Designated Searchers May Thwart Personalization

At the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) conference this week, I observed a panel of experts debating the role of influencers in media planning, buying, and targeting. Influencers are people whose expert status in their social group makes their advice about products or services particularly persuasive, even though they may not be actual consumers of such products or services.

There was no consensus on the panel about the elusive influencer. As I mulled the influencer’s role (real or imagined), it reminded me that for many years, I was the designated searcher in my household and, in some cases, at my office. So I did a bit more probing. It seems there may indeed be a large segment, perhaps even a majority, of offices and households where there’s a designated searcher.

My unscientific poll of officemates and a LinkedIn question confirmed my suspicions. Many don’t do their own searching.

My poll was quite unscientific due to the large percentage of search- and Web-savvy folks in my network. But this and other anecdotal evidence supports the notion that while searchers with many years of Web experience are more likely to do their own searching, there may still be a large segment of a target market where you’re not, in fact, talking to potential customers at all. Instead, you’re talking to the information gatekeeper who filters SERP (define) information for the ultimate consumer.

The designated searcher effect may be most prevalent wherever there’s a gap in the Web or search savvy among individuals in a home or office environment. The greater the difference in search proficiency, the more likely the proficient searcher becomes the designated searcher for at least some information retrieval tasks within his family, social, or business circle. Certain things may correlate highly with search proficiency, such as age and years online. Overall intelligence may be somewhat predictive.

Let’s look at how this makes things difficult for the entire ecosystem: the search engine, the end consumer, and the marketer/advertiser. Shared cookies are already enough of a problem (when multiple users use the same computer and the same accounts). My Amazon recommendations are more frequently relevant to my wife’s interests than my own. When there’s a designated searcher, the shared cookie problem is magnified, because it’s actually the melding of several users’ requests into a single brain. This effect can reduce search personalization effectiveness, which all the engines are experimenting with.

Google’s been particularly active in testing personalization, and it may work very well overall, depending on how prevalent the designated searcher and shared computer issue is. On a separate note with respect to Google searches, fellow search marketer Tim Daly recently told me Google’s experimenting with appending prior search query targeting to PPC (define) results for a subsequent search. Let’s look at an example (if you get similar results to those described, I’d be interested in hearing about it).

First, I searched for “laptop,” then for “auction.” In the “auction” SERP, I saw results for “laptop.” Daly was concerned that Quality Score and advertisers’ CTR (define) on the second SERP would suffer. Generally, Google has assured the advertising community that only relevant query data will influence Quality Score. If you feel your quality score is undeservedly low, tell me about it.

Demographic targeting may also suffer due to the designated searcher effect. Bid boosts in engines such as Microsoft’s adCenter may cause advertisers to miss a portion of their target market if baseline bids are set too low (those CPCs (define) for unclassified traffic and for segments that haven’t been specifically addressed). As Microsoft and others give us advertisers the power to target more accurately based on user profiles, we may want to take a step back and remember the designated searcher.

As computers proliferate and people have their own machines and have been trained (or have learned) to search effectively, and as mobile devices (which generally aren’t shared) become more ubiquitous as primary search devices, issues related to the designated searcher may fade. In the meantime, remember the designated searcher may have a tremendous influence on which links are bookmarked or e-mailed, which products are selected, and which stores are visited, without having any direct interest in your product or service. Their interest is in maintaining their reputations as savvy searchers among family, friends, or coworkers.

The designated searcher can completely exclude you from the consideration set. Be a savvy marketer and think about the roles influencers and designated searchers may play as filters between you and your customers.

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