Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Developments With Consumer Search, Part 1

I normally don’t do look-back and look-ahead pieces at the start of the New Year. There’s usually too much new stuff going on to make time for the review, and predictions are difficult in a space that shifts directions so quickly.

Nevertheless, I did some of this in my keynote at the recent Search Engine Strategies Chicago show. With the major search partnerships staying stable (for once), and no major algorithm changes wreaking havoc among marketers, I found some time to review things I thought were significant to search over the past year and think about where we’re going.

2005: The Year of Consumer Search

The most important prediction (or observation) I’ll make wasn’t in my keynote. It hit me at Christmas, when my family and I were opening gifts. In 2005, we’ll begin to thinking about “consumer search” rather than Web search.

I bought my wife a Windows Media Center computer for the kitchen. It’s a nice, little all-in-one unit that records live TV and plays ripped CDs and videos, all run through a remote control. She normally hates gadgets, but this one she loves.

Part of the system is an incredibly slick way to keyword-search through two weeks’ worth of programs offered by Sky, our satellite TV provider here in the U.K. In short order, and much to my surprise, I found one channel was even going to show Pasadena’s Rose Parade on New Year’s Day.

OK, so it was a rebroadcast of last year’s parade, not the live show. I pretended not to notice and had the best New Year’s Day in ages.

I love the Rose Parade. I’m a Californian, where it’s a tradition to watch the parade on New Year’s, as it is for many Americans. I’ve been in the U.K. for eight years now; I’ve missed the parade each year and been grumpy each year because of it.

My tradition instead has been to conduct futile Web searches on New Year’s Eve to see if there’s any way to watch it here, especially as the official parade Web site is a joke. It’s said millions worldwide watch the parade, but no one tells you where or how. Give me a Webcast, a broadcast, anything. Every year, I’ve searched. No dice… until now.

Now we have a Sky+ box, the U.K. version of TiVo, designed to help us record broadcasts and locate programs. The program-locating feature is horrible. I never would’ve found the Rose Parade with my Sky+ box. But thanks to the new computer, I suddenly have decent TV search.

Thanks, monolithic Microsoft. I welcome you into my home!

This brings me back to consumer search. Web search isn’t going away. But we are seeing more pushes into vertical or specialized search areas, such as local and shopping. We’re also seeing the big traditional Web search players offer more specialized services, such as desktop search. All the major players now offer it. True, it may encourage people to conduct more Web searches, which in turn generate revenue. More to the point, search consumers will want and expect search from their consumer search providers.

Search consumers turn to the majors to locate information. They don’t sit around thinking about the kind of search they want to do. They just want to search, without thinking about categories. They expect their favorite consumer search provider to somehow magically make that happen.

So Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask Jeeves, and others are in the business of connecting consumers (B2B folks are consumers as well) with products and information. The product they sell, in various forms, is search.

These companies have focused primarily on doing that via Web search (“algorithmic search,” as they say in the financial community) in the past. That changed significantly in 2004, and we’ll see them move further into our lives in other ways this year and beyond. Anywhere there’s a consumer search need, they’ll be there.

Paid Inclusion, Vertical Search, and Legal Hotspots

One of 2004’s biggest changes was the turnaround in paid inclusion. The year started with all the majors except Google offering it. It ended with only Yahoo sticking to its guns, saying its program is useful for both searchers and advertisers.

As I’ve said before, Yahoo should include inline disclosure. It would remove a big fly in the ointment of what’s otherwise been a fantastic year for the company, search-wise. In my keynote, I also stressed it isn’t just Yahoo offering paid inclusion if you consider vertical search.

Yellow pages, multimedia search, shopping search — paid inclusion is far more widespread with these specialized search properties. I also suspect it will remain more acceptable.

Shopping search? I think people are more understanding that in this a product-oriented search service, merchants should pay a bit to be listed. But when it comes to searching the Web, the finding everything, regardless of payment, is an idea that resonates with searchers. Paid inclusion goes against that idea with its mixed messages.

Legal issues were another hotspot last year. As it turned out, the Google-GEICO case awarded Google a victory in selling ads linked to trademarked words. That won’t be the end of it. There will be appeals and new cases with new spins. It’ll be some time before we’re on firm legal ground.

Legal questions around click fraud, censorship, and copyright were also raised in 2004. They’ve all arisen before, of course, but continuing interest and lack of clear resolution in these areas is simply another sign of how much more the consumer search industry must go to reach maturity. It’s not even it its teens yet!

In part two: Personal search developments, support for search marketers, and more.

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