SearchTHIS: Clutter, Relevancy, & Search

Yahoo! has brought their video search into prime time, and according to CNET News.Com an audio search tool is under way as well. Google’s video search is still in beta, but they have announced integration plans for the invitation-only social networking destination, Orkut. MSN has moved into mainstream search with tools like Encarta integration, but the smart money says this is only the beginning for the software giant. Every search site wants to go local, but it seems none of them are really sure where to put it.

There’s quite a bit going on in search these days and it’s becoming more and more difficult to predict the day to day, week to week, or month to month changes in searching dynamics. Whether it be integrated video, geographically relevant listings, or social networking, the search industry is buzzing with talk about acquisition, consolidation and integration.

With all of this activity, an important question or two emerges. Just how thick with relevant results can a search engine results page become before relevancy gives way to clutter? How will the searching public react to all of these changes? History has taught us that clutter equals disaster in search, and we might just have to take a breath before integrating everything but the kitchen sink into search.

Big scary growth

One need only take a walk around the Ad:Tech exhibition hall floor to see how big search has become. Ad:Tech is always quite the experience, but a few hours in the packed exhibit hall at the recent San Francisco event had my head spinning. Search marketing firms, paid search providers and third party search tech firms dominated the floor.

They can’t all make it in this dog eat dog world. It’s interesting that some of these tech firms can appear as a footnote on a trade show floor and end up being purchased by a search giant. Seconds later, the technology is integrated, and yet another piece of information is piled onto the search result page.

Why are we in this little predicament? Here’s a little stroll down amnesia lane. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) annual reports, search spending was a measly eight percent of the online ad spending pie in 2002 and had jumped to 29 percent by 2003. The IAB now places search at 40 percent of online budgets. An industry that didn’t exist a few short years ago is now at about 4 billion dollars according to popular estimates. Search sites have a few bucks to spread around.

Another contributing factor to the constant development of are-they-or-aren’t-they better technologies for search is the venture investor’s love affair with the search business. While the days of receiving 40 million dollars after a smart PowerPoint and demo are over, there is still quite a bit of green in them thar investor hills.

Just because you can integrate something new, does that mean you should?

Digging into spending habits

The Kelsey Group’s recent “Drilling Down on Local” conference in Santa Clara, California (April 18 to 20) offered a variety of insights on locally focused technologies. Specifically, the Kelsey Group covered a whole lot of the tech tools (directory, classifieds, social networks, wireless, video) that are now getting lumped into search results.

Kelsey’s senior vice president and conference chair Greg Sterling offered the following key observations from the show: “The emerging consumer paradigm is more fragmented and complex than could have been anticipated as little as a year ago... However, at a broad level it can be described as: shop online, buy offline. The internet is influencing an increasing number of consumer transactions, but ecommerce is not growing commensurate with that rise in influence. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, ecommerce generated only 2.2 percent of U.S. retail revenues in the fourth quarter of 2004.”

There are lots of reasons for the disparity in online and offline spending. Executing a purchase online can be cumbersome, and some transactions are inherently offline such as automobiles or lawn mowers. Aside from the usual online purchase foibles, the emerging paradigm that Sterling noted suggests that making the search-to-transaction experience more complicated will not contribute to spending growth.

Be like the book

Here’s a reason to keep it simple in a directive web search results page. In March of 2005, the Yellow Pages Association™ (YPA™) and comScore Networks compared local search behavior on Internet Yellow Pages (IYP) to that of major search engines. Guess what they found?

  • IYP offers a more efficient local search experience -- In the five categories examined, web search engines accounted for 66 percent of consumers searching for local information, while IYP sites accounted for 34 percent. However, consumers are able to find local information more quickly using IYP. Local searchers who use IYP take an average of 4.6 clicks to find local results, while search engine users take 7.6 clicks on average.
  • IYP users spend more in specific categories -- Local searchers who use IYP spend four to 22 percent more per buyer than local search engine users in the automotive, home and garden, health and beauty and general services categories. IYP users also spend four to 17 percent more per buyer for offline purchases in the drugstore, automotive, restaurants, and home and garden categories than do local search engine consumers.

Local audiences are the search engine’s to lose, and people spend more when they don’t have to wade through a ton of irrelevant junk. I am betting you will find similar results in verticals like shopping.

The real question is, will difficulties in locating a purchase point via the search results page instigate a vertical exodus from a search engine?

Balancing loyalty and individuality

Data from the Hitwise Search Engine Report, for the period of August 2003 to April 2004, suggests that users have begun to move away from search engines in favor of more specific vertical search. Sites in the shopping and travel category had double digit percentage traffic increases overall while experiencing double digit decreases in referrals from search engines. NexTag, for example increased overall visits by 73.1 percent while search referrals decreased 39 percent.

eMarketer’s February 2005 Search Users and Usage Report cited last year’s Harris Interactive study that indicated 29 percent of users found what they were looking for “only sometimes,” or “rarely” while another 30 percent indicated some level of dissatisfaction with a search. Similar studies have indicated that a dominant portion of searchers use multiple engines for the same query.

Searchers are perfectly content with going directly to vertical search site in lieu of returning to a search site. And they aren’t loyal when it comes to search activity because it’s not really all that difficult to go from Google to MSN to Yahoo!, particularly when you can’t find what you seek.

Stop counting your money and search

The more you pile onto a search page, the more frustrating it will become for searchers and advertisers alike. In the past few years, we have seen Yahoo! move away from its search roots and come back to them like a Newton’s Cradle from hell. Google has arguably the cleanest entry point in search, but that doesn’t mean combining local, social network listings, stock quotes, and suggested book entries with paid and natural search results won’t spell u-s-e-r-a-b-a-n-d-o-n-m-e-n-t.

The usual justification for adding anything to a search results page is simple. The add-on is relevant to the user’s search and therefore a-okay. This is a great argument that has been repeatedly backed up by sound research that coincidentally lines the pockets of search providers.

Relevancy is not a deus ex machina that will save search providers when results pages become so cluttered that users forget why they came to the site. Message to the search giants: give your visitors choices but let them choose what they want and keep it clean.

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

Meet Kevin Ryan at the iMedia Summit, May 22 to 25