A Tale Of Two Houses

I have a difference of opinion with Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore. Actually, it's not so much a difference as a question of context. He believes there's room for more visual branding on the search results page. I believe this is a potentially dangerous area that has to be handled very carefully on the part of the engines.

This issue came up during the opening session of day two at the recent Search Insider Summit, when I posed a question  two different ways to the audience. First, I asked them, as marketers,  how many would like to see richer branding opportunities on the results page. Almost every hand went up. Then I asked them the same question, but this time as users. Some hands went down immediately. Many others wavered noticeably, as the paradigm shift exposed underlying hypocrisy. Others remained resolutely high on the idea.

The reason for the mixed reaction was that, for users, the ideal search experience depends on the context of the situation. Visually richer is not always better. There's some subtle psychology at play here. So let's explore it in a story.

It's a Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood

Imagine we both live on the same street. In fact, we're next-door neighbors. I travel a lot. I happen to know you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. So begins the story of My House and Your House:

Your House

In this story, the reason I travel a lot is because I'm a commissioned travel agent. I get paid if I book you on a trip somewhere. And you don't know it, but I get paid a lot more if you go to Disney World. So every morning, I come over to your house and knock on your door wearing my Mickey Mouse ears, carrying in one hand a portable stereo blasting "When You Wish Upon a Star" and in the other a fistful of Disney travel brochures. Each day, I visit with a determination to book you on the next flight to Orlando.  Now, if Disney is in your travel plans, perhaps this isn't as obnoxious as it sounds. But if two weeks in the Magic Kingdom sounds as appealing as the Bataan Death March, my neighborly welcome will wear a little thin. Sure, I got your attention, but you also listed your house for sale shortly after my visit.

My House

Now forget all of the above. This time, I travel a lot because I'm worldly, adventurous and wise. I'm also wonderfully informative. Over the backyard fence, you mentioned that you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. In neighborly fashion, I invited you over for a coffee and to ask me any questions about past trips I've taken, in case any of my previous destinations might be appealing. You take me up on the offer and ring my doorbell. We sit down and I ask, "So, any particular areas you're thinking of visiting?"

"Hmmm, I've always dreamed of the Mediterranean. Perhaps the French or Italian Riviera?"

"Cinque Terra is wonderful, so is Nice, Cannes and Monaco, but don't rule out Spain or Portugal. I've been to them all."

A House Divided...

Think of your reaction, first in your house, then in mine. As you no doubt realized, your house represents typical advertising; my house is search.



And the context is different in subtle but important ways. That's why it becomes dangerous when we start trying to combine the two. In my house, you're engaged and curious. You'll ask me what I love about Portugal, or why I didn't recommend Cannes more enthusiastically.  And you'll trust me more if you know you're getting my objective opinion. After I know a little about your preferred destinations, you might be interested if I introduce you to my friend, the travel agent.  You would even find that helpful. You're open to a sponsored message, as long as it's relevant to your interests and fits into the rules of the overall experience.

All this gets to the context of my difference of opinion with Gian. Visual richness is appropriate if it's relevant and welcome. It's annoying if it's intrusive. And that line would be in the control of the engines and the advertisers.

If I come to your house uninvited, my job is to convince you to open the door. But if you come to my house, my job is to inform and help. You came through the door on your own. The house we live in is a great place, but there are rules we have to live by. Otherwise, no one will come to visit us.

10 comments about "A Tale Of Two Houses".
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  1. Anna Talerico, May 21, 2009 at 12:01 p.m.

    Great analogy Gord!

  2. John Bruce, May 21, 2009 at 12:02 p.m.

    Great post, Gord! It is our job as marketers to get the folks to come in the door on their own.

  3. Jeremiah Mcnichols from Bloggy Sabi, May 21, 2009 at 12:11 p.m.

    Engaging, helpful, and memorable. Thanks.

  4. Tobias Bray from 360 Sales Focus, May 21, 2009 at 12:25 p.m.

    The bigger question advertisers need to ask themselves is this: "Why would someone notice my house if the people on the porch are always selling snake oil? Lets' change the metaphor a little. You want me to go to Disney. Each day as I travel around my neighborhood, I pass the house where, from time to time you advertise Disney. Why did I not notice you? Antecedent, Action, Response. The people who spend most of the time on the porch of that same house sell snake oil, fat reduction compounds, and teeth bleaching. Simply put, I ignore this house altogether since I don't trust the inhabitants. And by association (the same location on the web page, you are an inhabitant). I call this ad contamination - call it what you want but consider this. What right minded major brand want to advertise on Facebook when they get sandwiched between advertisements for make a million a month and get free money from the government.

