At a recent conference of big retailers in the US, Google paid search marketing was described as ‘crack cocaine’. Highly addictive, but dangerous and destructive in the long term, and something you should wean yourself off.

So what about the UK? Are site owners also wanting to kick their Google habit? And if so, how can they?

From those we’ve talked to the short answer is yes – site owners would dearly love to be less reliant on Google. In fact, some already seem to be controlling their addiction. A few quotes from our recent Online Marketing Masterclass presenters:

“Search is not the Golden Goose”
“We’re moving away from search”
“We don’t see search as the future”
“We’re actually reducing our spend on paid search”

And these are sophisticated online marketers who know a thing or two about search.

And yet paid search is still by far the fastest growing area of online marketing, and certainly online advertising. So what’s going on here?

Well, let’s start with a few observations of the marketplace, at least as I see it from talking to a lot of search marketers:

– Google dominates search. Massively so in the UK. Both paid and organic. For most people, search engine marketing = Google.

– Search traffic (paid and / or organic) accounts for most traffic to most websites.

– So Google essentially controls the success, or otherwise, of most websites. And these sites don’t like having someone else control their destiny to this degree.

– MSN, in particular, is seen as the white knight of hope who may just break the Google monopoly. MSN and Microsoft are the ‘good guys’ now. But, at the moment, they “just don’t have the volume”. Yahoo!’s volumes have nose-dived since the MSN deal came to an end.

– Meanwhile, keyword price inflation is rampant. Retailers in the US talk about 60% price rises in the last months. Financial services companies in the UK talk about a 300% rise in competitive phrases in the same time period. Most of this price inflation is down to a) companies that are ludicrously over-paying and will go bust or b) multi-channel players who can afford a loss-leader for longer term value and cross/up-selling or c) ‘brand’ spenders who don’t really care how much it costs and whose KPIs are totally different or d) immature PPC players who have no idea how much money they are hosing away but will figure it out in a year’s time…

– Clickfraud appears to be a bigger issue in the US than in the UK. But perhaps this is coming to the UK soon…

– Despite all of the above, PPC is often still the most cost-effective form of online marketing, delivering the best ROI.

So there are all sorts of emotions bubbling around and it’s rare these days that you meet anyone in the ‘industry’ who has a good thing to say about Google. But many will admit this is largely jealously. And they’ll also admit that they personally use Google as their search engine of choice. Quite clearly the only thing that really matters for a search engine is to have searchers. And no-one has quite as many of those as Google.

(Actually search is the only area that Google is dominant. In instant messaging, or e-mail, for example, Google is nowhere in terms of penetration relative to the competition. But that’s another story.)

So back to paid search and reliance on Google. How could you kick your reliance on Google? Is it possible?

Should you gang together with your competitors and extract yourselves from Google altogether? That’s just possible, but who then would fulfil the independent role of search across those competing sites?

Do you hope that Google gets better competition so that you have more choices, prices decrease and the market is not monopolised? Well, yes, but everyone is already hoping that and have been for a while. Meanwhile, you’ve got targets to hit.

It’s not looking good…

But here’s a thought.

For a start, perhaps you should focus more on your existing customers rather than chasing new ones too obsessively. Then you don’t need to rely on search engines so much. Plus, it’s just good business sense. I expect to see customer retention (and satisfaction) become an increasing focus for online, and it is, in part, driven by fear of the power of Big G.

But, more fundamentally, many site owners are now really, really focusing on the mythical “customer experience” or “customer engagement”. (BTW, for more on this, read our recently published “Customer Engagement Survey”). Within this I would include ‘innovation’ or ‘differentiation’.

On the surface this is usually about increasing conversion rates. But many are now seeing this as the big beacon of hope for kicking their Google habit. The theory is quite simple: make your customer experience so good that people will talk about it, tell their friends and evangelise through all these new ‘social media’.

It’s word of mouth marketing, or viral marketing enabled by social media. Maybe, just maybe you can then ‘bypass’ Google? (This is very much what I was arguing in my controversial, and low-rated, forum post “Fire all your marketing staff – you don’t need them”. I hope to be proved right in time!).

Did need Google to build a registered user base of 15 million? I don’t think so. Did Skype need Google for its success? No. Did MySpace or YouTube get as big as they have because of Google? Not that I’m aware. There are many examples…

So focus on outstanding customer experiences and real innovation and perhaps you won’t need Google? Perhaps you can invest all your PPC budget into delighting your customers rather than dragging them through to a slightly shoddy website?

And guess what, if your customer experience is outstanding, you may just find your natural search rankings on Google go through the roof because of inbound links, favourable mentions etc. That would be a pleasing irony – stop giving Google money and get loads more traffic from them for free.

Let’s think for a moment. What is the very best example of a company that has built massive success through customer experience excellence and product innovation with almost zero marketing budget, that did not rely on Google search referrals?

Err…. that would have to be Google.