November 27, 2021

Latable du Moulin

Think Marvelous Computer

The case for advertising on search engines other than Google

10 min read

It can be easy to equate search marketing with Google marketing, because, well, statistically, it is. But it shouldn’t be. By focusing on Google above all else, we perpetuate a cycle that disenfranchises smaller competitors and keeps the search behemoth at the top. 

Below, I’ll outline a few reasons why we, as search marketers, should take a more active role in encouraging ourselves and our clients to incorporate nascent search engines into our SEM and SEO strategies and our everyday lives. We’ll give an overview of the current state of the global search market and highlight a handful of underdog search engines worth exploring. 

But first, why these platforms matter to us as advertisers. 

Search is (a little) bigger than Google

Since 2009, Google has locked in a roughly 90% share of the search engine market. In the same period, other search engines have come and gone faster than you can say “indexing issue.” But at any given point in the last 12 years, there have been between 13 and 29 smaller search engine options, excluding even Bing and Yahoo, that serve countries all over the world.

Collectively, these “fringe” search engines have made up between roughly 2-4% of the market each year. And the story of these small players is similar. They burst onto the scene, squabble for that 10% share with Bing and Yahoo, and find themselves either outcompeted or relegated to a fractional market share. All the while the big three keep an iron grip on the industry. 

For an illustration of that in the last year, see the graph below. 

Search Engine Market Share – May 2020 – May 2021
Source: Statista

It shouldn’t be hard to guess that the flat line at the top is Google, and that pocket near the bottom, well, that’s everyone else.

As of June 2021, there are 17 of these smaller search engine options with a global market share above .01%. Granted, some engines like Baidu, Yandex, and Naver are focused on specific regions or countries. But even if your service area is limited to the United States, that leaves between 5 and 10 new engines to explore. 

While it might not look like much, when Google alone processes nearly 2 trillion searches each year, a small share of a market that size offers strong potential to reach relevant users on low competition platforms. So the question becomes: why aren’t we using these platforms? And why do they get stuck at the margins?

The self-fulfilling prophecy of search and the “cigarette defense”

We can’t write off these smaller search engines’ failure to launch as evidence they were a worse product. That’s too easy an explanation, and it’s one we see Google and other near-monopolies use to justify their status as “natural” monopolies all the time. Suffice it to say, just because a company is bigger does not mean it offers a better product. Rather, it means there are more support beams holding it up. This flawed “size equals quality” logic is especially clear in the current ecosystem of alleged market manipulation and dubious boardroom deals

Search engines fail for a number of reasons. Many have nothing to do with the product itself. In-part, they fail because of our expectations of the product and our unwillingness to accept “low volume.” The truth is, we, as search marketers, contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents many search engines from establishing themselves. 

The cycle goes like this: A new search engine emerges with a unique value proposition. It gets a little buzz, picks off a little market share. It begins to gain momentum. Search marketers hear about it. It starts to appear in blogs and news articles to a flurry of head nods and a lot of “that looks neat.” If we’re really interested, we tell ourselves and our clients that we’ll test it. But, looking into the platform, we see low volume searches and small user bases, and the test gets put forever on the backburner. Then the search engine stalls out and reinforces our initial hesitation. 

The dilemma is that search engines need revenue to grow, which comes, in most business models, from advertisers. And advertisers need users, which come with growth. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Which comes first: growth or advertisers?

There are search engines offering models outside of this paradigm — neeva, for example, which offers a subscription-based search service — but for the most part, our current mix of search engines are supported in-part by advertisers. 

So, because we don’t treat these search engines as more serious marketing channels, we create a system in which we demand more users but won’t provide the resources to achieve that user volume. Then we throw our hands up, lamenting Google’s outsized influence as we allocate more and more of our marketing dollars there. 

It’s an odd variation of the tobacco company defense, which has been used by both cigarette and oil companies throughout the last century to avoid dealing with the impacts of their products. The defense holds that a tobacco company is simply responding to demand. What purchasers do with tobacco products and how it may affect them is not the company’s responsibility, or even concern. If they don’t provide, someone else will. 

In our case, clients ask for more volume and higher returns, so we gravitate toward Google. And we keep feeding the machine, looking for volume on Google, because that’s what they ask for. What happens to the smaller search engines isn’t our concern, because if we don’t provide volume for the client, another agency will. 

Seen this way, our impact on these smaller search engines is clear. We don’t help them, so they don’t grow.

Currently, our industry is dominated by a monopoly who can update, test, self-select, and reconfigure without input from us or the websites and ads accounts we manage. And we’re left to react to it, because we can’t reasonably replace that volume elsewhere. We’ve got some responsibility for making that happen, but we can also use our position as search marketers to mitigate it. 

If I can propose a semantic shift in how we think about search marketing, I think we focus a little too much on marketing on search engines and not nearly enough on marketing search engines themselves. 

If we want to see a future in which Google is not the only major player in search, search marketing needs to see the “fringe” players in search as legitimate options. We need to allocate ad spend to these channels, and we should work to understand the nuances of their algorithms, so we can take a targeted approach to improving rankings on them. 

Luckily for us, we have a few options to explore, and they’re not half bad. Below we’ll cover two: Ecosia and Brave.

