The Japanese Search, Why Don’t We?

The battle for search supremacy in Japan is reaching a boiling point. Google is overtaking Yahoo as the number one search site and the search dominance battle has yet to declare a winner. Yet, for a whole lot of really good reasons, brands are staying neutral while encouraging audiences to search for products and services. They aren’t choosing sides.

We all remember the now famous, perhaps infamous, “Google Pontiac” campaign of recent history in which traditional media initiatives encouraged interested audiences to search for the brand in lieu of heading to the impossible-to-remember Pontiac brand site.

Well, Mazda and other brands benefited from the Pontiac campaign, and “drive to search” became a very bad phrase in search advertising. As with many things in Japan, search is a bit different. We might just have a thing or two to learn from our friends across the Pacific.

Cleanliness is Next to Searchliness

Upon entering the city of Tokyo, one is struck by many things. As a New Yorker, the effervescent and ever-present odor of urine and fermenting garbage is distinctly absent from Tokyo public transportation. People are polite, train cars are clean, seats are upholstered, and the experience is entirely different.

In short, one’s attention can be drawn away from nausea allowing one to focus a bit more on transit media. In my experience, I couldn’t help but notice the volume of “drive to search” brand and product advertising.

Since we’re talking about last year’s campaigns, as of August 2007, Japan’s more than 87 million Internet users were conducting more than 5 billion searches from January to July 2007 according to ITU and comScore, respectively.

It’s About Navitime

How we connect interest and awareness in the brand to search realm differs greatly between the U.S. and Japan. Japanese audiences conduct more transactions, execute various types of communications, and generally use mobile devices far more than American audiences.

Consider NAVITIME Japan, which serves the world with path finding engines (among other utilities). NAVITIME is just one example of numerous Japanese brands that have picked up on and continue to use the “drive to search” function of static traditional media.

I put some more great examples of “drive to search” ads here containing both search-driving and non-search-driving brand ads.

The transit billboard NAVITIME is an awareness building campaign and features a very clear call to search.

Look Again

NAVITIME is using multiple calls to action. When translated, the ad explains how users can search for the brand and the mobile devices NAVTIME works with.

The idea of cross-platform compatibility, along with and ambiguous call to the search box, provides an interesting spin on the idea of sending interested audiences to a search box. The audience isn’t being told where to search; only to search for a specific term, an idea that we Americans know has its ups and downs.

Opportunity Complications

Call or drive to search initiatives can be great or waste money sending traffic to competition. On the upside, not telling the user where to search offers choice, a search idea that’s on the endangered list and in danger of extinction in the near future.

Also, offering a specific term for search driving in traditional media allows for building a strong history in paid search advertising and time to build rankings on the SEO side of the house.

On the downside, it’s hard to control where you appear in algorithmic results, and only detailed performance analysis of positioning can tell you where you stand. In Japan, it’s generally considered bad form to buy your competitor’s brand names or specific calls to action, a concept that’s often left to the courts in the Americas and Europe.

Optimism Wins

Cultural differences aside, broad matching technologies allow marketers to pick up traffic even if it’s at a higher cost due to click activity scoring and weighing tools deployed by search engines to help improve relevancy for users.

Matching technology for broad terms like “navigation application” excuse even the most respectful marketer because it’s viewed as a problem with search technology as opposed to a tool for siphoning traffic away using another brand’s media dollars.

Careful search phrase selection is mission critical when heading in the call to search direction. Suggesting a rare term or phrase instead of calling for a popular brand or product term with heavy competition is the way to go.

Rumors abound about search engines testing methods of selling search ads that automatically send traffic directly (without the trouble of seeing a SERP) into a site at a high cost. If successful, these initiatives will change how we connect the integrated marketing dots and help interested parties find us. We’ll have a better understanding of how searchers interact with traditional brand ads while users can go directly to what they might be looking for, and I do mean might be seeking.

In our search world, what works in Tokyo may not work elsewhere. However, taking examples of how other cultures use search and applying our own tactics can reap big rewards. Careful selection of search terms prior to calling out a search action appears to have a solid foundation in spite of past negative experiences; working out a solid plan for call to search might just be what your leading edge search initiative is missing.

Join us for SES San Jose, August 18-22 at the San Jose Convention Center.

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