Not Ready for Prime Time
Why search has been the most disappointing aspect of the online video boom
A video of Lindsay Lohan partying at Les Deux shortly before she crashed her car and was arrested for dui was among the most popular clips at the celebrity gossip site tmz.com in early June.
But good luck finding it via Google or Yahoo video search. Type "Lindsay Lohan Les Deux" into Google Video and thumbnails of a few clips appear--none of them the TMZ clip. At Yahoo Search, the same phrase yields one thumbnail, linking to a news segment in which Les Deux management said Lohan didn't drink at the bar before the crash.
And a broader search for "drunk Lindsay Lohan" on Google Video turns up a grand total of three clips, none referencing Les Deux. That same search on Yahoo Video returns a 56-second clip from the movie Georgia Rule.
While Google and Yahoo dominate Web-wide search, neither has yet been able to build a similar juggernaut for video search. Rather, it's smaller players, like Truveo, purchased by AOL in January 2006, Blinkx and Pixsy that have so far emerged as leaders in the nascent video search space. Yet these companies are far from perfect. Consider that a search for Lohan and Les Deux on Truveo turns up the TMZ clip, but the broader search ("drunken Lindsay Lohan") does not.
Unlike searching for text-based material, searching for video remains a hit-or-miss proposition, with different search engines returning a hodgepodge of different results--rarely hitting upon clips that users are searching for. Oddly enough, using standard search engines can often produce better results--if the video is surrounded by text.
The poor results present a large problem for major TV networks and other companies that are now placing video assets online; after all, simply putting content online doesn't do much good if no one can find it.
Even online video executives acknowledge that video search doesn't appear up to expectations. Instead, most video searches still deliver a mixed bag: vaguely related hits and weird user-generated riffs. The reason? Constructing a video search engine has proven extraordinarily difficult.
"You don't just build a video search engine," says Chase Norlin, CEO of Pixsy, which provides image and search services to Quigo, Ritz Cameras and others. "It is completely non-trivial."
At best, video search is at the same stage as late-'90s text search, when we moved from Yahoo directories toward Alta Vista deep indexing. Just finding the video assets amid embedded Flash players and AJAX Web architectures has occupied AOL's Truveo.
Even when found, though, most video has scant descriptive meta-tagging, so companies like Blinkx are using speech-to-text and closed captioning to discover and index what the clips are about. Yet we're years away from "stream analysis" tools that recognize in a clip Lindsay Lohan's drunken mug--or a running horse in a bucolic field for that matter.
Driven by Buzz, not Bucks
The technical obstacles to video search are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the daunting task of figuring out how to analyze and organize clips, video search engines face another hurdle: monetization. Consider, most video search queries don't involve the same purchase-driven mindset that invites the direct marketing approach fueling pay-per-click ads.
In fact, early evidence suggests people hunt video much differently from the way they drill for text results. "It is news driven and buzz driven," says Bob Heyman, chief search officer of Mediasmith. Both Pixsy and AOL Video report their visitors tend to browse channels and directories as much as they search, and most queries don't seem related to shopping.
Instead, many video searchers are in the mood to be entertained--a mindset that potentially invites different marketing tactics than pay-per-click ads. "Search never had to prey on emotions, but video search is going to have to," says Heyman. "It is unclear how the engines will monetize this."
So far, only a few companies have come out with definitive plans. Broadband Enterprises, for one, intends to monetize video search by matching pre-rolls to the video content in a new search function it planned to launch in June across its 1,800 sites that reach 45 million uniques. "We're going at it in three ways," promises CEO Matt Wasserlauf. A combination of audio-to-text from the video stream, a taxonomy of Web page content, and meta-tagging of video will help match the ad to the user intention. Users who search and find video involving hotels or health should get contextually relevant pre-rolls.
Still, many in the industry wonder if video search advertising ever can realize the kind of profit as pay-per-click ads. For his part, Wasserlauf sees both advertising and user tastes moving to video. "Advertisers can tell a much more powerful story. Video will be the manifest destiny."
What's more, video presents a big potential for ad clash, or conflicts over who serves an ad in or around a stream. Publishers will want that pre-roll space but search engines may look for ways to pre-empt it. "There will be a push and pull between content providers and distribution agents to control the ad," says Jayant Kadambi, CEO of YuMe Networks, a broadband video advertising network.
