One More Time, For Those In The Cheap Seats

If I were on some weird reality show (I know, the "weird'" is redundant), where they made me hire a search strategist, and they only let me give one instruction, it would be this: To understand search, you have to understand human behavior.


Query length is about human behavior. The desire to game the system is fundamental to human behavior. Split A/B testing is about human behavior, about saying, "Forget about our opinions; what do people actually do?"

And our choice of search engine is most definitely about human behavior.

This may seem obvious to you, but it is evidently not obvious to everyone. It's not obvious to the person who commented on my column last week saying there was no "pain" associated with switching search engines. The pain of changing a habit is one of the worst pains there is. Habits can easily trump cash -- otherwise, Microsoft would have had it nailed once it offered Cashback. Habits can cause us to spend more than we should, use outdated legacy systems, or stay in unfulfilling relationships.



If you are a student of human behavior, then you already know that we are far more driven to avoid loss than we are to seek gain. In her 2004 TED talk, cognitive researcher Nancy Etcoff described the "negativity bias" -- effectively, the imbalance between these two drivers. We detect sweet at 1 part per 200, but bitter at 1 part per 2 million. If we were governed only by pleasure-seeking, says Etcoff, we could not survive.

We are eternally preparing for famine and Judgment Day, where our survival will depend on how many cans of food we managed to stockpile. If you want me to give up my can of Google, you can't just be offering me a can of something a little bit better. What if I give up my Google and your Bing is no good? I've just condemned my family to starvation.

If you are a student of human behavior, then you know that we are both rational and predictably irrational. The economics of our actions aren't always dollars-and-cents tradeoffs, but they are almost always benefit-loss tradeoffs -- and the calculation isn't 1:1. Thanks to the negativity bias, the losses are given greater weight. In addition, we tend to downgrade potential benefits because of the risk that they won't eventuate. Sure, on that search Bing's results were more appropriate, but on this one Google's are better. What if I switch and it turns out Google's are better 70% of the time?

The negativity bias is why I believe that Google will be unseated not by a new and better search engine (which will require us to change our habit) but by a new environment that renders the old habit obsolete. The Yellow Pages were replaced by our migration to the Internet, not by the Orange Pages.

If you are a student of human behavior, then you know that we give brands a mental context. Brands are effective because they act as a behavioral shortcut -- push this type of lever, get this type of reward. Go to Starbucks, get a certain type of experience. Go to The Gap, get a different type of experience. Brands do not automatically extend beyond their original context; if they did, Chrome would have more than 2% market share. Or Microsoft would already have won the search war.

I'm a long-time Windows and Office user. I'm a long-time Google user. Both companies have changed our lives, in my opinion for the better. So my purpose here is not to be a hater. It's to remind, reinforce, and reiterate that to understand what drives search, we have to understand human behavior.

Because at the end of the day, search is, and always will be, about people.

6 comments about "One More Time, For Those In The Cheap Seats".
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  1. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, June 16, 2009 at 1:22 p.m.

    What is the real purpose of "search?"

    Did our ancestors spend all of their time on "search?"

    Did we all of a sudden become this society that needs to continually "search" for whatever?

    In the "old days" did we just go to the library everyday to "search" for more info?

    According to many studies, 70% of search is for retail, which seems to imply people looking to spend money for some reason, whether a great place to eat or a good deal on some jewelry or whatever.

    So, our conclusion is that since people are searching 70% of the time for retail deals, why not give them what they want.

    Introducing - the place where we can all search for the best retail deals in our local area, no matter where we are in the world, and why "in the world" would we want to just "search" to find out where a place is located when we could find out who has the best deals in town? All at one mobile location.

    Your dreams have come true ~

  2. Frank Dobner from The Startup Source, June 16, 2009 at 1:26 p.m.

    I appreciate the reminder contained in this piece. I believe operant behavioural component here is that we people (just like our animal brethren) are by nature lazy. It is not a flaw, we were not created to work, we were created to enjoy. So pleasure seeking is natural - we will naturally find benefits.

    What is not natural is working. Only when we are threatened in seeking pleasure does the reaction to negative stimuli kick-in the mitigation of negative consequences.

    Thanks for the reminder....sales copy must directly address the negative motivation, although our logic tells us otherwise.

  3. Gary Klein from GKlein&associates, June 16, 2009 at 1:49 p.m.

    Very powerful, insightful and profound piece that integrates both theory and pragmatism. The title doesn't do justice and, in fact, almost dissuaded me from jumping into the content.

  4. Steve Baldwin from Didit, June 16, 2009 at 1:56 p.m.

    Google's hold on us all is, (as someone else put it) mainly a learned neuro-motor response at this point. Typing in those letters is just a matter of muscle memory at this point.

    Hard to change? Yes, but hardly impossible. The odd situation we've all lived with for the past ten years is a wide open Web largely indexable by any crawler out there. But my bet is that this will soon change. If large blogs of (probably newspaper-originated) content "go dark" to search engine dominant search engine A but are available on upstart search engine B, it will take very little time for a mass migration to occur. I firmly believe we will see this start to happen before the end of 2009. This will completely change the game.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 16, 2009 at 5:17 p.m.

    Part of human behavior is always on search mode. One time, it was always for russling up food. Life is one big search until you die.

  6. Stuart Long, June 17, 2009 at 4:40 p.m.

    The fundamental truth is people change. I'm glad you brought up Starbucks. You can still go there if the one near you hasn't been closed yet. McDonalds has been selling a lot more coffee lately because people change. Some people are resistant to change so they change more slowly. Change may be the most powerful force in the universe. The only thing that is inevitable is change. Perhaps you'll change your mind. Perhaps, it's harder to change your mind than it is to change search engines. Nope, I suspect it's easier to change search engines.

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