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SearchTHIS: Advertising, Meet User Need

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS: Advertising, Meet User Need Kevin M. Ryan

One of the larger dilemmas facing search engines is developing an understanding of what users want. At first glance, it would appear the task of understanding user intent is easy. Each time search queries occur, the searchers tell the search site exactly what they want. Or do they?

Billions of websites married to user queries combined with few industry standards for sites have created a mish mash of search results. Said mass of listing data is the cause of users' consistent complaints that search is too inefficient for them. Often, searchers say they can’t find what they want fast enough, and if a user can’t find what he wants the odds of an advertiser’s listing appearing in the right place at the right time are significantly diminished.

All of this talk about inefficiency has led to a search race to solve the user intent deciphering problem. Every week we hear about a new and improved search technology that purports to offer a newer and better search only to find the technology doesn’t perform quite as well as anticipated -- if at all. Fear not dear advertisers and commerce hopefuls, new technologies are arriving that are making strides forward in the race for smarter results. 

One man’s search result is another man’s search result

Search activity is at an all time high and despite conflicting reports about a pending search advertising bubble-burst scenario, leading search sites are investing billions in developing new technologies to help facilitate an efficient interaction between searcher and result page.

A short time ago, MSN unveiled its plans to learn more about search activity by integrating psychographic, registration and third-party research to learn more about the searcher in an effort to better understand what the user means when he enters a query. Google is also researching next generation targeting methods as well.

Meanwhile, back at the entrepreneurial ranch, convoluted search results have led to specialized vertical search providers jumping into the fray with their own spin on search. Many of us are familiar with travel or automotive vertical search sites but if blogs are your thing, Feedster, might just be what you have been looking for. GuruNet, the makers of the original smart search tool, now offers answers.com, which provides, you guessed it, answers to questions in a search engine format. Other downloadable options like Grokker (more on this in a moment) have gone an entirely different way with turning search into a visual learning experience.

The focus of the most recent developments in search center around targeting or going vertical. While search sites have yet to provide the ultimate tool for users and many simply serve ads with existing platforms into self designated new and different results pages, very few have tried to address the query confusion problem at the point of search until now.

Where’s your mind?

Yahoo! is offering another answer to the user intent question. On May 27, the search/portal giant introduced a research labs project to the internet world that seeks to separate information and commerce search. Yahoo! Mindset uses machine learning technology to separate commerce and information searches.

The machine learning concept as it is applied to search is an interesting one. This technology uses algorithms that are designed to observe, mimic and learn from human behavior. According to Yahoo!’s definition, the learning began with a seed set of data created by humans. In this case, seed developed by Yahoo! engineers.

The dividing line between commerce and information search may be the biggest point of frustration for searchers. Simply put, one user entering the query, “fishing tackle” might be looking to buy the latest and greatest fishing supplies while another user might be researching the equipment used to catch the big ones.

Searchers on Yahoo!’s mindset are offered a slider tool at the top of the page to help sort the natural or organic results into “research” and “shopping” results. Sponsored listings remain unaffected by the slider. In the “fishing tackle” example, when I moved my slider over to the “researching” side, the dominant portion of results included informational content on why I should buy the site owner’s fishing tackle. On the “shopping” side of the slide, I was treated to much more overt examples of commerce sites.

Keep on Grokking

Grokker’s graphical search interaction has been in the press a great deal lately due to its expanded relationship with Yahoo!. You can still download the application or try the newer Java-based web interface. Simply put, search queries are integrated into actionable spheres that can be refined to help find the exact information searchers seek.

Opponents argue that Grokked results complicate what should be a simple interaction. I would point out the search interaction is anything but simple at this point. While Grokking your query might take a few seconds longer than performing a simple Google search for example, I found the navigation within these graphic spheres much faster than the all-too-familiar practice of changing keywords and phrases to perform several queries.

Grokker grabs the top 200 results from Yahoo! and places the searcher in control of shaping the result. According to a Grokker spokesperson, in short time we will see not only directive search integration but content channel mapping from Yahoo! as well. Moving forward, the other big G hopes to continue expanding relationships with other search engines as they are not working with Yahoo! exclusively. Grokker was also quick to point out that clickthrough rates in Grokked results are about four percent -- double that of average search clickthrough rates.

Premises, premises

Yahoo!’s Mindset is by no means a perfect solution and they don’t pretend it is. “At this point in time, we’re just looking for feedback and input from early users of the tool to see how we can enhance the product,” says a Yahoo! spokesperson. My tests revealed both commerce- and research-focused results in spite of the slider’s location. Unfortunately, the very nature of the internet -- the ease at which almost anyone can create a web presence and the lack of standards in doing so -- will undoubtedly complicate and skew any results-sorting technology.