Search engines to consider for your search marketing

Ecosia

Ecosia is an environmentally friendly, privacy-focused search engine that plants trees as you search. It’s generated a lot of buzz in the marketing and climate communities. Right now, it sits at .13% of the total search market share, but it’s poised to continue to grow in the coming years. 

Not to mention it’s carbon-negative and reports that it’s planted almost 130 million trees as of June, 2021.

While Bing provides most of the search results for Ecosia, there are ways to support ecosia with marketing spend. Plus, the platform does good things, so I wanted to call it out for each of our personal use. 

How to Advertise on Ecosia

If you’re advertising on Bing, you can easily adjust your campaigns to run on Ecosia. This guide walks you through the steps to do that, but at a high level, here’s what you need to do:

  • Set up a Bing Search Ads Campaign
    • Choose your keywords, build your ads, and run through that whole rigamarole
  • Focus your campaign to the Syndicated Partner Network
    • This is like Google’s Search Partners, but Bing enables us to get more specific with which search engines we target.
    • The ad distribution option is found on the settings page for the ad groups.
  • In your ad group settings, choose “Bing, AOL, and Yahoo syndicated search partners only”
    • This option for ad distribution enables you to focus on the search partners
  • Exclude All Non-Ecosia Search Engines
    • After your ads have been live for a while, you can download your list of “Publisher Websites.”
    • With that list, you can exclude all non-Ecosia search engines. 

Brave is a little different. It started as a browser and recently expanded into the search engine space. Right now, it’s search market share is not listed. However, the Brave browser has grown amazingly fast in recent years. In February of 2021, the browser surpassed 25 million users, up from 12 million in December of 2019. 

Brave Search launched as an open beta last month, and I include it here for a few reasons. The most interesting is that Brave is creating its own independent index of the web. 

Many smaller search engines, like DuckDuckGo and Ecosia, rely on Google or Bing to create their search results. They may make some adjustments, but the underlying algorithms are similar. With a new algorithm indexing websites based on new criteria, this poses a real opportunity to expand our base of platforms beyond the ranking factors greenlit by Google.

On the advertising front, Brave Search won’t have traditional text ads. Those are set to launch in the near future, but as it stands, the Brave browser has a unique set of opt-in ad types and formats that serve as users browse the web on Brave. 

How to Advertise on Brave

In general, the process for advertising on Brave looks like this.

  • Apply For A Brave Ads Account
    • Campaigns are set-up through an application form, which collects advertiser info, campaign spend & KPI info, and creative. In the form, you provide a manager email, and set your desired spend, billing, and reporting preferences.
    • Note that advertisers are not locked-in at their initial spend. They may adjust once their application is accepted.
  •  Launch
    • Once you’re approved, you’ll make the strategic call on how to target users. You can leave it all up to Brave’s machine learning algorithm, or you can select specific customer segments to target. Currently you’re able to choose from a list of audiences & categories, but the rest is up to the platform’s algorithm. 
    • After that, most of the maintenance changes are left to Brave to manage. You can work closely with the team on strategic & budget initiatives, but larger campaign changes happen on their end (with your approval). As discussed, ad formats are roll-in with a headline, body copy, and a link to a landing page.
  • Maintain
    • Currently, there’s no definite guide to Brave best-practices, but future articles will identify key strategies for landing page & creative tests.
    • Advertisers can set account billing to CPC or CPM, and quantity discounts exist for accounts spending over $50,000 per month. 
  • One downside of the platform is that currently the Brave Ad Ops team and dedicated account reps conduct most of the maintenance, and the current dashboard feature is effectively “read-only.” You inform the strategy changes, but their goal is tactically to ensure ads continue to run.
  • In the future, we hope to see more granular advertiser maintenance options, but for now you’re working in tandem with the Brave team.

On the organic side, we don’t know a lot about the Brave algorithm yet. But as we learn more, and the browser continues to grow, I hope that we’ll get a more fleshed out understanding of the unique signals it considers. Maybe that’ll change how we think about our site on other search engines, and maybe even Google. 

Why we care

All of this is to say that there are options out there that are worth testing — I mean really testing. Brave and Ecosia are great places to start. They’re novel. They make an impact. They’re relatively cheap. And we owe it to these nascent platforms, ourselves, and our clients to diversify our strategies to accommodate them. 

If we keep feeding the beast with ad spend and SEO resources, we’re not doing ourselves any favors. Google stays the “gold standard.” It sets the rules, and we’re left to play by them. What’s more, we’re left to hold these new platforms to the same, impossibly high standard. And they’re left to squabble for fractions of a percent market share in the dregs. 

But if we break out of that loop and adopt these new platforms, despite our hesitations about volume and UX, we give them the chance to get better. We give them the chance to show us that search is more than what Google does. 

Regardless, at the very least these platforms should be on your radar. At slightly more than the very least, they should be on your phone. Maybe then we’ll all see why they should also be in our search marketing mix.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

John is a Senior Paid Media Analyst at Uproer, where he works to build paid search strategies for clients in the e-commerce and SaaS spaces. He’s drawn to the ideas, channels, tactics, and emerging trends that tackle big issues in marketing. And he approaches SEM with a focus on data privacy, incrementality, and social impact. When he’s not knee-deep in a spreadsheet, John volunteers with local climate organizations and helps spread their message through search.

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