One aspect of the search world that I think those involved in online marketing don’t set aside enough time to consider involves what lies behind the whole notion of online and search engines. In other words, what drives people to use a search engine? Why do we search online? What motivates us to continually refine our queries? Can a search engine really know what a specific person is looking for? All valid questions, and all something that anyone marketing online should stop to think about every once in a while, as questions such as these have answers that get to the very heart of the efficacy of search and — ultimately — your potential for success in matching what you are offering to what individuals are looking for. After all, if you don’t consider why people search online and how they formulate their thought process, in conjunction with how well the search engines do at understanding that intent, how can you hope to craft your content and design to attract visitors and help the search engines bring your site to their attention?
One of my favorite sources for thoughts on the wider questions behind behavior on the Internet is Gord Hotchkiss of Enquiro Search Solutions. Gord and his company are probably most famous for their pioneer work in popularizing the heat map notion of the search engine results page — that infamous map of reds and yellow splotches on a search engine results page that indicated where searchers begin looking at a typical web page and how their eyes track down the page, mapping out the path that most users take. But Enquiro isn’t just about heat maps, and their further research into behavioral analysis is fascinating stuff. In the Just Behave column on Search Engine Land, Gord is exploring the “search experience” from the behavioral side through analysis of recent interviews he has undertaken with some top thinkers in the field. The three columns so far are paced a month apart, but if you gather them together and consider them as a whole, the interplay of ideas is even more interesting. I can’t wait for the next in the series.
Too often we think of search in terms of “what should I do next?” and “what do I need to do to capture the people looking for my products or services?” and concentrate solely on the mechanics involved — how many blog posts do I need to write this month, if I change my title tag how will that affect my ranking, how do I submit a sitemap to Google, where do I go to claim my local business listing, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this and, in fact, if you don’t follow through on the mechanics of search, you’ll have no chance to show up in a search query. However, you also need to consider why people are searching for anything in the first place and how you can make use of knowledge about that to benefit your online marketing efforts. You need to be aware of what the search engines themselves are doing to improve their performance of answering the “why” question so that you can mold your approach accordingly. There’s no doubt that it’s easier for most of us to follow a step-by-step guide telling us how to accomplish something, but sometimes we have to take the plunge and turn our brains to think mode and consider bigger issues in order to understand and really exploit the smaller issues.
If you want to read what two of the players in search think about these things — Stefan Weitz of Microsoft’s Bing and John Battelle (author of the pivotal book “The Search” and prominent visionary of search) — I encourage you to read Gord’s analysis of what they had to say regarding this issue here, here, and here. There will be more excerpts in the future as well, and a final look when the series is done will definitely be worth the time invested.