Thirty-thousand feet above the western United States and staring out another airplane window, it hit me. No one wants a search engine. Last month there were 1.3 billion people worldwide who used search, with comScore reporting 12.1 billion* searches done on Google in the United States alone. The problem with these statistics is they make us think everyone who searched wanted to spend that time searching. We’ve been conditioned by the sheer growth of searching to believe that it was something people desired. In the U.S. alone more than 15 million root canals are performed each year. Useful as the procedure may be, the number of elective procedures was somewhere close to zero.
People can be summed up based on their natural reaction to the following statement: “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”
Read that statement to 10 people and you’ll likely get seven people who nod and wax poetic about the journeys they have taken. Then you’ll get three hearty souls that call shenanigans and boldly proclaim that you can keep your journeys, they’ll enjoy more destinations and outcomes.
And that’s the problem with search – it is neither a good journey nor a satisfactory destination.
In recently-released research from GroupM Search, we identified that in key verticals the average duration for a consumer from initial engagement with search, social media, or a brand site to purchase is close to two months. Over that time people have roughly 10 engagements with those three types of sites before converting. If search is supposed to be making our lives better, it has an odd way of doing it if it means decisions come over a period of 60 days and need close to a dozen interactions.
And that’s the problem with a search engine. It is not a destination engine and it is not a discovery engine.
The problem with Bing, the decision engine, is that it is a decision engine for the masses. Facebook inclusion and broader data sets to analyze from the Yahoo alliance can be considered differentiations in today’s market place, but they fall short. Right now, the data we have shows Bing is at best a second opinion engine for many who are Google first users. The reason is that Bing, at the end of the day, is not doing anything that different with the experience. If Bing, or anyone else, wanted to be a destination engine they would create a truly one-to-one engine that uses your signal base to serve up an Apple Genius experience inside your search. Just because a user expressed explicit intent doesn’t mean that it is being matched in the results. The problem is advertisers are spreading their investments around to the potential of the masses versus the singularity of the person. What’s failing consumers at present is not the advertiser match of content but the ability to operate on a platform that facilitates a bidding scenario based of the expectation that a single connection is going to happen and nothing more will be needed.
In this environment consumers spend exponentially more time inside Bing or another engine versus off-site with the constant click and return to search again behavior. The trade-offs for brands are greater investment and depth of exposure happening off-site in exchange for being hyper targeted with an ability to minimize the touch points. If Microsoft were to take the name of another project, Looking Glass, and use the concept of going down the rabbit hole on site with a heavy dose of personal attention, we might truly have a destination engine for brands and consumers alike.
The counter to a destination mindset is that of the journey and its exploration and discovery. If Malcolm Gladwell is right and it takes 1,000 repetitions to become proficient in your craft, then we need engines that encourage better behavior to allow for an appreciation of the experience of the journey.
The behavior being taught today is one where users learn to search, click, return, and repeat. There’s no feedback loop coming back into the engine in a natural way as to the worth a user found from the previous query and/or click.
Today we see more snippets of rich data being included that is designed to help inform the first click but means nothing to us upon return. An engine that would allow curation and evolve based on our behaviors is what more people want than the current model, I believe. This is about the buying process. We know search is used to find products, prices, deals, and opinions. Yet, to go from start to finish is about forcing an individual to select what looks best after an engine has ranked the sites and then requires personal memory to retain the key elements.
Dream with me of an engine that provides the ability to notate your findings, register the most appealing elements, and further refines itself upon that data – not the standard set of generic content that it believes the masses want to see. If people want to discover and explore, then facilitating that is only as meaningful as the ability to let that information reside beyond their individual brains and use it for a greater good. A true discovery engine takes the implicit (I want to go on vacation) and turns it, via discovery, into an explicit (Le Meridien Paris). The role engines play in getting from A to B can be powerful and helpful because it has the ability to iterate the process so that searching becomes discovering and implicit becomes explicit.
For advertisers, the worth of a word becomes measured by the worth of the person along the path and the models that evolve. Nothing is simple when it comes to discovery and destination, but the alternative that exists today is something people don’t want.
This column has been updated. Due to a typo, an earlier verision of this column incorrectly stated the number of monthly Google searches.