I am constantly on my soapbox about that. There is a great value to measuring search the way we've historically measured it. But, there is no reason it can't be measured the same way that print, T.V., and radio have been measured for fifty years. And, to me it's about creating some common dialog. It's not that these specialized metrics aren't valuable and additive to how we look at the rest of media already. But, let's create that common ground and advanced techniques that marketers use like market mix modeling.

We have the data to fuel that type of really high-end approach to analytics, but it's not being used. It's being ignored, and to me it's a really incredibly easy thing to do especially for the search specialists to go into. I gave an example in consumer electronics in a recent blog post. Roughly speaking there were maybe six million or seven million computers sold in the US during the last quarter in 2007. We estimated that about six million people searched un-generic terms surrounding computers. I surveyed a representative sample of those, and found out that 69% of them were about to buy or had recently bought. So, we are talking about a reach, using the language of offline media, of 69% of my target in market customer via search.

Eric Enge: You have to define reach a little bit differently right, because now it's not just about the raw numbers, but the real metric you'd want to get to might include some quality rating.

James Lamberti: It's changing the denominator, and I think you and I are saying the same thing in that. Reaching four million people, that's not a huge number. It's pretty big, but it's not a huge number compared to what I could get through a big T.V. campaign. But, the denominator is that four million of those people went and bought, and there were only six million buyers during that time period. So, your denominator is the core group of people that are going to buy in that specific time period you are targeting.

(Editor's note: The following slide is from James' presentation at Searchnomics, and illustrates the above point in a bit more detail)

Reach of Search

Eric Enge: Right. You are reaching 2/3rd of the people who are going to buy.

James Lamberti: Yeah. You go and tell that to a marketer and you will get his attention.

Eric Enge: With a T.V. ad, it may reach forty million people, but maybe half a million are going to buy. In your example, we reached six million, and four million were going to buy.

James Lamberti: Yes, exactly. Search may be more effective in reaching your core target than any other form of media. Because, it's self selecting, and the use of search in our daily lives; again this comes back to my earlier point about the consumer itself. The use of search at some point in the process of considering something I am doing is prevalent in our lives on a daily basis now. Search is going to be there at some point somewhere. It may not be a frequency vehicle, right? But, it is absolutely a reach vehicle, and it's probably a more effective reach vehicle than almost any other form of media that we have ever encountered.

Putting search results in that language, could alone get communication going and get the absolute attention to the CMO of a major brand.

Eric Enge: How about ways that search marketers can measure awareness or purchase intent, or likelihood to recommend; do you have some thoughts on that?

James Lamberti: We started to do work in that area last year. We've probably done now maybe close to ten studies, specifically looking at search marketing, and its impact on those classic brand metrics. The way we approach it is using classic, and well accepted and well understood advertising effect in this marketing research techniques such as a pre-post test control. If I were to go and to talk to the head of research in a major brand, I would explain the methods, explain what we do, and they would be familiar with those. That's a key point: I don't think you want to come up with a brand new methodology.

There are approaches that are accepted, and understood, and used in other forms of media. Now, the hard part about search is that you have self selection involved. You have people who are clearly involved in the category. When you compare those to your control group, you got to find the right control, and make sure that the control is the same way.

It can be done, we are not reinventing the wheel. Within comScore we can see if the brand was present. We can see what they did, and we can survey them in a double blind way to find out how their opinions, or attitudes, or awareness of something changed or compares to a control group. I don't know if that's a great answer, but we do have the capability and we are starting to study it.

Eric Enge: I have seen that you have done some search brand tests in the past year. Can you share anything about the results?

James Lamberti: I can't talk about specific brands or get too detailed. We talked publicly about six studies in the last year. And, in five of those six studies we saw significant impacts on at least one brand measure, whether that's likelihood to recommend, or message recall, or some sort of awareness, or equity impact. I'm a guy who came from a classic marketing company, Clorox. We never expected these studies to move the needle on a brand metric easily or often. No matter what media you are talking about, that is a very, very tough measure to move, and there it's often the case where you can't move it. Your campaign or your media just doesn't move that needle.

