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Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Developments With Consumer Search

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I normally don't do "look back" and "look ahead" pieces at the start of the New Year. There's usually too much new stuff going on to make time for the look back, and looking ahead's always difficult in a space that can shift directions so quickly.

Nevertheless, I did some of this for my keynote in our recent SES Chicago show. With the major search partnerships staying stable for once, and no major algorithm changes wreaking havoc among marketers, I found some time to review some of the things I thought were significant to search over the past year.

So in this piece, I'll draw from my keynote and do that type of reflective/predictive piece I don't normally do. I hope you enjoy!

2005: The Year Of Consumer Search

The most important prediction or observation I'll put out wasn't in my keynote. It hit me during Christmas, when I like many others was opening gifts and watching my family do the same. 2005 will be a year that we begin thinking widely about "consumer search," rather than web search.

I bought my wife a Windows Media Center computer for the kitchen, a nice little all-in-one unit that records live television, plays all her CDs that have been ripped and even videos of the kids, all run through a remote control. She normally hates all gadgets, but this one she loved.

Part of the system is an incredibly slick way to keyword search through two weeks worth of programs offered by Sky, our satellite TV provider here in the UK. In short order, and much to my surprise, I found that one of the channels was even going to show the Pasadena Rose Parade on New Year's Day.

OK, so it was the 2004 parade being rebroadcast, not the 2005 one shown live. I pretended not to notice and had the best New Year's Day ages.

I love the Rose Parade. I'm a Californian, and it's a tradition to watch on New Year's, as it is for many Americans in general. I've been in the UK now for eight years, have missed the parade each year and been grumpy each year because of it.

Instead, my new tradition has been on New Year's Eve to conduct futile web searches to see if there's any way to watch it here, especially since the official parade web site is a joke. They like to say millions worldwide watch the parade but they certainly don't tell you where or how. Give me a webcast, give me a broadcast, give me anything. Every year I search, no dice until now.

This year that changed. We also have a Sky+ box, our version of Tivo here, designed to help us record broadcasts from Sky and locate programs. The "locating programs" feature is horrible. Finding the Rose Parade with my Sky+ box would have never happened. But thanks to the new computer, I suddenly had decent TV search. Thanks you monolithic Microsoft -- I welcome you into my home!

This all brings me back to the idea of consumer search. Search Engine Watch has historically focused on web search, either ways to search the entire web using search engines or web access point into specialized databases. There have been plenty of good offline database we haven't covered. Why? It got beyond our remit. It wasn't stuff widely available to the general public.

Web search isn't going away. But we are seeing more and more pushes into vertical or specialized search areas, such as local and shopping. We're also seeing the big traditional web search players offering more and more specialized services. Desktop search is an example. All the major players now offer it. Why? Yes, it might encourage people to do more web searches, which in turn generates revenue. But more to the point, it's something the search consumer will want and expect from their consumer search provider.

A search consumer has turned to the majors to locate information. I don't think they sit around thinking, "Ah ha! Time to do my local search! No, time to do a shopping search. Wait, I mean TV search. Hold it, how about music search?" They just want to search, without thinking about search "category," and they expect their favorite consumer search provider to some how magically make that happen.

So Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask Jeeves -- tech companies, media companies? Yep, a little bit of tech, a heck of a lot more of media, but more important, how about consumer search companies? They are in the business of connecting consumers (B2B folks are consumers as well) with products and information. The product they sell, in various forms, is search.

These companies have focused primarily on doing that via web search (or to use the term I hate from the financial community, "algorithmic search") in the past. But as I've noted, that changed significantly in 2004 and we're going to see them move further into our lives in other ways in 2005 and beyond. Anywhere the consumer has a search need, they'll be there.

Heck, I've even created a Search Convergence category for our SEW members to help track this type of movement. There are only two major items at the moment: Search Meets TV & Yahoo, SBC, and Others Partner to Create Home Entertainment Box. But watch how it will grow. (Postscript: Literally minutes after I wrote this, we got another announcement: Convergence: Yahoo and Microsoft Announce Relationship)

Our Search Types category is more reflective of the changes. It has well over one hundred entries just from September 2004 onward, in subcategories ranging from Books & Print to Multimedia to Travel

Reflecting On Paid Inclusion & Legal Issues

Now for some looking back. One of the biggest changes in 2004 was the big turnaround with paid inclusion. The year started with all the majors but Google offering it. It ended with only Yahoo sticking to its guns that its program is useful for both searchers and advertisers.

I still urge -- as I've done before -- for Yahoo to do inline disclosure. It would remove the big fly in the ointment of what's otherwise been a fantastic year for them searchwise. But in my keynote, I also stressed that it isn't just Yahoo offering paid inclusion it, when you consider vertical search.

Yellow pages, multimedia search, shopping search -- paid inclusion is far more widespread with these specialized search properties. I also suspect it will remain more acceptable.

Shopping search? I think people may be more understanding that in such a product-oriented service, merchants should foot the bill a bit to be listed. But when it comes to searching the entire web, the idea that you should find everything regardless of payment resonates with searchers -- and paid inclusion goes against that idea with the mixed messages it sends.

Legal issues were another hotspot for 2004. As it turned out, the Google-Geico case gave Google a victory in selling ads linked to words that are also trademarks. But that won't be the end of it. There will be appeals, other cases with new spins, and it will be some time before we get on firm legal ground.

