For each man sees himself in the Grand Canyon -- each one makes his own Canyon before he comes, each one brings and carries away his own Canyon.
– Carl Sandburg, "Many Hats," 1928
Although it should come as no surprise to anyone who reads my column quasi-regularly, I have had my fill of air travel. Recently, I decided to see some of the states I spend a great deal of time flying over, and get my hands dirty on the way to the big hole beyond the desert. While I was at it, I thought I'd stop and ask everyone I met about how they search the Web and why.
Speaking of "why," my grandfather once told me that I should take a week or so to go see the Grand Canyon before I die -- and I'm checking off boxes on that list. I had a traveling companion on this little journey -- three to be exact. Two days in a Volkswagen Jetta with a friend and two beagles might seem like a cumbersome way arrive at the Grand Canyon, but you'd be surprised how well dogs serve as conversation starters with complete strangers.
So here it is. From Long Beach, Ca. to Cameron, Ariz. and all points not necessarily in between, the average Jack and Jill's thoughts on search engines, what they do with them, why, and how. Editor's note: some of the names have been changed to protect the desperately incapable.
Fahrvergnügen and beagle vomit
Our 9 a.m. planned departure went off without a hitch, as we rolled out of Long Beach, Ca. at noon. But it seemed like the first three days were spent trying to get out of Los Angeles traffic. Forty miles outside of Barstow, Ca. we had our first incident. Milo (beagle one) jumped into my lap and threw up, while Millie (beagle two) slept in the back seat.
Cleaning puppy puke out of German leather is not quite as bad as cleaning puppy puke out of one's cargo pants -- and even that isn't as bad as the smell that stayed with us for at least 1,000 miles. Fearing death by foul odor, we pulled into Barstow (as in "Kill Bill Volume 2" Barstow) to get some lunch. At 3 p.m. PST, we entered a Baja Fresh Mexican quick service restaurant. Don't let me forget to mention that it's hot as Hades in Barstow this time of year.
"Marla," the teen who took our order, didn't use the Internet at all. She didn't like it because it was too complicated. "Maria," a food prepper in her mid 30s, didn't know how to use a computer at all, but she thought the manager, "Donny," did. So I asked him the last thing he searched for on the Web.
"I like cars, so I use the Internet to look up stuff for my car." With taco in hand, Donny pointed to a pimped-out 1970's El Camino out in the parking lot.
"Well, what do you search for, when you use a search engine?" I asked.
"I don't," he said, "It's too complicated to try and find anything on a search site, but my brother uses Yahoo! all the time."
After lunch we headed to the Barstow equivalent of a "quick stop" market to gas up and get some bottled water for our ride across the Mojave desert. While the clerk was ringing up my Evian, I asked her which search engine she preferred.
"I like Google," said the late 30-something woman with a thick accent. "It was very helpful when I got Herpes to find information."
With that, I left Barstow in the hopes of never having to return.
Welcome to the hotel Arizona
Near as I can tell, the largely blue-collar economy of Kingman, Ariz. is supported by a Dairy Queen and the good people at Cracker Barrel. Since the seven o'clock heat was still too hot for Milo and Millie if left in the car, we DQ'd it. Need I mention it was hot as Hades in Kingman, too?
As I walked into the Dairy Queen, I was struck by the old school, circa 1970's décor and it occurred to me at that moment that we must have passed through Area 51 and, therefore, back in time. We noticed a couple of tweens playing big boxy arcade video games and two male senior citizens in a political debate as we approached the counter. Clearly, these two gentlemen were unprepared for one Leftist liberal neuropsych student and one slightly Libertarian search guru who were about to shift the conversation from Kerry/Bush to Google/Yahoo!.
"Pardon me, gentlemen, do either of you use the Internet regularly?" I asked.
"What's regularly?" the first man responded, a bit puzzled.
"More than once a week," I clarified.
While the first man cogitated, the second informed me that he had a computer with broadband Internet access via satellite and that the other man was completely PC illiterate. So I asked if the Internet helped him find information about voting and political candidates, and which search sites he used.
"I Google stuff because all those other sites just return crap. You can't trust any the results elsewhere. In fact, I really don't trust anything I see online -- they'll publish any old piece of crap on the Web," he continued. "By the way, why are you asking?"
"I am writing an article for an online magazine," I announced with a smirk, as we made a hasty departure with our Oreo Blizzards.