The fact that in our six studies on search, that had a 95% significance, and five of them moved one of those parameters with the proper control, and the proper techniques was, I think pretty remarkable. At the same time it wasn't so superlative that it was unbelievable.

I think that's another thing that I have seen in terms of the lineage of the internet, and a lot of the internet research companies that predated comScore. Their results were so superlative, and so unbelievable that I think it almost discredited us as an industry to some extent. So, the results we saw were not only positive, but they were believable and I think made logical sense given what we know about how difficult these measures are to move.

Eric Enge: Right. It didn't sound "charlatnesue".

James Lamberti: Right. You've got to give good data, and good evidence to the brands. I think we have seen a real resurgence and commitment from the brands, and even from the publishers, the people who have their vested interest in seeing positive results. I have seen a recommitment to good quality research, and transparency.

Even if you don't get hugely positive results, there is still great learning about how to make the next campaign better. Often, the results are positive right now; I think digital and search in particular are currently so underleveraged, and undervalued. There is good dialog going on, and the brands and publishers are willing to learn from a study that had a null impact. That's a sign of maturity.

Eric Enge: Do you think spend from the brands is going to become a bigger percentage of their budget?

James Lamberti: Yes, I absolutely do. I think the limiting factor on search as you know is the inventory. We have the hardest time controlling the inventory when it's the consumer is in-charge, then when it's Comcast or a major TV network. You are going to have some constraints on the inventory that will probably always be there to some extent. At the same time, you don't have an economic incentive for the brands to suddenly lift their bid rates to 10x until they are pressured to do so by the market overall.

I think the economics on that end are going to be slower to change then value you would think dictate. You are going to see money shifting in. I think you are going to start to see brands that don't have a good solid direct response way to think of it. You are just trying to engage that consumer and create lifetime value, not really conduce it to a direct response model. You are going to see brands start to throw money at it. They now understand the value of consumers when they are in the mode of searching. In some sense they are almost willing to spend whatever it takes to capture a consumer in that mindset, and I think that's going to be a big impact on the shift of dollars.

Eric Enge: Right. We talked about this little bit before, but to revisit it, it seems like the bigger issue in terms of doing enough to catch the attention of the CMO is an issue of the percent of impact of the overall marketing campaign as opposed to percent of spend really.

James Lamberti: Yes.

Eric Enge: Do you have a sense as to what's enough of a percent impact to be on their radar?

James Lamberti: That's really hard to say. If you had asked that question twenty years ago, I think a 10% impact probably would do it. Today, I think a 10% impact or even a 5% impact is going to get their attention. The reason is that media in general is so fragmented; you can't even really rely on T.V. anymore to give you a really easy substantial contribution unless you start to think of it more holistically, and deal with all the fragmentation that cable has brought.

I think the general fragmentation in media has made any one element less likely to give you that the 50% or 60% impact that we used to have. So, the fact that search can give you 10% impact, which I would argue is a very realistic number for many categories, is significant. I am kind of pulling that out of nowhere, and it's just a gut level response. Once they begin to understand that kind of impact it is possible search will get a lot more attention.

Then there are the other impacts of searching even beyond the branding, even beyond the offline in-store impact of an online search campaign. It goes back to the searchers as a consumer, we have tons of evidence around searchers now; the people who search or are in that mindset are in conversation with lots of other people. This whole advocacy and consumer empowerment change happening is a big part of search as well. Once the brands begin to embrace the fact that the consumer is in-charge of their brand message, search will be one intersection where the brand can talk to those in charge. That will help move budgets into search as well.

Eric Enge: Yeah. And, that's a very interesting observation, which is that the marketers are used to being in complete control.

James Lamberti: Absolutely.

Eric Enge: It used to be that they pumped the message in front of you, and you were going to receive it.

