Search Marketing in Canada: A State of Confusion

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Search marketing in Canada is not exactly booming. SEMPO Canada’s opinion is that Canadian businesses simply “do not get search marketing.”

They conducted a survey in January asking Canadian-based search businesses to provide their input in an attempt to understand why SEM is not red-hot. Three days before the survey closed, only 60 companies Canada-wide had responded.

As there are thousands of SEO/SEM companies throughout Canada, and even more agencies who offer search marketing as part of their service offering, these results are very disillusioning. Google alone returns 202 results for the search on ‘allinurl:seo company Toronto.’

The question is: Why the lack of interest?

Statistics: Canada’s Online Population

To confound search marketers in Canada further, 72% of Canadians are online compared to 71% in the US. While I realize that 71% of the US population is the equivalent of 10 times as many people, the fact that almost three-quarters of the Canadian population is online presents two clear opportunities for companies doing business north of the border:

  1. There are 24 million people online in Canada. This online population is a significant market when you consider that Toronto, the most-populated Canadian city, has a population of only 5 million. The opportunities for increasing national market share, exposure, and sales/leads are real and viable.
  2. 85% of Canadian households have high-speed Internet access. This is currently the ninth highest level of broadband penetration by country in the world. People with broadband connectivity are usually Internet-savvy and more likely to bank online, research online, search online, and purchase online.

Statistics: Behavior of Canada’s Online Population

The February 2008 data from comScore Media Metrix on ‘Top Ranking Canadian Sites’ gives some interesting insights into the state of search from the consumer’s perspective:

  • In February, 94% of online Canadians interacted with Google and Microsoft sites, while 67% visited Yahoo! sites. Canadians are searching online.
  • eBay, Amazon, and Yellow Pages all received visits from 33% of the online population or more. 33% of online Canadians visited electronics goods websites, 27% downloaded e-cards, and 20% visited gift/flower websites. Canadians are looking to buy and are buying online.

The latest PricewaterhouseCoopers Global Entertainment and Media Outlook predicts that online ad-spend* will grow faster in Canada than anywhere else in the world over the next 5 years for two primary reasons:

  1. high broadband penetration
  2. lower online market saturation

*[It is important to note that while online ad spend figures traditionally include paid search data, they do not include spend on SEO.]

Insights: The data consistently reiterates the massive opportunities within the Canadian online marketplace, and yet businesses in-country remain very slow to consider search engine marketing as a viable opportunity.

Canada Remains Unconvinced. Why?

My opinion on why Canadians remain unconvinced about the importance of SEM is that it simply boils down to a lack of commercial education. To explore this further, let’s look briefly at the US and the UK, and follow with a more targeted look at Canada.

  • SEO is booming in the UK (61 million people on an island three times smaller than the province of Newfoundland and smaller than the state of Michigan). Why? Competition is enormously fierce. The UK has numerous advertising, marketing, search based, technology and other types of conferences throughout the year. It’s no big deal to get to one, as nothing is more than a day’s drive away (depending on traffic congestion). It is also relatively cost-effective and not terribly time-consuming to nip over the English Channel for a day or two to attend the Madrid SMX show, or the Paris SES show, or any of the numerous European and Asian search marketing conferences.
  • The US is the home of the search marketing conference. Between SMX, SES, and PubCon, there are 12-plus dedicated search marketing conferences alone in the US, to say nothing of the other marketing conferences that mention SEM regularly in their session lineups. People know people, people meet people, the conferences are spread all around the US, and the search community is growing constantly.

Conference attendance and knowledge increase as both businesses and service agencies learn more from the experts. As a result, businesses and agencies (on behalf of their clients) are consistently and increasingly implementing search strategies effectively. They are seeing increases in exposure, conversion rates, and ROI. The cycle continues to gain momentum, and search marketing continues to grow in stature and acceptance as a viable opportunity for channeling hard-earned advertising dollars.

We’ve looked at the UK and the US, so let’s take a peek at Canada.

  • It is nearly 4 million square miles in size (42 times the size of the UK and 460,000 square miles larger than the US).
  • It has the equivalent of 10% of the population of the US, and 20% of the population of the UK.
  • To date, it has only one major search conference per year – SES Toronto.

How Does This Data Affect Canadian Businesses?

If Canadian businesses are even aware of search marketing (which is less likely than either of the other two countries due to immense dilution over space and time), they have traditionally had only one significant educational seminar in one city in a massive country each year to focus on.

There does not appear to be any national push in the agency or marketing world towards gaining knowledge about SEM. As such, businesses have not yet felt the need to explore the field more thoroughly on their own behalf. It is a fact that many of the larger, more competitive (and thus benchmarking) businesses are tied to agencies. While numerous agencies offer SEM services, they do not push them to the fore as the fires of interest on the client side have not yet been lit.

What Does It All Mean For Canadian SEM (SEO and Paid Search) Agencies and Providers?

You need to educate your clients. Join SEMPO and other search-based driving forces to understand the state of the search marketing interest in Canada. Find out about all applicable search marketing conferences and go. Take your clients, blog about your attendance and what you learned, and push SEM into to the forefront of online marketing.

What is the Forecast for SEM in Canada?

It will gain momentum, and it is important that Canadian search providers start pushing their services before US-based businesses take over the market landscape. There is no longer a financial disadvantage to outsourcing to the US, and US search agencies are already taking up market share.

I’ll end with a recommendation for you to read the June 2007 Gord Hotchkiss article entitled “Canada, It’s Time To Clue Into Search!” (blogs/mediapost.com/search_insider/?p=552). This is not a new issue, it remains an issue, and the opportunity will be exploited. I can only hope that it will be Canadian businesses and providers who take up the slack and benefit.

About the Author

Laura is President of SEMCanada.org: The Canadian Search Marketing Series; and Senior Search Analyst for Epiar Inc. Since 2001, she has provided SEM consultation services for large brands including Hyatt Hotels, Rolex, Pampers, and Microsoft Partners, as well as numerous smaller brands.

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