As goes search, so goes paid search, at least in the sense that nobody would click on paid links near search results unless compelled by search engine results in the first place. So, changes in how people interact with search engines can affect where and how they search next year and in the future. As a paid search advertiser, you don’t want to get caught flat-footed so I thought it would be to examine emerging search user behaviors and emerging search technologies.
Today is not much different from ten years ago in the sense that many users still experience serious holes in the search experience. As always, search engines are addressing these holes as quickly as their resources and foresight allow.
Hole #1: Real time search
In general, Google and other search engines are great for getting information and do a fairly good job updating rapidly but in some cases don’t update rapidly enough. What if you want information on something that has happened in the recent past? Like the last 30 minutes? Although search result pages pull information from Google News for added timeliness, the results on a search results page can be from very different time frames. Google has a few tools in its arsenal but until recently, they had serious limitations, enough so to make it justifiable to say that Google can’t really help users with many fast-moving topical searches. It’s no secret that this accusation gained ground after Twitter got good at it.
Let’s give Google some credit. Marketing professionals, in particular, have long followed Google’s search trend information offerings such as Google Insights for Search (formerly called Google Trends). Google Hot Trends (formerly called Google Zeitgeist, and matched by many of their search engine competitors over the years) has often been the closest Google has come to offering real time information about hot searches.
Google Insights for Search has become increasingly robust, but is still a long way from the robust, query-able product many power users would like to see.
Meanwhile, Google Hot Trends seems poorly connected to the actual fast-breaking searches initiated by users. For example, the other week a hot trend was “sweeping.” But this would be hooked up to conventional SERP’s containing topics related to housekeeping, baseball and a “dust plume sweeping off Libyan shores.” That’s totally out of context. Advantage, Twitter.
More recently, the company has also sought to publicize new real world applications of its vast search technology and user query stream, almost as if to say “we not only have a handle on fast-moving information, we’re able to take it up a notch to help save lives, etc.” An example would be Google’s flu (and other health issue) outbreak tracking capability based on the rise of queries in specific geographic locations.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve noticed that Twitter has been able to fill the real time search hole, forcing Google to play catch-up. Conversations on Twitter can provide insight and allow people to easily infer subject matter meaning. For marketers, it’s certainly helpful to understand what consumers are thinking about and alert features can help marketers monitor their brands and stay current on relevant topics.
Hole #2: Little leverage of circles of influence
To make important decisions, people tend to turn to people they trust. The conventional search engines do a poor job of providing recommendations from trusted sources. Google and the other engines are good at helping consumers find a chiropractor in their neighborhood, but what about finding a chiropractor your friends use and like?
Google and Yahoo are increasingly integrating rich results (such as Yelp reviews) into search results, but some review sites are generic and you may not belong to them or trust the people giving the reviews as they aren’t your peers.
Enter a new service called Aardvark (also called Vark). Via instant messenger service, Aardvark allows you to ask it any question and it will try to find you an answer within your network (network is defined as your friends, the people your friends are connected to and your selected groups). While in San Francisco, we used the service to find an inexpensive Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for 12 people. We got an answer in about 7 minutes. Take a look at Danny Sullivan’s in depth write up on Aardvark for more specific information on the service.
The implications of this are pretty huge. Here are a few.
If marketers know what people are thinking and looking for, their ads will be more targeted and annoy fewer non-prospects. This could lead to better results and stronger ROI from marketing efforts. Along with that, there could be potential downsides familiar to any seasoned SEM. Fake personas? Paid endorsements? Potential advertising opportunities on Aardvark and Twitter. To me, it sounds like there are big opportunities to target more specifically and such opportunities are obviously tremendous for marketers. What would this look like? CPC model? CPA model?
Google is at a delicate moment in its life cycle and must innovate to keep ahead. They’ll need to think about changes to the search scene carefully. Will there be an acquisition? Will Google see a piece of their pie eaten by other players in the new search game? If search changes a lot, there is no guarantee Google can grow revenue By staying on the comfortable path they’ve been on. Will they try to defend the old status quo with a slight modification of Ten Blue Links? Or change, and stop growing revenue?
The likelihood that people trust their own networks is only rising as technology is developed to take old, largely offline word-of-mouth processes and accelerate them with increasingly well-tuned social network intelligence engines. Facebook may have benefited from the hype surrounding that potential, but first movers don’t always get things right. Second and third movers in this space have enormous potential to create more clutter-free bonds among like-minded members. Research shows, in any case, that consumers are looking to tap into real, trusted, peer recommendations on products and services across the board, from a stick of gum to an expensive piece of business software. Indeed, it’s these kinds of sources that drive buying decisions.
Brand awareness campaigns and disruptive advertising campaigns are locked in a struggle with increasingly message-resistant prospects “hiding out” in these digital treehouses. The big mistake many companies are already making is trying to “infiltrate” or “advertise all over” new media that will be based on unbiased information exchanges and tight bonds of trust. There are many opportunities for companies to enter these spaces with permission, and to place commercial messages where warranted. Unfortunately, those who don’t get it will ruin their reputations by overstepping their bounds.
All in all, there’s a real shift going on with real-time search, what people are chatting about on Twitter, etc. We obviously don’t know what this looks like yet and there are certainly interesting times ahead. At the very least, we should ask these three questions, without necessarily having clear answers yet:
1. What will compel people to choose search engines like Google as a central resource in the future? If Google tries to cling to its traditional layouts as a means of maintaining the status quo revenue-wise, will people begin drifting away to other search tools?
2. Wherever they search, how receptive will users be to paid ads? If they aren’t receptive, will ad rates fall?
3. What will paid search advertisers need to change about their strategic mindset in 3-5 years?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.