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Quick, what industry gets the highest customer service quality ratings from U.S. adult consumers, according to an August 2007 Harris Interactive poll? No. 1 is supermarkets with 92 percent giving them a good rating, No. 2 is online search engines (84 percent), and tied for No. 3 (78 percent) are computer hardware companies, hospitals and banks. My personal opinions are irrelevant, but I must admit that supermarkets would not have been at the top of my list. What is interesting to me is that 84 percent of respondents said search engines provide good customer service. This piece of wisdom came from eMarketer Daily, which ran a fascinating story on “Search Marketing’s 800-Pound Gorilla.” EMarketer is an expert on giving you enough information to make you hungry for more and then offering the whole report for a fee. In this case, Search Engine Marketing: User and Spending Trends is worth every dollar to anyone who is interested in the search engine business.

The author, David Hallerman, senior analyst at eMarketer, writes:

“However, the term ‘customer service’ is likely used broadly here, since one would guess that the vast majority of people who have used a search engine have never actually spoken with or e-mailed the people running that engine. Most probably, these results imply that people like what they get from search sites.”

Imagine that. There’s no greeter at the front door, nobody to bag your purchases, not even a smile from a candy-striper or a teller. All you get is what you, yourself, are able to pull out of a search engine. I have never built a boat in a bottle, or even attacked a complicated crossword puzzle. But I have done a lot of searching, and when I find what I’m looking for, often on a local search, there is a great deal of satisfaction. In a blog tomorrow, I plan to see if there is any way to compare satisfaction of using a search engine with other ways of finding products and services, such as Yellow Pages or newspapers.

Mr. Hallerman’s article refers to the huge number of people in the U.S. alone who used search engines last year. It’s at least 155 million and that number will rise by 25 million in 2011. Search advertising spending continues to grow, even if it is at a slower percentage pace than in previous years simply because the absolute number is already high. As the chairman of a company that spends a fair amount of money on paid search marketing every year, a key issue to me has been whether I’m getting my money’s worth. People don’t report to us that they are coming to a Kelsey Group conference or buying a report because of a paid search or contextual ad. Forrester’s Research, according to this eMarketer report, would reinforce this. Fifty-nine percent of respondents say they don’t pay attention to search ads, and 36 percent don’t trust them. Meanwhile, eMarketer is predicting that U.S. search advertising spending will grow from $8.6 billion in 2007 to $16.6 billion in 2011.

Consumers are happy. That’s good. And advertisers are continuing to pump more money into search advertising, despite the fact that consumers report they’re not paying much attention to the advertising, or worse. Some of this is clearly the novelty effect and the fact that advertisers want to be on the leading edge. Still, the bottom line is return on investment. This suggests that at some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, Yellow Pages and other traditional media are going to look pretty good compared with some of the new media options.

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