While humans are hard-wired to seek out information that meets their needs, the search industry will soon need to find creative ways to move beyond basic utility. Take a look at some keen insight that can get you started.
Although digital media and marketing may be relatively new in the scheme of things, the fundamentals of search behavior could not be older or more basic to our collective human nature.
Humans have evolved in part on the basis of their innate curiosity and their inventiveness, which has been fueled by a seemingly insatiable appetite for information and entertainment. We are effectively hard-wired to seek out information that meets our needs and desires -- whether those needs are for food and shelter or for education, news, product reviews, or bargains.
That's the good news for marketers: As a species, we are in "always-receive" mode, whether or not we are also in "send" mode.
The bad news for marketers lies in the fact that there is simply too much information out there that is readily available to us. We have gone far beyond the point where a brand can stand out and make an impression on the basis of a reasonable level of creativity and media spend.
The internet effectively creates a problem at least as great as the opportunities it presents. After all, there is more information available and accessible than anyone could possibly want, need, or have a use for -- let alone navigate.
Without the range of search-related tools and behaviors available to us, finding any particular piece of information would be like trying to find one specific grain of sand in the ever-shifting landscape of the Sahara Desert. Not what one would call the most user-friendly of interfaces.
So it was inevitable that the search industry would be born and that what was originally known as "Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web" in February 1994 would go on to bigger things in the shape of Yahoo and spawn plenty of similar ventures.
Since that time, search has grown up rapidly. While it continues to evolve and grow in response to the evolution of the digital ecosystem to which it is so essential, search in the marketplace has gone a very long way to being established as a part of the marketing mix, with its own specialists and budgets.
While recognizing the outright dominance of the search giants, it is critical to acknowledge that while they are generally defined in terms of how they work, what they do, and how they make money off their share of search, their success is not fundamentally based on the algorithms, software, and server farms that they run on. These things are merely the technological commodities that allow them to play and stay in the game.
Fundamentally their relevance -- and even their success -- is rooted in the human behavior that defines the need for their existence. Naturally, management makes or breaks a company in any space, but the willingness and ability of that management to shape their business around a deep understanding of the attitudes, motivations, needs, and behaviors of their users will be what ensures success going forward.
Historically, such concerns have not been at the forefront of the search industry's mind. A business dominated by software engineers will inevitably default to concerns relating to the product itself, rather than to the user. We can all draw on examples of conversations where programmers and engineers blame the users for failing to work out how to navigate an interface or to master some other business-critical task.
Perhaps the best case in point with regard to the search industry is the way information is presented. While there have been recent innovations in the sector, for years uses have been presented with what amounts to little more than an ugly list of largely undifferentiated links laid out like a shopping list. The list has been unfeasibly long, offering massive redundancy and, of course, many users know that the links at the top of the list have paid for the privilege to be there and aren't necessarily the best available link for them.
For search to continue to evolve and thrive, it will ultimately need to move beyond this most basic and utilitarian of functions and perhaps incorporate some aspects of the other forms of content discovery, which would create more opportunities for marketers to leverage search in more creative ways.
For example, recommendation engines have long been successful for Amazon and other companies. Simple and software-based, they derive their success from tapping into the consistency and curiosity that underpins human behavior. The same is increasingly true of referrals.
Social networks like Facebook and information networks like Twitter have also become de facto search networks. We see links to content posted by those in our networks and determine -- on the basis of how we view that individual and what they typically post -- whether or not we will allocate time to checking it out. Think about how that behavior applies to your own networks and you'll see what I mean.
This type of behavior is all about leveraging known filters to discover content and it is very much at the serendipitous end of the spectrum of how we navigate and locate content across the web; a spectrum with directed search at one end and pure serendipity at the other. This spectrum is something that is currently dominated by directed search in terms of sheer volume, but over time this is likely to shift, as things like recommendations, referrals, sharing, and the rest continue to grow. Marketers will need to develop strategies that make them just as strong in these emerging areas as they are in search today -- perhaps more so as we discover more about the relative value of each.
Finally, the other aspect of this double-edged sword represented by the proliferation of content and the means by which we encounter it relates to the number of platforms now available to us. Thinking of screens alone, there is seldom a time when we do not have access to the web and a means to find content -- either by design or by circumstance -- that is of interest to us.
Mobile devices are particularly important in this regard, and whether through conventional search channels or through apps that aid us in the task of the moment (think Yelp!), our ability to find content has become untethered and relates as much to the context of where we are and what we're doing at the moment as it does to the channel we choose to do it through.
Even television -- the most primitive of the screens available to us -- allows for a basic level of search with regard to programming. The most interesting aspect of TV in this regard is its potential. Over the next few years TV is set to become much more like the web and the range of content and functions available to viewers will expand considerably. At that time it will be interesting to see how the TV business -- which by any measure is the 800lb gorilla of the media world -- adapts to and exploits the world of content discovery and the huge audiences it already has access to.
A world without search?
Finally, in order to think about how you might approach the development of your systematic use of those "other" means of finding content (recommendations, referrals, sharing, networks, serendipity etc.), indulge in a little creative scenario planning.
Imagine for a moment that search engines didn't exist -- rather as if you were coming out of an ice age and the dominant dinosaurs had been killed off. How would you set about developing a systematic approach to leveraging all those other opportunities available to you? How would you have to change the nature of your communications to be successful? Or would you back off from digital altogether?
If you don't think you got time to do this then you will probably never work out how to get value from what are inherently valuable and growing trends in the digital landscape.
Mike Bloxham is director, insight and research, at the Center for Media Design, Ball State University. He is also co-founder of the Media Behavior Institute.
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