Video search engines will start by monetizing their own results pages in the usual ways, perhaps even with some video ads, before passing the traffic to the publisher. But if search becomes the de facto interface for finding video online, these engines are sitting on a user keyword trail that could be invaluable to the pre-roll ecosystem.
Kadambi's answer is a post-roll unit that lets the hosting content provider control the pre-roll, but then offers the publisher a set of keyword-driven CPC links to insert after the clip.
At Blinkx, they make search money the old-fashioned way for now, by surrounding the results page with ads. But CEO Suranga Chandratillake sees a model where the engine works in partnership with the publisher to move beyond simple demographic targeting. "We can pass the search information on to the provider to help the content owner know what ad to show," he says.
Browse and Discover?
Long before ad models around video search emerge, marketers need to understand how their clips already show up under the primitive search algorithms that are in place. Googling "Cadillac Escalade" today not only brings up the usual organic links to the brand's main sites but also plants a thumbnail and link to a video of the car's TV ad on Google Video.
The engine's new Google Universal Search "is the most radical change to its search results ever," says industry guru Danny Sullivan. Now everyone is doing verticalized search, because Google blends text, image, video, local and book links on its default results page. "We are now getting to the point where you need to optimize video," says Heyman, whose Mediasmith shop was among the first to roll out SEO service for video.
Yahoo-ing Pirates of the Caribbean now provides a thumbnail link to the film trailer. Whether the algorithms are ready or not to search the video assets available for products and brands, these assets only get into the current results mix with careful planning. Surrounding a branded video with the right text in html pages so that it gets spidered, making sure it is uploaded across the usual viral distribution channels, are all becoming parts of a new art of video SEO.
"Just in general, advertisers have to be thinking well beyond Web site search but also video and images," says Jeff Pruitt, executive vice president for search at iCrossing. The definition of search will have to expand because users will expect a full range of content. "I think the space is holistic," Pruitt adds. "People may be searching on a topic but if it is relevant, as in Google Universal, you will get all kinds of results and you will hone in on what is relevant to you."
Search engine marketers who take aim at video search are pursuing a rapidly moving target, however. Not only are the algorithms in their infancy, but the very shape of results pages and formats in which people want to discover video are an open experiment. Who knows whether we really need a search box at all? If people are in browse-and-discover mode when looking for clips, then the best search result might not be the most accurate keyword hit. Perhaps a path that anticipates searcher's next likely move is the answer.
Following the Google model, companies are scurrying to replicate the query box and results page of the search giant. Even Heyman, who himself is in the thick of optimizing video for these pages, wonders whether Google is the right example to follow. "It may be that this is a guide and directory world, and search may not be the killer app."
Breakthrough or Boondoggle?
With the introduction of Google's Universal Search results in late May, search marketers were left wondering how blending hits to text, image, video, and even Google Book results on the same page would affect SEO/SEM strategies. Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan assures marketers there is no need for panic. While Google will now insert some local, image or video listings into results (thus pushing some pure text hits off the page) it will not affect all queries and at most will result in minor ranking shifts.
LinkWeek columnist and SEO expert Eric Ward says that those who have been optimizing on their blogs, maps, videos and anything else Google spiders in their vertical engines will be rewarded all the more now for their efforts.
The new feature may help light a fire under all brands, says Jeff Pruitt, executive vice president for search at iCrossing, "to make sure they are not risking not being involved" in optimizing images, video and all branded assets in the digital eco-system.
But when it comes to video, only a few major players like PBS or AOL are actively tagging assets for spidering, and much of the attention is going to larger video pieces. "We have not found that shorter form things like ads or infomercials are being tagged," says Mediasmith's Bob Heyman. "It's like the birth of SEO."
Still unclear is whether user searching really is becoming media agnostic. Is a person searching a keyword generally looking for any kind of content, or is video searching a discrete vertical activity where we look for a different kind of experience? Blinkx's CEO Suranga Chandratillake is not persuaded that blended results are a primary route to finding video. "Google only searches bits and pieces," he contends. "I am not convinced. There is some value in mixing them, but you won't use Universal Search if the search is bad." Unless the rest of the technology behind indexing video falls into place and the blended results are indeed relevant to a search, then Universal Search could produce more clutter than convenience.