Does Google Get It? Search Gets Cranky

2007 has arrived with a bang in the search world. Favorable growth projections, directive search inefficiency and the relative ease of acquiring start-up capital are contributing to the hot new trend in search: audience segmentation.

The internet search world is changing. In more ways than one, the fragmentation of cable parallels what is now occurring in search and elsewhere on the web. The need to satisfy specialized interests is overwhelming, while consumers have more choices than every before.

The searching and subsequent finding of information on everything from purchase destinations to the latest in geriatric issues -- and a general climate of catering to consumer preference -- has opened the door to all kinds of new ways to search.

How will these changes effect marketers in the coming year?

Grumpy old search
Cranky is a great way to describe many the searching public. They are cranky because search is perceived as ambiguous. That is to say, a search engine could care less whether you are a 52-year-old woman searching for information on the latest uses of medical Cannabis, or a 33-year-old world traveler looking for a great coffee shop in Holland.

The segmentation, verticalization or disambiguation of search is not only the latest trend but may be the best way to organize content. Take last week's launch of the Cranky.com. Cranky is being touted as the first age-relevant search engine, but its launch says a whole lot more about the world as we know it.

Eons, the parent of this middle-aged child, is seeking to capitalize on its estimated 500,000 users over the age of 45 with Cranky search and a few twists. Cranky is combining site search with a social function, along with editorial refinement and FAQ-answers-driven content recommendations.

In other words, it's a way to find content, share relevance and see what the experts think. Side by side comparisons of the search term "medical cannabis" on Google and Cranky speaks volumes to the nature of customized vertical search.

Less choice, more censorship?
Google's top results (aside from ubiquitous sponsored listings on both sites) include nearly 1.4 million site listings from around the web. Cranky includes only four websites in its search results page.  It's simple and easy to use, yet one has to wonder: why only four site listings?

Keep it simple stupid. Traditionally, the more decisions one has to make, the fewer actions one actually takes. In recent history, the number of pages your search site has in its index the better your search engine is perceived to be. Maybe to investors or perhaps or financial analysts, but when did people actually starting giving a rodent's posterior about what analysts think?

The other argument for indexing and including so many pages falls near the search site's need to be an unbiased source of information. Limiting the number of sites included in a search result could be perceived as a means of filtering unfairly, although the word censorship has yet to be used.

Filtering, in the Cranky search example, is by its very nature satisfying the need of a vertical audience segment. I can see my father now, sitting in front of his computer complaining about the mess this younger generation has created with the web. Needless to say, I found it less than surprising he embraced Cranky search wholeheartedly.

Cross media intelligence
Elsewhere in the marketing universe, cable is exploding. Viewers aren't offered millions of choices when searching for content on the idiot box (homage to my Father's vernacular.) TNS Media Intelligence is predicting yet another banner growth year for the highly segmented cable universe. A 4.7 percent increase over 2006 ad spending that would place cable's share at nearly 12 percent.

Ad spending increases across all categories is pegged at 2.6 percent-- the smallest gain since the dark days of 2001. TNS is also predicting that internet ad spending will increase 13.4 percent this year.

So what does cable have in common with the web? Why audience segmentation, of course.

Audiences clearly want more content that is both relevant and specific to their needs. Yet just because they have more choices, that does not mean audiences take more action. According to Nielsen Media Research, television viewers have about 96 channels to choose from, while they only watch 15 of them on average.
 
Marketing freedom of search
While cable is expanding content, internet search is compartmentalizing and refining. The notion that users only scan the first couple of results on a page is being carried into the plans of search engine marketers. As vertically specific search begins to gain ground, paying a bit more attention to your bread and butter audience is going to start making a lot more sense.

That is to say, if these vertical search sites begin to reach critical mass, then we will have to change how we optimize content and communicate with search sites. We will, in effect, have to change how we define critical mass-- much like cable networks have shifted definitions of popular programming to meet the needs of advertisers. 

Measurement will change, and success criteria will have to be redefined. The practice of building link equity for popularity-based search indexing algorithms could be irrelevant.

In other words, the unified theory of one search dominator could be over.

Of course, it will take some time, but search engine marketing (SEM) or search engine optimization (SEO) could become a matter of maintaining relationships with hundreds of sites, instead just the top five.

Now if that doesn't make you just a little bit cranky I don't know what could.

Kevin Ryan is the Chief Executive Officer of Kinetic Results.
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