Despite the promise of better interactions and more targeted results pages, efficiency still leaves a lot to be desired. Yahoo! is on the right track with Mindset and the ever expanding partnership with Grokker, but we have yet to see how this evolution of search technologies will affect advertisers. As each of these technologies is introduced, advertisers will need a great deal of patience and tolerance in order to weather the series of beta storms to come.

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.

Ryan is the principal of Kinetic Results, Inc. a New York based online presence management firm.

Meet Kevin Ryan at AD:TECH Chicago, July 11, 2005

Viral videos and original content

I don't mean to start with the negative, but if you ask any doctor, things that are viral are almost never good. If I can be so bold as to quote Mary Poppins, "viral videos" are just a pie-crust promise, easily made (or asked for) and just as easily broken. Original or branded content is a powerful tool that allows a brand to tell an emotional story (or a story that evokes a desired emotion) in the name of a brand. But the request or desire to make it "viral" undoes its power and sets a parameter around its success that all but guarantees failure. 

This misguided mission may have come from the CD/MD or brand manager's love for BMW Films, Old Spice, or Red Bull (or whatever source of amazing content). The brilliance of these great pieces of original content was their deep, integrated, and holistic planning. It took months if not years of planning and fully integrated budgets to build a message and brand impression before the videos ever saw the light of day. These pieces of content had the support of fully integrated media, communications, and marketing plans, which allowed them to be seen by sufficient numbers to start a complex algorithm of paid, owned, and (eventually) earned media (sharing) -- a natural byproduct of seeding and superior content.

Instead of focusing on making great content that brings an entertaining aspect to a brand or product, the KPI (if I may be so bold to call it that) now primarily concerns a magical firestorm of views without paid media or any primary outbound marketing campaign to drive results. This parameter of success now drives everything about the video, usually diverging from a relevant (yet still entertaining) brand message to a scriptwriting and conception exercise focused on the primary YouTube audience (14-year-old girls who love cat videos) for content inspiration. Also, the need to have the brand involved usually results in a disaster that no one wants to watch. The results are hundreds of views, which are somehow exceeded by the number of negative comments about the content. Let's not forget the marketing budget that was wasted or the bad taste in everyone's mouth that was involved or aware of the program.

Original branded content is a powerful tool for the modern marketer. With an evermore fragmented TV audience, it's more critical than ever to use the mediums available to engage, entertain, and delight your audiences with relevant messages, convincing them that your product is appropriate for them. Original content is just one impression on this journey. But when used correctly to accomplish proper goals, it is certainly one of the most powerful ways to convey your messages.

Real-time and right-time marketing

Long before we were asked to dunk that now famous Oreo in the dark, brands like Dell, Comcast, Electronic Arts, JetBlue, and Virgin had been not only keeping a close eye on their community channels, but also interacting, engaging, and reaching outside of those channels on a daily basis. Not only did they have customer-service engagements, but they were also on the lookout for opportunities to be helpful, witty, and timely in their existing communities while reaching out to folks they thought might fit within their communities. As with some of the early replication attempts with "viral videos," soon after the now famous "dunk" that landed Oreo wide-spread attention, brands saw that there was value in being "always ready" or operating in real time. However, soon after that fateful day, there was a music awards show where many brands showed that, as with RTM's forefather (the viral video), they just didn't get it. Consequently, the internet was littered with the dead and dying's lame attempts to insert themselves into the "interwebs" and make a miracle splash. Of course, it didn't work. So the tarnish began as budgets were wasted, time spent, and futures burned. Brands took one step forward by seeing the value of consistent engagement with current and potential communities, but they took one step back with overzealous knee-jerk reactions to jump in. And, as you all know, in marketing and advertising, when you knee jerk and act without planning, you usually spend much more than you would have with a solid plan and a timely, well-thought execution.

I do a good bit of speaking, panel membership, and attendance at social media conferences, and I am glad to see that all hope isn't lost. There is a consistent theme of "always-on" discussion in the industry, and I beg others to stop using Oreo as an example -- not because it is a bad example, but because it is quoted improperly. As with Old Spice before it, there was this mystical story being told that the dunk really did happen in the dark of night. This couldn't be further from the truth. Oreo was in the midst of a long-term anniversary campaign. Plans had been laid, contingencies had been set, and the groundwork had been established, practiced, and tested many times looking for unique opportunities -- many were interesting, fun, useful, and engaging. Then, on that fateful Sunday, hard work, planning, and consistency paid off, as the Oreo team was not only ready, but they were also creative and funny, taking full advantage of a little luck. The rest is history. But it wasn't a miracle; it was a plan and had been going on for months. This notion is left out of the conversations of brands and agencies trying to replicate the effort. They only want the glory, without the hard work. As always, 99.99 percent of the time, that is only going to leave you dissatisfied and telling others, "It doesn't work." And you're right -- poor planning doesn't work.