Legal issues on clickfraud, censorship and copyright were also raised in 2004. They've all come up before, of course, but the continuing interest and lack of clear resolution in these areas is simply another sign of how much more the consumer search industry has to go to full maturity. It's not yet even it its teens!

Personal Search Developments

A huge chunk of my keynote focused on the arrival of personal search in 2004. I explained how Eurekster got us going with personal search earlier this year, the idea that what we personally view might have an impact on reshaping our results. A9 morphed personal search into what I call "search memory" features. John Battelle's great metaphor is the idea of "discovery" versus "recovery," that a search helps you discover something first, then personal search lets you recover what you found later.

The point is that with A9, we got personal search revived (MSN did it in 1999, then killed it in 2000). We could use a quality search service and have it remember/recall what we'd found before.

Not long after A9 came out, we got similar features from Ask Jeeves and then Yahoo. The Yahoo service especially brought personal search back home to search marketers. With a single click, a person can block a site they don't like and never see it again.

Because of this, it's crucial that search marketers deeply understand that the first impressions count. Get it wrong, and you might find yourself on the outs with those making use of personal search services.

How to get it right? Same old song -- great content, for one. Great titles and descriptions for your search listings, to the degree you can control them. And push for word-of-mouth. If personal search begins to allow communities to share info about great sites, as the Eurekster service does thanks to its new partnership with Friendster, you'll want to participate appropriately within them.

FYI, for a more in-depth look on site blocking and personalization as it impacts search marketers, see my Search Personalization: A Marketer's Perspective for SEW members. And for a rundown of stories on personalized search, see our Personal Search category for members.

Invisible Tabs, Specialty Search & Being Vertical

In my keynote, I also covered developments with invisible tabs information, my term for the idea that vertical search results will be integrated into the default web search results. The search engines give these different names: AOL Snapshots, Ask Jeeves Smart Search, Google OneBox Results and Yahoo Shortcuts. Different names for the same thing -- the fact that vertical search is being promoted within web search.

My advice to marketers? Watch those verticals. If Google is integrating local search, news search or shopping search results, then you'd better understand how to get listed in those vertical search engines, as they'll begin to draw more users. A forum post I did recently looks at this more.

I touched on desktop search, and how that opened up as a new battleground for search engines this year. The impact for search marketers remains to be seen. Google Desktop's caching feature means that if you're found once, you might get seen again and again, as Fredrick Marckini pointed out in November. So as he said, if you can measure this, it might help show even further the power of search.

Support For Search Marketers

My keynote ended by looking at stats that came out of both SEMPO and JupiterResearch recently on search marketing firms. Since SEM firms are handling well over a billion dollars of ad spend by multiple measures, the thought that SEM is still somehow a "cottage industry" finally should be banished by anyone still entertaining it, as we go into 2005.

I used the SEMPO stats to highlight that SEM firms are doing both organic/free/natural listing work and paid listing work, not more of one or the other. This goes back to what I said in my keynote at our earlier SES San Jose show. There's a continuing demand for both types of listings from clients -- and a need for search engines to support search marketing firms in both aspects.

Search marketing firms have been the "foot soldiers" in selling search to advertisers. They get support on the free side, but there's more that can be done to help with paid listings. This doesn't mean guaranteed rankings but perhaps instead tools and services that help them better monitor and handle indexing issues. I referenced a thread I initiated in our forums earlier this year summarizing some of the things people said they wanted, such as:

  • Algorithm Shift Warning / Weather Report
  • More authoritative info
  • Express spam report
  • Public spam reporting & checking
  • Paid support program: annual, monthly, per incident
  • Search query stats
  • Complete crawls
  • Partnership in attitude on both ad and free side
  • Commission
  • Protection from direct sales
  • Certification

Interestingly, I've heard informally from both Google and Yahoo on the "weather report" idea. If there is going to be a major algorithm shift coming, it sounds like we might get better official warning or confirmation that it will come, which I'd applaud.

Why should search engines bother with any of this? As I said in San Jose, if they don't enable and assist firms they trust, clients will go to anyone. I think search engines would be better off forming relationships in a variety of ways with search marketing firms. Or as Noel McMichael says (see here and here), search marketers are part of the search ecosystem. Recognize that, fully participate with them, and it will be a friendlier ecosystem for all.

Search More Than Paid & Not Contextual

I also warned that search does not equal paid search, and the failure for anyone to understand this will lead to misreadings.

You won't know how SEM firms will evolve, if you only assume they do paid search. They don't. You won't understand trademark issues, if you don't contemplate the impact editorial listings may have on consumers who also view ads. You will fail to understand search revenues fully if you don't understand how paid search is placed, or replaces, editorial listings.

That also brings me to contextual ads. If I had one resolution I could ask of everyone, it's to stop calling contextual ads "search" or considering them as part of search advertising, if you're doing that. They aren't, and I'll keep bleating on about it when I see it happen, such as with IAB figures.

I don't care if Google or Yahoo might position contextual ads as part of search. No one "searches" to get a contextual ad. They never enter any words into a search box when these come up. The fact that they are sold on a cost-per-click basis, or that they are search ads repurposed into a contextual setting, doesn't change the mindset of the person viewing them. Search is an on-demand thing. Contextual is passive and needs to be treated as such.

I'm not saying contextual is bad. It's not. Plenty of marketers are having success with it. It's just not search, any more than print ads are part of television ads. Different mediums, different audiences (or audience frames of minds) and big mistakes down the line, if people don't break these apart properly.

Search Headlines

NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

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