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SearchThis: What's on Your Mind?

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchThis: What's on Your Mind? Kevin M. Ryan

The Yahoo! Buzz Index, Google Zeitgeist, and MSN Search Insider have long provided us with insights into search behavior. Studying search activity after the fact with keyword suggestion tools is another great way to enter the mind of the searcher. Each exercise brings us closer to understanding how the internet search ecosystem functions.

With the current state of affairs in our nation and the innumerable tragedies faced by those affected by Hurricane Katrina, it seems absurd to be writing about search engine marketing. It is, at times such as this one, that we find both the worst and best elements of human conduct.

Many Americans turn to search engines in the event of a national tragedy; in and of itself, the search activity tells a story. The terms we use and the sites we visit reveal the nature of earth's inhabitants as we query and gain access to indexed, digitally fed and paid links.


First things first: the big three have responded to disaster relief efforts in a huge way. Google, Yahoo! and MSN all offer access points for donating funds to various charities. Among them, the American Red Cross, which may be overwhelmed by donation requests when disaster strikes.

Yahoo! donated a site and some coveted home page real estate for a Red Cross disaster relief page. The ease of a Yahoo! storefront for donations proved quite successful. As of early Tuesday morning, the site reported pulling in $49,777,080 from 349,886 donors, and it was amazing to refresh that page and see the number keep climbing.

Google offered a link to a site donated by Amazon.com and reported collecting $8,737,171.80 via 81,426 payments as of early Tuesday morning. MSN offered a hosting arrangement similar to Yahoo!'s.

In an age when everyone wants to know where the money goes, it is worth mentioning that Yahoo!, MSN, and Google are reportedly not taking a bit off the top to host the sites and facilitate the transactions.

Forget Paris

Search activity monitors like Yahoo's Buzz Index let us know what's on the minds of internet searchers. It is published Tuesday through Saturday with a weekly report on Sunday. Last week, searchers everywhere took a break from the usual Paris Hilton-Jessica Simpson- Hilary Duff updates to find out what was happening with America's ongoing natural disaster.

When the Hurricane approached America's Gulf Coast, internet users moved to the search sites to find information about everything touched by Katrina. The Yahoo! Buzz Index reported the term "Hurricane Katrina" as the leader for Thursday September 1, 2005 with a score of 559. That means over one half of one percent of all users searching Yahoo! entered the query.

By the end of the week, searches for "Red Cross" and "American Red Cross" were on the rise. Also, searchers became concerned with "Gas Prices" and "Gas Shortages" along with relief efforts such as the relocation of refugees to the "Houston Astrodome." In all, of the top 20 leaders on the Yahoo! Buzz Index, six had some connection to the disaster. As the week wore down, Katrina searching gave way to other concerns.

Politics and petrol

Fuel-related searches far exceeded any search activity for disaster relief as the infamous hurricane dissipated. This might be explained by the direct links offered by major portals to donation sites, or perhaps searchers had moved on to other concerns after making their donations. News searches shifted to the aftermath and results came alive with blogs and official news resources reporting rising death tolls and the inevitable political gaming.

The Drudge Report has long been a top query as reported by Google's Zeitgeist. Among the top Drudge results in Katrina's wake? You guessed it: political meandering. With most of the affected area still underwater and no certainty about to the magnitude of human loss, concerns shifted to blaming our administration for lack of preparedness.

Senator Hillary Clinton even took time from her day to draft a note to the Bush Administration that called for a 9/11-style probe into how the federal government responded to the disaster. That's right folks, "Katrina Commission" started showing up on search radar shortly after the announcement.

Of course, press release carpet bombing from the Bush Administration led to ancillary search activity shortly after criticism began. Heck, even the Red Cross set aside a few minutes for a press release to let everyone know how well they were doing with a relief efforts at "record pace" announcement.

Shockingly, I haven't seen any searches for; "Don't these people have more important things to worry about?" I have high hopes for next week.

Until it hurts

"Hurricane Katrina" searchers were treated to a plethora of sponsored listings from a multitude of charitable organizations. Indeed, so many charities have appeared, the sponsored results resemble a warped competition to get bleeding heart funds. From pet savers to rubber bracelet peddlers -- they all want to help you help other people.

Even charitable portals like Network for Good -- created in 2001 by the Time Warner Foundation, AOL, Cisco Foundation and Cisco Systems, Inc.; and Yahoo! -- can be found either on the AOL welcome page or via sponsored results on Yahoo! and Google.

And let's not forget what the credit card companies are making on these transactions: as payment for managing your portfolio of charitable donations, Network for Good deducts three percent of total donations from credit card entries and $10 per transaction for online checks.

A few search providers offer recognized charitable non-profit organization discounts (as long as they meet certain requirements), such as Google's grant program, but for the most part, sponsored listings are still funded as a portion of an organization's overhead.

In any case, it's somewhat disconcerting -- even unsettling -- to know that some percentage of the dollars I contributed to relief funds go to bidding wars in sponsored search results.

Giving 110 percent

Remember, if you happen to give to the Red Cross (they claim to dispense 92 to 94 percent of funds donated) via an aggregator, only about 89 to 91 percent of those funds will end up going to the people in need.

Though we have come a long way since the Red Cross misappropriation scandal of 2001 -- a handful of local chapters were found to be spending the money on recreational activities --  it's worth specifying exactly where you want your donation to go.

The American Red Cross now allows you to designate to which fund your money is directed. At the end of the day it is reasonable that these charitable organizations have operating costs that have to be addressed and that six to ten percent of funds are going to operating costs or other expenses. I threw in an extra 10 percent just in case we were on a 90 percent day.

We spend so much time worrying about search activity that we often forget how rational thought gives way to human nature. The measure of this phenomenon is nowhere more prevalent than in the search box, and while this is certainly no time for my "people are stupid" lecture, there is a glimmer of hope for those of us walking upright.

In the short hour or so since I listed the Yahoo! and Amazon numbers above, an additional 372 Yahoo! visitors contributed $49,330, while 483 Amazon visitors contributed $49,609 more to the American Red Cross.

Now that, ladies and gentleman, is progress.

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.
Mr. Ryan is chief strategy officer at Zunch Communications.


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