    In print snake oil is/was placed on the back pages and solid brands in the rest of the publication. Online we let anyone sell anything anywhere. From which end of the business to you view an advertisement? As a transaction (from the business perspective), or as an invitation (from the visitor's perspective). If it is the former, consider how much contamination it takes to bias your visitor.

  5. MediaMark Walker, May 21, 2009 at 4:13 p.m.

    More room on the Search page- are you kidding? This is a classic case of the designers who NEVER use their own products. Fulgoni needs to do some searches and see all the crap that comes up now- and then tell us WHERE he wants to put MORE!

    TV, Radio, newspapers and especially magazines have milked their ad stream so severely (with that exact thinking) that in some cases, there are more ads than content- and that's a huge part of what's killing old media. While it is possible in some venues to ignore the noise- the more noise there is the harder it is going to get, and the more there is, there lower the results and corresponding ROI. Give us- advertisers and users- a huge break, will ya?!

  6. R.J. Lewis from e-Healthcare Solutions, LLC, May 21, 2009 at 4:22 p.m.

    Gord, I think the analogy is good, but it's a bit to naive to think that search results are not biased. There is bias in all of them... it might be subtle bias, but by definition an algorithm has to make "choices" and these choices are becoming increasingly motivated by profit. You can't go a day w/out reading about how Google has made a choice around displaying brands in paid links, or how the algorithm is being changed to "favor" brands, or to "not favor" them... from paid inclusion to "polite" text advertising, their is bias in all of the "homes" on the Internet, including the room of "natural listings". To think otherwise, is somewhat naive.

  7. Gian Fulgoni from 4490 Ventures, May 21, 2009 at 7:01 p.m.


    Thanks for rehashing the debate – but in truth, I don’t think our positions are significantly different. The experience you allude to in “Your House” is clearly an unfortunate user experience, but bringing the right type of richness to sponsored results doesn’t have to be a “Your House” experience. For example, if a user conducts a brand search, for say Walmart and a zip code, their intent is clear – locating a Walmart in a specific location. The organic results will likely present a map, a phone number and maybe a few addresses. If the sponsored results included a relatively unobtrusive Walmart logo and a link to their local weekly promotions, would that really be out of context? I’m certainly not advocating 300 x 250 flash banners running down the right rail, but as organic results continue to get richer and universal SERPs are extended, the sponsored side of the house can and should keep up. As you say, it’s all about context and protecting the user experience – and given the size and profitability of the search industry, I think we can be fairly sure engines will work hard to deliver high quality results pages while at the same time delivering value to advertisers.

  8. David Shor from Prove, May 22, 2009 at 2:57 a.m.

    I love search. Everyone knows it. My wife hates when I talk about search marketing which I've stopped doing, particularly during the Idol (and now DWTS) seasons...

    But there IS a fundamental problem with search that MAY begin to be solved with Google's integration of BT in search results.

    Search benefits well funded organizations who spend money on thoughtful websites with best practices. This leaves out the 90% of small businesses who still aren't able to make the kinds of investments large businesses can to compete. It's the Walmartization of search. The little guy loses in competitive keyword categories, which is almost everywhere now.

    By integrating BT into both organic and paid results, Google should be able to increase revenue by consistently delivering even more spookily relevant results. I'm one of the few on record for saying that Google's natural results are AWFUL and that I prefer paid results. If there was BT-based targeting I would predict I might fall in love again.

    Additionally, whereas display markets allow precise control of the placements (for cookied users), search does not allow me to enforce frequency or post-click limits or the same kind of ad sequencing as display. When Google does that, my g_d--that will be a killer app.

  9. Alan Hamor from adworthy inc, May 22, 2009 at 8:08 a.m.

    Great column, Gord and there are a lot more future seeds in the responses!

    IMO, the G interface needs no more clutter. Paid results are already pinching the organic listings pertty hard and those listings are the only place where most companies can afford to be found.

    And David is right on the money that search clearly favors the well-funded. We just worked on an engagement where the 1st page inclusion estimate was $20 - $25 for the top 10 - 25 terms with average daily CPC's on those terms in the middle/high teens. What small biz can afford that media spend risk - especially in this climate?

    Thanks again for the insights...

  10. Tom Shivers from Capture Commerce, May 22, 2009 at 9:02 a.m.

    Audience engagement always has been and always will be the focus of search engines and successful search marketers. Great way of saying it!

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