Search Is Still, And Always Will Be, About People

Here at Search Insider, we spend a lot of time talking about people: who we are, how our brains work, what motivates us. Last week, for example, I explored the connect/disconnect cycle of human social behavior. My esteemed colleague Gord Hotchkiss unraveled why it's so much easier to persuade people face to face. And in David Berkowitz' final Search Insider column, he revealed that, in his four years of writing for SI, two of the three columns that got the biggest reader response were personal anecdotes: about visiting a high school. About Grandmom.


Admittedly, there's plenty of technical fodder here as well: metrics, analytics, optimization, and other serious words. But there's a reason we write about people, and there's a reason you read about people: it's because, at the end of the day, search is only about people.



Google's success, for example, was originally built on the anthropological understanding that networks of humans display behaviors (links) that can be mapped mathematically (PageRank) to identify relative importance (to people). Google's continued success lies in balancing that behavior against the additional anthropological understanding that people will want to game the system.

Every success story ever, without exception, has people at its core. Products and services are fun (for people), save time (for people), make money (for people). And if we want to have even a glimmer of hope of understanding where the search industry is going, we must first strive to understand people.

Knowing that people's social network activity will blossom and subsequently wither shouldn't make you give up on social media marketing; it should make you better equipped to anticipate trends and stay ahead of the tide. Knowing that habit, rather than conscious choice, drives people's decision about which search engine to use should allow you to keep announcements about new features in perspective. The better you understand people, the better equipped you are to succeed.

Microsoft may have $100 million set aside to promote its new search offering, but will a new commercial entice Auntie Doris (who's finally found a tiny comfort zone online in the form of Google) to switch? I don't think so. Success in search is not about money; it's about who best can tap into our behaviors, our motivations, and our habits.

I recently had the privilege of being coached on public speaking by Paul Dunn, the co-founder of Buy1Give1. He said something profound to me: "Kaila, I don't care if you're speaking to a room of 10 or a crowd of 10,000. You are only ever speaking to one person. The biggest compliment you can get after a presentation is to have someone say, 'I felt like you were speaking directly to me.'"

Paul's statement is as true for search as it is for public speaking. The crowds you're trying to drive to your Web site are made up of one person at a time. The searchers reading your text ads are doing so one at a time. We arrive at your landing page and travel your conversion pathway one at a time.

And you, only you, are reading this column. So what are your thoughts on the matter?

3 comments about "Search Is Still, And Always Will Be, About People".
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  1. Meredith Speier from JWT, May 5, 2009 at 11:09 a.m.

    Amen. If only all of the agency talking heads could come to the same realization, that not only search is about people, but all of this [advertising] is about people. One person at a time.

  2. Steve Baldwin from Didit, May 5, 2009 at 11:32 a.m.

    I would agree with the author that in the final analysis it is "all about people." At the same time, however, we have already rushed headlong into a world where our personalities have been reduced to patterns, personas, and profiles in order to serve the controlling needs of impersonal forces over which we have little or no personal control. An institution like Google is regarded with awe and admiration for the convenience it delivers the masses and for a business model which seems, at least at this point in time, aligned with the authentic needs of the user (the invididual person). And yet, as history has proven repeatedly, the behavior of institutions, both private and public, can turn from benign to malign in a generation or less. Even the personal computer revolution and the advent of the World Wide Web, which encouraged such a rich diversity of viewpoints and creative chaos in its early years, can be viewed as a mere preamble to an era which is now rapidly unfolding before us that is characterized more by social control than individual expression. It is very easy to see how this new era of control is playing out in repressive societies such as China and Iran. It is much harder to see how our own rush in the same direction -- powered by values such as "fun" and "convenience" -- poses the same crushing threats. Whether any notions of personal liberty or freedom to express (or even think) one's own unique personal thoughts will survive this new era is a question that only history can decide.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 5, 2009 at 1:10 p.m.

    Human beings are tribal. We can belong to many tribes. As tribes become too large, smaller tribes form. Very simplistic with very complicated equations for predictions. When there is a loss of the personal, there is a loss of humanity. Then comes tribal acceptance.

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