In the ongoing wake of Search Plus Your World, there has been a lot of piling on the ‘beat down Google’ bandwagon. Much that has been written has been fair criticism of the search giant, but more than a small portion has been a gratuitous ‘piling on’ frenzy. I myself admittedly took part in some of it in the aftermath of the SPYW announcement.
Given more time to reflect, I want to offer up what I hope will be a constructive line of thinking around SPYW and the appearance of social results in the SERPs (snarky title of this article aside).
Google Introduces Us To Contextual Marketing
When Google first introduced us to the concept of contextual marketing with Gmail’s ads on the side of our email, there was a fair amount of noise made about this newly intrusive way of marketing.
At the time, the catch for Google was this: Knowing that a business model must emerge from the considerable investment in building a multi-gigabyte-per-user email service, how do you market contextually relevant ads to a Gmail user without telling them you have ‘read’ their mail?
The answer is that you don’t. Marketing contextually necessarily involves telling the user you have ‘eyeballed their stuff’.
By now, several years later, I suspect that most online users are not entirely comfortable with being marketed to in a manner that broadcasts that someone is leafing through their mail or social activity (even if it is just an algorithm), but they have made the calculation that the tradeoff in exchange for the convenience of what is still an excellent search engine, and for a mail service that revolutionized mail in searchable form with lots of free storage is a decent one.
The calculation has been so widespread, in fact, that a recent (Feb 2012) Conductor survey of 750 online users showed more than six out of ten (64%) online users use Gmail as their primary method of accessing email (57% via Gmail.com and 7% use Gmail via a mail program).
Contextual But Not Intrusive
Part of the ‘calculation’ may very well have been made because the ads are mostly not intrusive. In keeping with the standards Google themselves established on Google.com – isolating sponsored results outside of my online space at a time when competitors were mixing them in with organic results – Gmail ads are off to the side:
Others, such as Facebook, recognized users’ acceptance of Google’s nonintrusive advertisement tactics and followed suit:
Put another way, the ‘intrusions’ into personal space have been ‘(mostly) out of sight, (mostly) out of mind’ (and therefore have been tolerated by users).
With SPYW, The Google-User Contractual Relationship Changes
With that in mind, perhaps some of the hullabaloo around the SPYW results in the SERPS is because it crosses the unspoken ‘(mostly) out of sight (mostly) out of mind’ threshold that has been implicit in the user-to-online marketer relationship.
That is, the overzealous mixing in of Google+, Picasa, etc. results leads to a shock factor — one I’d argue extends beyond the initial shock of an interface change–in seeing information from my private photo albums, social networks etc. in what has traditionally been a ‘sacred space in the search results.
Mentally, it has crossed the ‘(mostly) out of sight (mostly) out of mind’ contractual threshold that I have forged with Google through years of precedent.
A Lesson For Google From The Brick & Mortar World
To drive this point home, we turn to a recent lesson on consumer marketing from the brick and mortar world. In February, the New York Times ran a lengthy story titled How Companies Learn Your Secrets.
The article was, in large part, an expose on how Target mines consumer purchase behavior to derive a shopper’s life milestones (e.g. a pregnancy) in order to carefully market to them.
It describes how, with the help of a statistician, Target:
- Determined that few ‘life events’ leave an opening to changing shopping habits like a pregnancy
- Figured out the purchase indicators that signal a woman is pregnant (among other indicators, many increase their purchases of unscented lotion in the second trimester).
- Using that knowledge, and knowing pregnancy is a rare opening to condition a woman to turn to Target for all her shopping needs, and with the ability to send each customer a unique ad booklet, they began sending baby product advertisements to the women in their database they determined were pregnant.
- Discovered many women did not react well.
From the article:
- “…With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” the executive said.
Next, they began mixing in other products around the baby ads:
- Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.
- And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”
While the data guy in me is impressed that Target could not only figure out that a consumer’s buying habits are susceptible to influence when pregnant, but also the actual buying triggers that indicate a woman is pregnant, the consumer in me is more than a little freaked out about everything they know about my family (you see, with four small children, a large percentage of my paycheck goes to Target every month).
Judging by the reaction to the article on Twitter at the time it was published, I am not alone—the reaction seemed to be universally ‘freaked out’ by what a major retailer knows about us. It’s pretty impossible to read the article and not have that reaction.
Difficult though it might be, I want to set aside for a minute some of the very legitimate concerns about modern marketing practices that emerge from the NY Times article, and focus on a specific piece of information about consumer behavior that emerged from what we learned about Target’s marketing tactics, with the goal of returning to Google and SPYW.
In being so ‘in your face’ in sending pregnant women ads that clearly told them what they knew about them, Target crossed – no – they leaped over the ‘(mostly) out of sight, (mostly) out of mind’ threshold.
While I am not suggesting Marketers be devious in their Marketing, and there is real value to a consumer in receiving targeted advertisements that are relevant to them personally (no pun intended), but the Target experiments strongly suggest consumers have an upper limit on what they will tolerate and that marketers must adhere to the ‘(mostly) out of sight, (mostly) out of mind’ threshold.
Let’s Take It Slow
This is the lesson for Google. Logic dictates that there is value somewhere in melding social results with search. But right now Google is the awkward teenager who keeps stepping on the prom queen’s toes at the dance and have violated the ‘(mostly) out of sight, (mostly) out of mind’ threshold.
They need to find some suaveness and be less in-your-face about what they are trying to do by clearly showing users the value they will derive from the introduction of social and other personal results in the SERPs, and gradually conditioning users to accept this fusion of information.
So Google: Ditch the ‘awkward teenager trampling the prom queen’s toes in your eagerness to make headway with her’ persona and channel some of the Rico Suave in you. Mix the social results in the SERPs just a bit at first. Let’s have a bit of social in the SERPs foreplay before you attempt to score.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.