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The Transparency of the Search Awards

There has been a lot of scrutiny over the credibility and honesty of some of the awards in the digital marketing industry over the years and in some cases, I believe there is justification for these claims. However, the Search Awards seem to have taken a different approach to their awards over the past couple of years and have become much more transparent compared to some of the other awards in our industry.

I had the pleasure of attending the UK Search Awards ceremony at the tail end of 2014. The agency I work for (Koozai) had a project shortlisted for the Best Use of Search in the Finance Industry. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the category but hey, it’s the taking part that counts and being shortlisted amongst some incredible projects was amazing; we were very proud of the team involved.

Anyway, the reason for this post is because I saw the Search Awards going above and beyond last year when it comes to being transparent in how they reached the decision they did. I have spoken to a number of the judges, the Search Awards themselves and winners and shortlists from some of the categories and want to share my thoughts on why I think other awards should follow some of the methods they have put in place. There is always going to be more that could be done to highlight transparency but falling short of sharing all the actual results, I think the Search Awards are on the right track.


A mixed judging panel: Brand, Agency & Freelance

The judges are a panel of leading industry experts in their own right with a mix coming from in-house brands, agencies and freelance. Some of the judges have been on the panel since the Search Awards started so are seasoned pros when it comes to analysing award entries.

One of the negative remarks towards the Search Awards in previous years was that the judging panel was heavily weighted with agency experts. This put some agencies off entering projects as they were uncomfortable sharing results and strategies with so many of their competitors.

For the 2014 Search Awards, there was a real mix: 28% Agency, 50% In-house Brands and 22% Freelance.

Judges do not get paid and they judge in their own time

From speaking to a number of the judges, it is very clear just how much time they all invest in reading, analysing and scoring award entries. It isn’t just a few hours work and then they are done with it.

They judge the awards because they have a real passion for the search industry and get excited at the prospect of being part of and seeing some amazing campaigns get the credit they deserve.

The Search Awards do not pay judges.

Cost effective entry

Some awards cost hundreds of pounds to enter and I really don’t know what you get for your money! The Search Awards entry fee is around £95 and considering just how much effort goes into arranging the award ceremony (see below section for more on this) it is clear that they do invest a good proportion of that money in the night itself.

Judges (or their companies) cannot enter the awards

Judges are not permitted to enter any of the awards, other awards allow judges to enter and then just not judge the categories they enter. Nicky Wake, Managing Director at Don’t Panic said “We refuse this as we don’t feel that is ethical or transparent.”

Barrier to entry is high

They have a very robust entry process, applications must be made by submitting companies with a high level of detail including

  • Objectives
  • Budget
  • Strategy & Target Audience
  • Implementation and Creativity
  • Results and Evaluation

Other awards often just ask for a nomination of a company name and do not request this level of detail making the judging process very subjective.

Not all judges judge all categories

With the sheer number of categories and the high volume of award entries it would be impossible for every judge to judge every category. Categories get increasingly competitive each year with some categories last year receiving as many as 60 entries!

The Search Awards split the judges by their core areas of expertise. The Best Use of SEO would not be judged by someone whose expertise was in PPC and vice versa.

Each entry is independently scored initially

The judges go through a very robust two-step process. The first step is the pre-scoring element where each entry is allocated to a panel of four or five judges who give each element of the application a score individually against the robust criteria. The pre-scores are used to determine the shortlist. Judges submit their scores and they are then compiled and divided by the number of judges who judged creating an average score for each entry. These average scores determine the shortlist with up to the top eight scoring entries creating the shortlists.

A collaborative discussion forum to agree on shortlist and winners

The next step is the debate/collaborative decision. The judges either meet in person or dial in to a video conference to debate the shortlists. During this judging session judges will sense check and debate all data including checking rankings, analytics, statistics, performance etc. The judges will then discuss and decide on a winner in each category from the shortlist.

There is no hiding for the judges

All collaborative judging sessions are filmed or recorded in case of query so they can be referred to in future if required.

