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Search Quality Depends on Intention

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How often have we heard the old refrain that Google's results are just so much more relevant than those of other search engines? Now, Microsoft has announced that it has improved the relevance of its search results to be on par with the best, and Yahoo just released another update to the algorithm, oh and Google just released another improvement.

When it comes down to it, deciding which search engine's results are best will depend on who you ask. This may sound obvious, but it's often overlooked: relevance is based on intent. Two people with the same search query may view the quality of the results quite differently.

From a marketing perspective, we should try to keep in touch with the environments in which our ads and SEO efforts are seen by the users. Understanding how the engines are different will help us form our expectations. It is not just "Google is better," but in what situations is Google better? Why might someone search on Yahoo or Live? In what situations would a person use two or three engines, instead of simply settling for the SERPs of one? So, it doesn't hurt to take a look at the SERPs once in awhile.

I did a little study of my own. I took a look at results for the same set of queries across Google, Yahoo, Live.com and Ask. These were broad match queries for [Trek mountain bike”, [Green Day”, and [skin cancer”. By the way, this is decidedly not scientific.

With [Green Day” and [skin cancer”, the top three engines were very comparable. There was a 30 to 40 percent overlap, with the unique sites having very similar types of content. Bottom line, in well developed content categories, the top engines performed similarly.

With [Trek mountain bike”, there is a clear difference, with Google on one side and Yahoo and Live.com on the other. Google appears to be more product-focused with 3 listings on craigslist.com (nowhere near where I live), 1 for eBay and 1 for Amazon. Yahoo and Live are more information-focused, with a broader scope of information. In addition to product pages and the Trek corporate site, they have information on things ranging from Trek's racing team, to more articles from industry magazines to their sponsorship of fundraisers for cancer aid.

In other words, the second and third place engines have a broader scope of information. In my mind, this make them more valuable. In addition to being able to buy a Trek bike from 3,000 miles away, I can learn much more about the quality of the bikes and the company.

Recently, Google increased the frequency of updates to their Trends service, so it is now updated daily. So, I thought I would see what they say is hot and find out why Google might be better. I used the top queries on Google Trends for that day, and once again searched with Google, Yahoo, and Live.com.

The query [Republican debate” had extremely similar results across search engines. The top news sites, with up-to-the-hour links for that night's debate were found throughout. Perennial Disney favorite [Halloweentown High” was very similar as well, with the top three sites shared on Yahoo, Live and Google. Google did appear to have more review sites. About 40 percent of the Yahoo results for [Clytie Lane”, girlfriend of Nick Nolte and new mother to his child, went to one site where Live.com and Google both had a good mix of results. So, using some of Google's hot trends, I found that Google did not stand out as "the best."

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that Ask was part of the review, but I have not mentioned them since. Ask needs to get much more relevant, this has always been an issue. Ask updated its search engine in June, and over the course of this year there has been an extensive television campaign promoting the Ask.com property. I give IAC credit, the site looks great. Unfortunately, there is a lot of sizzle and no steak.

On the first query, [trek mountain bike”, the listings were to non-functioning sites, two vacation sites - one for bike rentals in Tahoe and another for Chile and some built for AdSense sites, along with the trek.com site. In other words, there is a lot of junk. [Green Day” was better, with a Smart Answer at the top of the page, but the main results were not much different. Ask is pushing a lot of people to the site through the off-line advertising. These are people who may never come back.

All in all, Google does not appear to have significantly better results. Arguably, I'd say there are results where they lag the others. What they did was get it right well before the others. At the recent IAB MIXX Conference, Seth Godin was asked what things might look like in 3 to 5 years. In essence, he said you can not assume that because a company is the leader today that they will continue to be in the years to come. He specifically mentioned Google. Google has momentum. But, if users are given a reason to switch, they may find that they are satisfied with one of the other two. Now, it is less about the product than it is about the marketing.

Steve Haar is the senior director of media at Leapfrog Online, where he oversees search marketing and other vertical efforts. Haar sits on the IAB Search Committee, SEMPO Global Search Committee, and the steering committee for the Click Quality Council. He combines his past experience in offline branding and mass media with his passion for online marketing in his blog, Think About Search.

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