Why All the Attention on Desktop Search When Another Story Says Far More?

There's been so much news this week about Ask Jeeves joining the growing number of companies that provide desktop search. Ask Jeeves and Yahoo! both have desktop search tools en route, with Google and MSN already having beta versions of their tools in the marketplace.

Even AOL and Apple are both in talks to introduce their own desktop search tools. Why? Well, I'm not really sure why to be honest. Much of the coverage around these tools has focused on how cool they are and how well they work, which is always a good thing. But, how will these companies monetize their downloaded search tools? And if it's just about getting brand names on the desktop, isn't the hubbub here a bit overblown?

Let's face it, if this is about anything along the lines of these companies being able to directly monetize users' desktop search queries, the amount of security issues to come will be far beyond what we can consider in these early stages. Will they be able to provide personalization and localization of Web search results via user profiles gathered through related service profiles, as MSN Passport or Yahoo accounts do? Maybe so - but not without a ton of regulatory and other challenges. In other words, that dog won't hunt - not any time soon, anyway.

For my money, any "killer app" becomes such primarily because it enables users to improve upon something they already do or need. Search is a great example of this, since it puts directories of any imaginable kind at the fingertips of the user.

Having this functionality on a desktop may bring this closer to the user. But, it won't enable the companies providing it to do much with it this year or next. Check back with me in 2006.

As the buzz over desktop search tools crested here at "Search Engine Strategies" this week, another story appeared that didn't seem to garner the attention it could have. I'm talking about the Overture-sponsored comScore Networks study analyzing the impact of search engine usage on the online and offline buying habits of consumers.

The comScore research studied the buying activity of Internet users who conducted a consumer electronics or computer (CE/C) search at one of the top 25 search engines in the first quarter of 2004. Among the other findings, the study revealed that 25 percent of searchers ultimately purchased a CE/C product and that an estimated 92 percent of these purchases occurred offline. Among the 8 percent of post-search purchases that were made online, the vast majority occurred in subsequent user sessions - that is, not directly after a search click-through.

So, search drives far more offline buying than online buying - that's interesting, especially since so many consumer electronics are less expensive online. And consumers use search very early in their buying cycle - perhaps earlier than some would have guessed. What I wanted to know as I read about this study is what the ratio was between branded and generic searches, and what kind of searches drove more online business.

According to comScore, generic product search terms (e.g. "camera," "plasma television" or "PDA phone") accounted for more than 70 percent of total search volume, while trademarked retailer terms (e.g. "Best Buy," "Gateway.com") accounted for 20 percent and specific product terms (e.g. "Canon digital camcorder," "HP notebook nx9010") accounted for 10 percent. The study found that while generic terms accounted for the majority of purchase conversion (61 percent), branded terms (either retailer or product terms) were approximately 30 percent more likely to result in an online purchase.

"It's critical that retailers consider generic search terms as an important part of their keyword strategy," said James Lamberti, vice president of comScore Networks. "Marketers focused solely on specific product terms known to convert directly will fail to address the vast majority of consumers in the buy cycle."

That is to say, they will fail to reach consumers who begin their buying research by typing keywords.

I've read estimates of the value assigned to each consumer search between 9 and 14 cents. The Yellow Pages industry claims that each directory search in the traditional world is worth roughly $1. This kind of efficiency differential in online's favor is part of what makes search such a killer app, both for consumers and marketers. The comScore study seems to demonstrate the veracity of this, especially as it pertains to offline advertisers.

So, why has there been so little buzz about it?

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