Award ceremony for shortlist and winners

One of the biggest parts of the awards (in particular the Search Awards) is the award ceremony itself. Not only is it an opportunity for like-minded individuals to get together over a nice meal and a few drinks; it is also a chance for the industry to get a real insight into the different campaigns that get produced.

A lot of hard work and effort goes into arranging the award night and each one that I have been to, I have not been let down. Each time the ceremony gets bigger and better and I am looking forward to seeing what the next ones brings.

Some awards in the industry don’t even have ceremonies. The winners are picked and announced on their website and that’s about it!


30 second ‘Why we picked this campaign’ videos

Earlier I mentioned that the judging sessions are filmed. The Search Awards produce a short video with one of the judges explaining why an entry won the award it did. These videos are shared on the award ceremony night and are also made available after the event to watch online. This was a new initiative in 2014; the feedback I have heard from people who entered but did not win was very positive as it gave them an insight into what they needed to improve on next time in order to get closer to winning.

Conference for winners to present their case studies

Finally, in the UK, we also have the UK Search Conference which is an opportunity for delegates to hear the story and data behind the winning campaigns and an opportunity to hear from the judges what makes a winning entry.

I went along to the most recent UK Search Conference in January and it really was insightful and thought provoking to hear from the award winners and what they did to help their clients.

10 things that make a good entry

Finally, I want to share with you 10 things that kept coming up at the UK Search Awards from the judges to give you an idea of what you need to do when you next enter a project for an award.

  1. Do the simple things really well OR doing something unique and different
  2. Use bullet points in the entry to present project information and results in a concise and snappy manner
  3. Fill in all the sections in the application form
  4. Ask someone not in our industry to read the entry. If they can understand it, you have written a good case
  5. Results will be looked into; don’t lie!
  6. Be open and transparent with the work that you have done and always tie the results back to the overall campaign objectives
  7. If you are submitting a supporting document, it should not be filled with just text. Use it to showcase the project visually using videos, graphs, images etc
  8. Videos are great but don’t make them too long. The judges have a lot of entries to go through so consider this and keep it short. Draw their attention to the video by including a thumbnail next to the link to catch their eye
  9. Whet the appetite of the judges right from the start with information that makes them want to read on
  10. If the entry is for a well-known brand, don’t waste the word count limit by telling the judges what the client does

EU Search Awards

The EU Search Awards are coming up in April; you have until 13th February to submit your entry so what are you waiting for….!



Samantha Noble is the Client Strategy Director at Koozai and also heads up the State of Digital team as the Co-Chief Editor working alongside Bas and the rest of the Editorial Team. Samantha setup the Digital Females group back in 2011 and has since run over 15 events for the group.
  • Malcolm Slade

    I must say I was very impressed by the difference in this year’s UK awards compared to last. Loads more transparency around the judging and I got to sit next to you Sam.

    The latest problem in credibility seems to be more the whole European vs UK vs Northern vs Social vs PR volume of events. Do we need so many?

    The same could be said about the award categories where often I can’t tell the difference between several categories to the point I don’t even know which to enter a campaign in to.

  • I was an extremely vocal sceptic when they first came to the US two years ago. Went on a rant about it on Twitter 🙂 I then had the opportunity to speak to and hear from several people within the organization itself, some of the judges, and a few who had experienced the UK version. That went a long way to changing my mind, which is a big deal because I am not easily swayed.

    After getting enough insight into how the process actually works here, this past October I had the opportunity to attend the 2nd US awards, and I’m glad I did. It was a lot of fun, and a great experience all around. As long as they continue to maintain the high level of effort they’ve now built into the process, it will be a proper shining example of how to do these type of events properly for everyone to model after.

    • Bas van den Beld

      Wow Alan, what a great comment, great man to say this. I remember your rant :). There’s always room for improvement on things, but it has been a long road upwards with many people giving their best to make it as open and honest as possible. Let’s hope that road will continue to be upwards.

      There’s some people behind the scenes, I won’t name names, they know who, without whom I believe that would’ve never happened, they can take your comment as a pat on the back.