Ad Efforts Blossom in Search Engine Arena

Though budgets are mostly modest, quest for queries intensifies in sizzling sector

While not as glamorous as portals or content Web sites, search engines are suddenly the hot destinations on the Web, and they are using offline advertising to keep the heat on.

Paid listings on search engines have doubled in the past two years from $500 million to more than $1 billion, according to Solomon Smith Barney research. Now, four of the best-known search engines, Yahoo!, Ask Jeeves, Overture and HotBot, have launched or are about to launch campaigns to showcase new features and capabilities.

On the Net, “sponsored search is the competitive battle place of this year, driving an awful lot of revenue and profitability for all the players,” said Bob Ellis, director of client services at Yahoo! shop Havas’ Black Rocket in San Francisco.

Emeryville, Calif.-based Ask Jeeves is breaking radio and online spots this week that highlight the breadth of subjects that can be found on its search engine. It is the first work from Omnicom Group’s TBWA\Chiat\Day in San Francisco, which won the account in April. Ask Jeeves’ budget was $300,000 last year, according to Nielsen Media Research; that will rise to $4 million in 2003, the client said. The online creative uses a revolving search bar to list slyly humorous, related search requests, such as summer camps, ghost stories and child psychiatrists. Radio spots list the most popular queries from the site.

The effort follows Black Rocket’s launch last month of Yahoo!’s first search-centered ads. Five TV spots aim to show that everyone needs to search for something and feature people walking with huge search bars illustrating their queries. Online, print, outdoor and buzz marketing are also in the mix, said Jennifer Dulsti, director of brand marketing. The company is expected to spend $30 million on advertising this year.

Meanwhile, Overture is breaking a national print effort this month to tout its search-based advertising tools to marketers. Overture spends about $700,000 annually on ads, according to Nielsen Media Research. The work was created in-house.

Boston-based Lycos’ HotBot search engine also gets its first major push this month from WPP Group’s Ogilvy & Mather in New York, which won the business in January. The $1 million-plus print and online campaign targets business users, said Steve Gross, vp of marketing.

The category’s hottest competitor, Google, hardly advertises at all but has seen its users grow 25 percent from last April, said Denise Garcia, an analyst at Gartner/G2 in Stamford, Conn. Google declined to comment. According to comScore Media Metrix, Yahoo! has a 26 percent share of the U.S. search market, compared to Google’s 23 percent, followed by AOL with 20 percent and MSN with 17 percent.

With analysts expecting paid search advertising to grow to a $6-8 billion business in the next five years, portals and destination search engines will have to up their ad efforts, sources said.

“It’s exploding around us,” noted Todd Daum, vp of marketing for Overture.