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What AOL's Data Dump Tells Marketers

Kevin M. Ryan
What AOL's Data Dump Tells Marketers Kevin M. Ryan
People are disturbed. They search for unimaginable things never discussed in polite society. Worse, they aren't even careful about who knows it. Wait, that last bit might be a stretch.

A couple of weeks ago AOL had the wisdom and foresight to release a boatload of data; people have been talking about nothing else ever since. Of course, there were a few little problems. The information was personal and contained data on search behavior, so AOL pulled it down quickly.

Fortunately, the blogging masses captured the very large file before it disappeared. They made sure anyone that wanted it could have it (while simultaneously complaining about the privacy issue).

Hi-jinks ensued. 

Clara Bell Anyperson, 87 -- who currently resides at #1 Happy Street, WishilivedIn, Texas, and whose deepest darkest secrets were revealed to the world and everyone in it -- got upset.

I suppose I don't blame Clara Bell or anyone else for being a bit miffed, but here's what we can learn from this data. 

Crack that golden goose open
We have been aware that search behavior is the barometer of human behavior for quite some time. Many search experts in marketing use their knowledge of human behavior to facilitate brand to buyer connections.

Yet, internet search log files are at best a bastardization of Abraham Maslow's theory of hierarchical needs. They convey basic human need, but those needs don't seem to line up with running theories applied to marketing tactics.

For example, take the latest post from Slate.com containing a search string from AOL user number 16006693. Search 160's (as we'll refer to him heretofore) short string offers a sharp wake-up for those living behind the traditional thought curtain.

Traditional marketing tactics dictate that we reach out to Mr. 160 armed with the knowledge that he just bought a Lexus or BMW, makes over $170,000 a year and purchases dog food on a fairly consistent basis. We might also know that ole 160 has a whopper of a mortgage, can't control recreational spending and likes coconut shampoo.

By now you might be starting to get a clearer picture of what we must all realize. We don't know Mr. 160 at all.

Welcome to the new world. 160 enjoys that "My Sharona" song but isn't quite sure who wrote it. He's got a special place in his heart for the Oak Ridge Boys but not Dick Cheney. He has a burning desire to find something called nude rice and has no idea where Iraq is.

See a pattern emerging?

Here's a couple more clues for you. He's on a quest for the answer to "how to run country when not really (intentionally misspelled) inerested." He wants to prove that "global warming mith" and seeks "insperation from bible."

No doubt this particular string is a bit of a gag at the expense of our president, but the real search strings form an astonishingly similar pattern-- they spill the beans on everyone's goods.

That is, if traditional marketing tactics define who you are, this new world of data tells us a story about what you are.

Reality beats parody?
Another user searched for some interesting social activities that the user might share with someone of an, ahem, hermaphroditic persuasion; then, the user went after a currency and geography lesson pertaining to countries in Eastern Europe. 

So, where ya headed mister, and what are you into these days?

Others struggled with apparent social dysfunctions while shopping for groceries.

The list goes on and on.

It's a bold new world out there, and an August 8 feature in the New York Times along with the blogosphere showed it to everyone.

As this force-fed lesson in humanity arrives at its apex, we could note this is the first time the consuming public was really forced to stare at itself in the mirror.

Change the paradigm, quickly and violently
Everything is relevant to everyone at some point. The difficult part is making the connection at the right time. The idea of using search behavior to make the connection isn't a new one, but the importance of connecting that data with the rest of the marketing puzzle has been weighed and found wanting for many.

It's too hard to make the connection. Words like "manually accumulate aggregates" are often associated with "unlimited man hours" when discussing the vast amounts of data we can now access.

It's also time to wake up to a few facts. It's not that users can't spell; they don't care to spell correctly for a search engine. "Hating Anne Coulter" might not be a bad way to meet women, but it might just sell a few "books on Al Frankn." 

"Rose petals" might play well with a "desk statue of Jack Herer," and you wouldn't believe the "other uses of tea bags"

In the end, one of two things will follow when the next search behavior file accidentally appears; someone will find it and fire it up on a mirror, and then it will suffer the same fate as the AOL file. On the other hand, before that file goes "poof" it just might make it the hands of a few philanthropic dreamers who wish to advance society.

Said philanthropic dreamer could develop the next great system for understanding human behavior and making the connection without all of the Web 2.0 clichés. Marketers could then take the new and improved profile and figure out how to make money with the new system.

Please stay tuned for the shenanigans and hi-jinks that will inevitably follow this event.

Kevin Ryan is iMedia's search editor and the chief executive officer of Kinetic Results. .


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