Many mega brands now have "war rooms" that offer both crisis and marketing opportunity awareness as their day-to-day activities, but this doesn't mean that real-time (or the more current phrase I prefer, right-time) marketing is out of reach for the average or even small brand. What is critical to take away is the scalable nature of the overall theory behind right-time marketing that anyone can take advantage of. Not every brand needs a 24x7 relationship with its consumers. What is important is strategic thinking to understand when the right time to be present is. Your "always" is not my "always." Be ready for yours. Plan now, test when you are ready, analyze, learn, adjust, and use the moments that you can afford.

Coerced and earned media

There has been a lot of stink lately about influencers and money changing hands. I'm certainly aware there is always a fine line between advertising and journalism in the modern world of blogging (regardless of the medium -- written, spoken, video). I also know I'll get flack for using the term "journalism" -- but it does differentiate between the paid word and the inspired word. I'm also not so naïve to think that all influencer work is "inspired;" it's certainly paid for in many ways. I don't want to lose the forest for the trees though. In the last four or five years, I've met a lot of influencers. For the most part, a great majority of them are really great (mostly young) people who are truly passionate about the area in which a brand wants to be represented. It's their passion, knowledge, and entrepreneurial and journalistic spirit that make them so desirable. When you find a potential influencer, one that has the passion and subscriber base to effectively create and circulate content about your brand, it's completely reasonable to pay them (or compensate them) in some form. Everyone gets compensated; it's the way our society operates. Whether you are a traditional journalist being paid by a billion-dollar publishing conglomerate (the owner of media companies, magazines, websites, etc.) or the owner of a multi-million or billion-dollar brand, compensation exchanges hands so that the influencer creates content concerning the subject matter in which they hold expertise. 

Clearly, compensation pushes the scope and direction of the content created at times. I choose to believe that, in most cases, influencers are engaged in a morally and FTC acceptable manner in which an influencer's true interest in a brand's product allows for authentic content that stays true to the influencer's passion while disseminating product information in a positive light.

I'm starting to see a transition period happen in which our first round of influencers (mom bloggers, gameplay experts, YouTubers, etc.) have reached a compensation and experience level where they are moving out of influence and into notoriety. As they rise to this next level, although there fan base continues to grow, the essence of their influence changes as the expectation of brand representation grows, which increases their acceptability as "professionals" but reduces their "street cred." They are replaced by new, younger versions of themselves, once again taking less money, providing smaller audiences, but giving more authenticity and creating more of that oh so beloved word, "engagement."

What's important to remember is that nothing should be taken without a grain of salt, regardless of the source (editorial, journalism, blogging, etc.). What is important is quality and authenticity. This doesn't mean not to question what you read -- we should do that regardless. The internet requires us to question, as information has become instantaneous and rarely fact checked on the level it once was. This creates both a watchdog effect over "big media" as well as the chance for the individual to say anything with some success, being believed by a subset of the crowd.

Whether you are a marketer, an advertiser, or a consumer, influencers are an important part of the ecosystem of giving and receiving information about products. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Every content maker has a place, regardless of the size of the audience and how they make a living. The money doesn't make you or your content evil, the decisions you make in creating or consuming the content is what's important.

Brands have to be able to sell their products, they have to find ways to get noticed, and consumers no longer want to just be talked "at." Whether a brand creates its own custom content, engages at the right time, or asks others to talk about them on their behalf, there are always opportunities to use your power for good or evil (OK, maybe that's extreme, but I'm trying to make a point). These are all sound tactics, that when used with passion and authenticity over time can be used to stand out from the crowd and make a difference in your market. Maybe, just maybe, if you've made a superior product and have utilized the appropriate tools, you can stand out, be noticed, and make a difference. I only ask one thing: Stop making short-term choices. These tactics are sound, but bad decisions are being made for short-term gain. This not only damages your product's reputation, but it also taints the reputation of good people and good tactics that have a place in the modern, fragmented mix, taking them away from brand use due to poor decisions. Be smart, plan ahead, and stay flexible. Most of all, be authentic and use these opportunities to create engaging experiences that your audience will love. Good luck.

Keith Pape is the VP Social, Media and Community Engagement at 1K Agency.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Portrait of tired young business woman," image via Shutterstock and Digital Visitor.


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