By Andy Atkins-Krüger, President of The Search Marketing Association – SMA-UK.org

Search is one of the hottest topics in marketing as the 6000 person attendance at the search engine strategies show in New York last week demonstrated. Nevertheless search – in both its paid and unpaid varieties – remains in its infancy.

And it seems new things generally arrive around the New York show – but then it is the most significant in the industry.

On the unpaid, natural or organic side of search – the oldest player by far is Google with over seven years experience. Yahoo meanwhile used Google’s results for some years before launching its own search engine just prior to the 2004 conference two years ago – and MSN search has just blown out the candle for its very first birthday.

Ask Jeeves took the opportunity to re-launch itself as a player in natural search at the conference with Barry Diller – who runs IAC, which now owns Ask – publicly giving the butler the boot.

Looking at pay per click – Google’s Adwords system has just celebrated only its 4th birthday. Meanwhile, Yahoo has finally renamed its Overture division (acquired 18 months ago and the oldest pay per click system and original inventor of the concept in 1997 ) to Yahoo and MSN is still only at the pilot stage in launching its AdCenter – the tool it expects to help it win market share from Google. Meanwhile, AOL is planning to launch its own premium online advertising system during 2006.

Without doubt search is a phenomenon and one which pretty much happened by accident. Google grew by word of mouth and the pay per click system really sprung out of the depths of the .com crash.

But is search still in its nappies? For sure the spend on search is reckoned to be still way behind what its performance would justify and whilst some savvy marketers are racing to get on board – some are asking for search to be demonstrated to them as they still need convincing.

Yet there are few now who aren’t aware of some of the impact of the search engines. And the line up of search engines now looks much more like media or TV organisations lining up to win the best share of the audience they can to generate value for advertisers and thereby attract greater revenues.

Google has Google Adwords – Yahoo has Yahoo Search Marketing – MSN has MSN AdCenter – Ask has Ask – it all looks very tidy. The days of explaining to clients that this is called searchythingy and it feeds those two – but they get their natural results from this other feller, is gone.

The tidying up of the search brands is good for the industry – will win more clients over to the concept confuse people less and drive up the competition which in turn will be good for both consumers and advertisers.

So no, search isn’t in nappies – but it isn’t going to school yet. With three advertising systems not even rolled out – there’s still a long way to go.

But there are huge numbers of potential clients watching to see what happens. Take my advice, learn how it works now – because that will give you the advantage of experience later when it will make – and break – businesses and careers.

Andy Atkins-Krüger is the president of The Search Marketing Association – www.SMA-UK.org

Published on: 12:00AM on 8th March 2006