Why Search Advertising Is About to Get Flashier

NEW YORK This summer, Google users saw something unusual: a search on Jason Bourne returned more than the familiar list of links to Web pages. In the coveted ad space at the top of the results page, there was a photo of Matt Damon with an invitation to watch the YouTube trailer for The Bourne Ultimatum directly on the page.

The placement, which Google labeled a special co-promotion with Universal Pictures, is one of several signs it and other search engines will soon provide advertising options that marry the laser-like targeting of search ads with richer formats favored by brands.

“The creative unit will evolve beyond links just as the rest of the experience evolves beyond links,” said Jim Lanzone, CEO of Ask, the search engine owned by IAC. “It could take the form of a button that lets you make a reservation or watch a piece of video content.”

As the Web transforms from a mostly text-based medium to one filled with multimedia content, particularly video, search engines are quickly morphing from listing links to Web pages to providing a range of options. Yahoo last week relaunched its search engine to return photos, videos and maps in response to searches, following the lead of Google and Ask in offering so-called “universal search” results.

“Search used to be the ultimate bookmark finder,” said Lanzone. “It’s evolving into the navigational device for people’s lives. The search experience is going to have a renaissance in the next few years.”

For now, search advertising remains a text affair. But with more brand advertisers using search, they are interested in going beyond words to communicate their messages. Scott Berg, worldwide media director at Hewlett-Packard, said the company has put increased attention this year on how search advertising is important for branding. “People really think of search as more of a direct-response mechanism, but it’s become a brand builder as well,” he said.

Meanwhile, Google has expanded its efforts to woo brand advertisers through its network of publishing sites. It has so far kept its search pages free from ad formats like video, but agency executives expect that will change as Google looks to maintain its growth rates. Berg said that after growing its search budgets by 30 percent annually over the last four years, HP does not expect nearly as much growth next year in the U.S., while it focuses more of its digital budgets on video and other forms of deeper engagement with consumers. “Our search budgets have started to level off,” Berg said. “We’re not going to see the dramatic increases.”

Google declined to comment specifically on its plans for new ad formats on its search results page, but executives have hinted it is a possibility. Universal search “opens the door for the introduction of richer media,” Google vp of search products and user experience Marissa Mayer said during a press briefing to introduce the feature in May.

“The text-based ad formats are very limiting,” said Neeraj Kochar, director of SMG Search, the Publicis Groupe shop that handles search-based advertising for clients such as Wal-Mart and Disney. “We’re seeing richer results. It’s hard to see why it won’t spill over to the advertising results.”

Ask is looking to introduce new ad options within the next year that will enable advertisers to perform operations such as take a reservation, provide an audio clip or play a video within the next year, Lanzone said.

Other search engines are experimenting. Microsoft has developed technology that allows advertisers to show video, product demonstrations and animation directly from the results page. In a demonstration of the technology at a meeting in Seattle for top advertisers this past May, Microsoft executives showed how a user could mouse over a text search ad in order to view video of an automobile without clicking through to the advertiser’s Web site.

Yahoo has experimented with adding some measure of branding to its search results. For large advertisers, it has offered the opportunity to add their logos to specific search results. For example, a Kellogg’s campaign returns the Special K logo with a link to a weight-loss promotion from the brand. The company declined to discuss whether its revamped search engine would mean new options for advertisers.

While a small change, Scott Symonds, executive media director at AKQA, a San Francisco-based independent digital agency that handles search marketing for Visa Signature, said brand logos are the first step to opening up search advertising beyond its current stark state.

“Everyone likes that nice clean search results page,” he said. “But it’s the Holy Grail to have that accuracy of targeting with video or richer advertising formats.”

Even without new ad options, brands are already feeling the effects of universal search. Since the search engines are now pulling in several forms of content, not just Web pages, brands must make sure all their content can be found, said Bryan Wiener, CEO of 360i, an independent digital agency in New York. It has employed user research to help entertainment clients like NBC make sure that when their Web sites percolate to the top of searches related to shows, so do related videos posted on sites like YouTube.

“It used to be, ‘Make sure your Web site is searchable.’ Now you have videos that can be put on blogs and other content,” he said. “Is Google able to search those assets when they’re not on your site?”

As always, Google and others must balance the advertisers’ desire for more creative formats with the user experience of providing uncluttered, quick results. “I expect them to proceed very cautiously,” Wiener said. “The vast majority of their market cap is based on this very clean page with simple text results.”