Found: Area 51
Sedona, Ariz. is home to fantastic landscapes, great resorts, and, respectable trout fishing. The lovely reddish-brown town is home to a whole bunch of folks who think the area has "special powers" -- acting as some sort of cosmic vortex, as well. It was an accidental detour 40 miles south of our destination hotel, due to a gender-role debate about who should be reading the map while the other is driving.
As fate would have it, the only place with an "open" sign blinking was a psychic/tarot card reader. So I popped in for some directions, but I ended up with some life predictions and a little light search talk. Long story short: "Melba" the wonder psychic had an AOL account and her only searching activity takes place on AOL Search (that's enhanced Google search to you and me, Russ) for researching vacation spots. Vacation from this paradise? She also offered the prediction that a big life change was coming and my traveling companion wasn't "the one" I was "meant to be with."
What was the "psychic's" first clue, I wonder -- the rapid horn honking or the look on my companion's face?
Fifty bucks lighter, directions in hand, I went back to the wonder wagon and we were on our way.
Razing (Flagstaff) Arizona
Denny's Moons Over My Hammy® really hits the spot after a day of harassing the general populace. In fact, probably the best way to reach clogged artery utopia is to follow that sucker up with an ice cream sundae. Of course, it was also the perfect time to get our waitress's perspective on search engines.
"Maria" is a 16-year-old high school student who looked as though she could easily pick up the next Miss Teen USA crown. After placing my order for heart disease, I popped the question.
"Do use search engines to find stuff on the Web?" I asked.
"I dunno." She responded with a light grin/confused look combo and then disappeared to take another order.
Maria may as well have been standing before us with her forefinger in her mouth and an Audrey Hepburn/Holly Golightly blank but gorgeous expression. When she finally returned with cholesterol frappe, my travel cohort stepped in, determined to get an answer.
"Well, when you are on the Internet, and you need to find something, how do you do it?" my faithful companion finally interjected.
"Oh you meant the Internet?" she responded, with an "I'm too cute to be talking to you" look on her face. "My school doesn't let us use anything other than their search engine stuff and I don't know what it is. But sometimes my friend figures out how to hack out of it so I can search for stuff."
At last we had gotten to the search engine portion of our discussion. At this point, I was overjoyed to get any information, so I asked her what she searched for, and why.
"I dunno, just stuff." Again, we got the blank stare and cute smiley, almost as if on cue. I was a bit perplexed as to the difficulty in getting an answer. I mean, it's a pretty simple question, right? My fellow road warrior offered the following explanation.
"Look at her," she said. I, uh, actually had been looking at her.
"She's a pretty high school girl who hasn't learned that she has to think yet. In fact, she can probably get away with that stupid cute routine with a lot of people."
At that point I said something categorically stupid, like sounds like you are speaking from experience. Much to my complete shock, I bore witness to the second very cute, but very blank look of the evening. Mesmerized, I paid the check and we got back on the road to our lodging in Cameron, Arizona.
We arrived at the "resort" (read: quasi clean motel) only to have the security guard who didn't speak a lick of English accept my cash payment for our suite with a canyon view (read: smelly room with window overlooking small ditch), and we settled in for the night.
There I was, standing at the South Rim's Yavapai observation station humbled by the sheer magnificence of the enormous natural wonder. I have to admit, it had me speechless and lost in deep introspective thought. I began to wonder about my life and ask questions.
Had I made the right choices? Had I really accomplished anything? Was I really contributing anything to the world? Twelve seconds later, I found a tourist to bug about search.
"Bob," a retired, self-made millionaire in his late 60s searched the Web to find information about a broad range of disposable income purchases -- but never purchased anything online because he had to touch and feel things before executing a transaction.
"Why do you care about how people find things on search sites," he asked, with a worried father-like expression.
I gave him the speech about writing a search perspective piece while on vacation. Bob was silent for a moment and then offered me some sage wisdom.
"Kiddo," he said in a soft, parental advisory tone, "I am going to offer you some advice from someone who has won and lost several fortunes. If you don't learn to actually take a vacation from the very thing you do, you are going to drive yourself nuts and end up accomplishing nothing."
On that note ladies and gentlemen, I took Bob's advice and sat there for hours enjoying the expanse of nothingness with absolutely no Internet access or wireless phone reception -- and for the first time in a long while, I began to find a vacation from search engines.
iMedia columnist 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.