The data doesn't lie; unless you torture it and force a false confession. The latest barrage of "be afraid" and "see I told you" press surrounding Google and its less than satisfactory CTRs had me (like many in the search business) staring sideways at the data – and more importantly the conclusions drawn.
How could people be clicking less? Was the entire Internet ad business coming to a screeching halt? Shortly after the news began breaking in major media, I began discussions with folks at comScore (since they released the data) while running down possible scenarios and thinking about the errors in judgment made by major media.
In the end, searches are still up; search revenues are still strong; and the sky isn't falling. The real story here is not the data itself; how it was interpreted; or the conclusions that were missed. It's certainly not about search ad revenue as an economic indicator, though the false economic barometer does catapult us into the real issue at hand.
Why We're Wrong ... But Right
The data is right and we are wrong. My first thought came from discussions we have had at recent Search Engine Strategies. As the story began to wind down, we learned the most probable solution for the click downturn while the possibility for other probable solutions remains.
Universal or blended search components have meant a lower volume of clicks. Elsewhere, the overall composition of clicks is changing. Closer scrutiny of the data reveals that, overall click rates are flat, natural clicks are up and paid clicks are down, but why?
Simply put, the quality assurance factors evaluated by a lower volume of clicks but higher click rate means that a focus on quality assurance in search results (ads or otherwise) makes perfect sense. While blended, universal or search result multiplicity continues to be examined in its early stages of development, the key understandings point us to making sure search results are of the highest worth.
The knowledge gained from studying quality controls also tells us a lot about things to come, but it might not matter.
Several other key factors point to making search result listing quality a priority, but instead of rewarding a search company with praise for doing so, we the people went another way.
Search engines will continue to experiment with extracting revenue from clicks driven to or by a search function. Much in the same way Yang and Filo were experimenting with a directory in a trailer in the last decade, this decade will see more testing and platform changes.
The only difference between then and now is our panic-stricken financial world and the subsequent fear of anything new or seemingly rushed. In a recent interview, Sequoia Capital's (the original Yahoo investors) Michael Moritz referred to the first Yahoo office as a "sweltering cesspit."
The new cesspit is less tangible than a smelly off-campus trailer. It is our obsession with panic and fear and it will be the only thing that holds us back in the coming years and no amount of venture capital can save us.
While scrutiny is important, instead of admiring a company like Google for what it is doing for the world of information, we jump at every chance to knock it down. We choose to grab at any straw that might mean comfort instead of looking upon a company that reports earnings with honesty as a breath of fresh air.
On a much larger scale, we run from the bold captains of today's cesspits and cheer for death and mediocrity. Our culture is programming our lives and experiences – on and off the Web – but it's not too late to change. There really is no polite way to say "grow a pair and climb the mountain," so I'll just leave you with that.
Kevin Ryan is off this week. Today's column ran earlier on Search Engine Watch.
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