Productivity: It's More Than Eyeballs
Think back to the earliest internet hype: the promise of the information superhighway. Forevermore, we were assured, we would have unfettered, self-directed access to every bit of data about every possible topic we might want to study or investigate.
Never again would insiders be the only ones in the know. Never again would business or government be able to block the free flow of knowledge. Never again would we, as citizens and consumers, be wholly dependent upon watchdogs and whistleblowers to protect our interests. Information means power, so the Internet was going to empower us through unprecedented access to information.
Instead, the information superhighway ran us over.
The Internet opened the information floodgates, sending a torrent of data, facts and offerings pouring forth. Soon, we were awash without a lifeline in the deluge. We could barely keep our heads above water because information management was an afterthought. Search, in particular, was not a big priority of the companies that pioneered the Internet during the late 1990s; indeed, it ran counter to the prevailing business wisdom of the times: Market valuations hinged on traffic and the measure of success was
eyeballs per banner ad. So Web sites strove to be destinations. No surprise that something like search, which would direct traffic elsewhere, was not seen as mission critical.
As the new century began, though, too much hype and too few profits crashed the original dot-com business model. What took its place was an Internet-business model that actually turned a profit - indeed, a huge profit. That business model was rooted in search, and it transformed marketing and media overnight. With companies like Google and Overture leading the way, search came to our rescue. Finally, we had access to both information and information management.
But lately search itself has become too much. Of course, any search is better than none, but the size of the Internet continues to grow at an exponential rate and the gaming of search engines for optimal position has become big business. As a result, the listings returned by search engines, even those specific to retailers or news sites, are often too vast and too far afield from our particular interests and needs. While the search glut is smaller than the data glut before it, it is still a glut (even if better sorted) and it is still overwhelming.
Consequently, search is evolving. Search is now moving from mere search to smart search. Amazon, Yahoo and Travelocity, among others, have introduced new search tools that decipher our intentions and preferences to present us with listings that better match what we really want to learn, find or buy. Information empowers when it is relevant and easily accessible - not when it is overwhelming and difficult to manage. Smart search is a big step in the right direction.
Not only search, but marketing as a whole must get smarter. Mass marketing has fallen from favor, yet we are no less inundated with masses of irrelevant marketing. We have become skilled at limiting our exposure or paying no attention to intrusive, irrelevant marketing. Frequently, this is misinterpreted as marketing resistance, but actually it is marketing engagement. We spend time personalizing our interaction with marketing because we only want to see ads and products that are relevant to us. We want better marketing, not no marketing, and better marketing means smarter marketing.
Targeting based on search is smarter than targeting based on demographics - thus, the threat to traditional media - but even search-based targeting must get smarter. Search behaviors are a better guide to our interests than personal demographics, but too much clutter and too many missed opportunities still abound. As a result, innovations in search are moving beyond simple keyword matches.
Relevance is the new buzzword. Marketers have been forced to elevate it to the same priority level as efficiency. Optimal ad placement can no longer be accomplished or assured just on the basis of efficient audience aggregation. The audience must be engaged as well or else there is no efficiency whatsoever. That takes relevance. Indeed, our personal empowerment can be built only with tools that deliver offers and information of high personal relevance. It's not the amount, but the relevance of what we know that drives success. So all marketing, not just search, must smarten up.
J. Walker Smith is president of Yankelovich, Inc., and the co-author of three critically acclaimed best sellers. His new book, with Ann Clurman, is Generation Ageless. (email@example.com)