James Lamberti: Exactly. There were only a few places where they needed to go to get it out to a huge group of people.

Eric Enge: That's right. Now the consumer is in so much more control, if they don't search on it, they won't see your ad, so they have to declare intent before you get anywhere. Also, if they don't like the way you treat them, they can go complain about it on major social media sites and tell thousands of other people.

James Lamberti: Right.

Eric Enge: There are so many different elements. Seth Godin talked about one impact of all this, which is it drives an unbundling of things. I know I don't want all those things from you, I really want that one there which you're best at and your competitor is best at this other one, so I want that one from them. It becomes very complex, and there are a lot of interactions.

James Lamberti: Yes.

Eric Enge: And, there is an interaction between the marketing mediums, so some people may first go to a search engine, but buy in the store. Or, someone may see a billboard or a T.V. ad, and then do a search and buy online. This is where fragmentation becomes such a big issue, because you may have created those impressions in eight different places, as opposed to just seeing the T.V. ad eight times.

James Lamberti: Correct. There is lot more fragmentation. As a result, a brand has to more singular and focused on its message than ever before. You can't forget about search in that environment. In that world you are describing, going back to my point about advocacy, searchers and the act of searching is one of the few instances where the brand can meet the consumer on their own terms to some extent.

There is a push and a pull element in a social network world. In this advocacy environment, the brands just get to hope that they've done a good job of interacting with the consumer, and that the customer service people in the store were good, and that the communication is going to positive and in their favor.

Search is one place where they have an opportunity to change an opinion, to make an impact; to hopefully help that along, but I think so that's one issue around it. The other one, to your point about the fragmentation in the media, is more then ever the need for integration, the need for search campaigns to be in tune with the T.V., the print, the radio; and for the strategy of the brand to be more focused.

Otherwise, you are just going to have confusion among the consumers. This speaks to a lot of these changes that need to happen, and that we've been discussing. It's a really good point, and I know you asked about this, but we have done research that shows when you have this singular message, that the impact is much, much greater; so one plus one equals three.

You are talking about 3x or 4x increase in the lift impact when you have someone exposed to the integrated search and image message versus just one or the other. There is great power in being organized and having a single message out there.

Eric Enge: Right. Another aspect of this is organic versus paid search. My experience has been that for many it's much easier for them to start with pay-per-click campaigns than organic campaigns, because, they can more quickly wrap their mind around the required investment and the measurable returns.

James Lamberti: Yes. I also think if you've done your job well, you know that when they click on that ad, they are going to drop to a page or a location that's exactly where you want them and need them to be given what they did. I think there is a measure of control over that they have with search marketing as opposed to organic, where it could be more difficult to control that conversation.

Eric Enge: Right. So, it seems likely then that the engagement will happen first in the PPC world, and then evolve into the organic side of things.

James Lamberti: Yes, I think it's just an easier place to start especially for because I think the pure plays, the nimble, digital people probably are more likely to have started with organic where they understand the nuances of how to index the page, and how to make that work. Whereas the big brands see that they can throw a bunch of money at it, and make sure they are present on the page, and get someone to click on their ad and be linked to a page that has the right message. It just comes back to the simplicity, and control, which is what you said.

Both organic and paid search are important though. I think in the end that there is going to be this natural balance of organic and paid search that is necessary.

Eric Enge: I recently published on Search Engine Watch a study where Range Online Media found that display advertising campaigns could dramatically increase the click through rates on pay-per-click campaigns Insert Link. So, if you are working with a fixed budget, you may have time periods where you disable a lot of your lower performing pay-per-click campaigns, put extra money into display, for example in October now, right before Christmas shopping season.

After you push that out there for a while, you pull back on that, and you turn everything back on in your pay-per-click campaign. You can see 2X, 3X, or greater increases in your click through rates and conversions on these pay-per-click campaigns. Have you seen anything similar to that?

