I spend lots of time talking to retailers. There is a great community within the online retailing world where if you aren’t directly competitive, you share a lot with one another. Vendor opinions, high-level strategies, and so on. Because I have spent so much of my time in the world of search, lots of retailers simply ask me my opinion about their search provider or overall strategy.

When I was an active SEO guy, many of my clients had the “CEO” keywords, where the executive team has decided that they must be visible for. You know, the guy who sells batteries wants to be #1 for “laptop battery”, or the tool guy wants to be #1 for “power tools”. Thankfully, it seems like many CEOs, CMOs and VP of eCommerce have begun to understand that your business isn’t made or broken on those obvious keywords. The CEO lists are starting to disappear.

Search is becoming more nuanced, with executives talking about product page visibility, long-tail keyword strategies, keyword breadth and more. My completely anecdotal look at the top 50 online retailers that I talk to is really refreshing. Search (both paid and organic) is now becoming a whole channel, rather than a pin-prick of visibility. So what does this mean?

What I see is that large scale marketers are losing their fear of the upstart who is going to steal their lunch. Target, for instance, has very little to fear from cheapstuffonlinerightnow.com, whereas years ago, trying to build a defensive position against that kind of competitor was a key and core strategy. For branded merchants, those folks who are lucky enough to own a brand that has independent meaning beyond the individual keyword, search is a place where they use their brand as a lever to drive the clickthrough.

This is an interesting development, because it flies in the face of the long-standing concept that search and the internet creates a level playing field. It certainly can…where a branded retailer might lose a sale to an upstart because of pricing, but no longer are they going to lose a customer. In a pointed search battle, the branded retailer might lose the skirmish for that sale, but they rarely lose the war for the customer’s lifetime value.

Search is a powerful element of brand presence. If you are The North Face, customers expect to see you somewhere while they are searching for outdoor gear. If you are The Gap, there is a consumer expectation that you will show up reasonably well for jeans, or khakis. The executive office is becoming more and more comfortable with SEO as part of the marketing portfolio where the wins are in brand reinforcement and conceptual positioning rather than a narrow focus on 10 unattainable keywords.

As this comfort grows, I believe that this will help overall search get better. As the big players broaden their horizons, and look for brand traffic that increases consumer engagement and LTV of their consumers, it will reduce the pressure of the CEO list. This means that search positioning can take on a more strategic role (while still being hugely important revenue driver) and result in less desperate tactics to own that high-volume head term. The net result of this should be better search optimization for sites, better search presentation to consumers, and an easier way for Google and Bing to parse out the search spam. When retailers start to use search as a strategic weapon, rather than a transactional tactic, the playing field gets better…

Finally, the CEO and the SEO can agree. Search is about the quality presentation of your brand to the right customer. It’s not about being #1.

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