James Lamberti: Yes. We measure that pretty consistently. When an image campaign runs we always treat search as an outcome variable or dependent variable of the test. We want to study the impact on the search for the types of queries conducted as well as what they ultimately click on. You almost always see an impact from an effective display campaign online. You almost always see two things happen; more search in general around that product, or brand, or idea, and then more clicks.

One kind of follows the other I guess but, so it is a really powerful idea and we absolutely see it almost every single time we look at an image campaign. So far we've looked at this just for the online stuff. But, you know what happens for print, radio, and T.V., to potentially even greater extent where the creative medium is still that much more engaging or at least visually impressive. It again underscores this notion of don't forget about search.

Recently Olay launched this Regenerist brand. There spend had to be tens of millions, if not a hundred million dollars. You type in the core benefit of the product into the search engines and you couldn't find Olay.

It's shocking to me that that would actually happen, but it does all the time. I think this whole conversation is about search as a reinforcement of everything else you have been doing or as an outcome of everything else you have been doing in media. It's a chance to make sure that you capture the full investment, and protect the full investment of what you've done in other mediums.

This is kind of an area again of I am passionate about. What I hope to be able to achieve at some point is to use search, such as searching on the brand, to link that empirically to changes, and or lifts in awareness. What you then create in the digital world is a way to passively measure brand impact.

I am looking for the right opportunity and I am hoping it's going to be this year to take a hundred, or maybe a thousand, digital campaigns and link it to their trademark search movement or changes. Then, go a step further to say this positively impacted awareness. Then you are in a situation where for comScore and for the industry, we can go to Clorox or P&G and say show then that they need to be looking at search as a parameter of the effectiveness of everything they are doing in media.

Eric Enge: Right. I think the classic way that SEO firms currently engage in the whole brand message with senior company executives is reputation management. One aspect is not showing up, as in your Olay example, and the other aspect is you show up just fine, but so is the site where someone is complaining about your customer service, and calling you the worst company in the history of mankind. Maybe not even in polite language.

James Lamberti: Right. Or, you link to a really crappy product page that is static and thrown up there, and has absolutely no real benefit to the consumer from a content perspective.

Eric Enge: Right. So, this seems to me like it's a bridging step that the industry is using to begin speaking the language of the brand, and doing in a way that will have some meaning. I have run into it a number of times that the CEO or CMO has very strong emotional reaction to what happens when you search on their brand.

James Lamberti: Yes. I would love to be in front of the brand manger for Olay, because I am sure they'll go crazy. They would probably look at the agent and say, what were you guys thinking? Even if only a few hundred thousand people search that way, we've got to be there. I do think it is about protecting their investment, protecting their equity; and again it goes to my spin on it or my reaction to this concept goes back to the consumer. When we've talked to the consumers about their expectations, they expect a major brand to be there and if they are not, they are suspect.

Eric Enge: Right. Ranking highly in search engines is seen as an endorsement.

James Lamberti: Yeah. It's almost the price of entry. If you are going to be a major player in category x, and you are not present on the top of Google or Yahoo, the consumer is immediately doubting you. The other this is that there is the opportunity for a brand to create a relationship that isn't necessarily about selling me at that point or just telling me about his product. I think brands are starting to get this. A great example is Beinggirl.com, where you've got wonderful content plays that have soft branding around them. Consumers know that it's Kimberly-Clark sponsored, but I think to offer real value to the consumer is another way to have reputation management.

Keep it sincere, keep it real. I do think that's a big part of it. Consumers often search just because they can't quite remember a product name, even they saw it in another medium. They often are using search as a recall vehicle. Put it, in those terms to the CMO, and again I think you speak to reputation management as well.

Eric Enge: Great! Thank you for taking the time today.

James Lamberti: Thank you!

Have comments or want to discuss? You can comment on the James Lamberti interview here.

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About the Author

Eric Enge is the Founder and President of Stone Temple Consulting (STC). STC offers Internet marketing optimization services, including SEO, Social Media and PPC optimization, and its web site can be found at: http://www.stonetemple.com.

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