Commentary

Your Search House And Your Social Garden

Building a house is a gratifying activity. Assuming you're not pushing the boundaries of architecture and physics, the process is reasonably straightforward: you develop a plan and then bring it to life. Your ideas can travel from thought to rendered concept art to physical creation, with remarkably little distortion along the way. As James Cameron described in his recent TED talk, your imagination can create your reality.

What's gratifying about the house process is that the end result matches the original picture in your head. This can make us feel anywhere from good to godlike -- after all, it's nothing short of creation: "Man make fire!" And, at the risk of aggrandizement, this is what search is like: "Man make traffic!" We wave our magic wand of bids, and hey, presto, clicks ensue.

But we need to be careful. As much as we exalt the powers of imagination, most of us are sadly unimaginative. This is why our next year's budgets are based on this year's budgets with a CPI increase. This is why habits become so ingrained so quickly. This is why evolution is far more common than revolution, because it is exceedingly rare for us to imagine beyond our actual experiential boundaries. Our godlike powers of creation are often limited by our imaginations, rather than expanded by them.

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Growing a garden is equally gratifying, albeit a bit different -- primarily because you don't grow a garden. All you can do is supply the necessary conditions for success -- soil, nutrients, water, sunshine -- and then hope like heck the seeds do their job.

With gardens, we become participative witnesses to the magic of flora. If you've ever planted a seed, you'll know the exhilaration of seeing that shoot inch up towards the sky all by itself, without you pulling on it or stretching it or otherwise forcing it to grow. Our caveman chest-beating is supplanted by a sense of wonder: "How does it know how to do that without me helping it?"

Tapping into the power of others -- be they plants or people -- often produces more powerful results than anything we can come up with on our own. If we asked engineers to come up with a system for transporting water several stories above the ground, we'd likely end up with a giant and noisy machine rather than a hyper-efficient tree. Nonetheless, the fact that we are relinquishing control can cause us to feel less powerful, rather than more.

And so we have two scenarios: search, in which you control the outcome but are limited by what you can imagine, and social, in which you are open to great success as well as great failure. Social media marketers, understand this: you do not grow your community. Your community grows itself. If you are a good social media gardener, you understand the conditions required for this to happen -- but you cannot force the process.

Of course, as I said in this column a couple of weeks ago, my preference is always for the integrated strategy: a tidy house, set off by a lovely garden with just enough wildness about it to keep it interesting. On a beautiful day, lie back in the tall grass and marvel at the swaying tree canopy above. On a rainy day, head inside with a book and a mug of hot chocolate.

Do you prefer the house or the garden? Do you use both? Let me know in the comments or via @kcolbin on Twitter!

3 comments about "Your Search House And Your Social Garden".
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  1. Kathryn Gorges from Essentials 3, March 16, 2010 at 12:20 p.m.

    I love your metaphors -- such a great way to capture the reality of what is going on. Frequently people online forget that on the other end of the screen are real people with real human patterns, needs, inclinations. Just like creating the conditions for building community in our 'real' lives, that's what works online -- because it is real.

    And, although I sometimes get frustrated with the 'push' feeling about search optimization, I like how you create the context of this being a house: providing the means and place of getting together and be at home -- a place for both community and for closer connections that are created with intention.

    Thanks!

  2. Douglas Cleek from Magnitude 9.6, March 16, 2010 at 12:26 p.m.

    Nice article.
    Love your writing style. very illustrative.

    For the garden scenario regarding social media, the control you do have is the capability to provide water (relevant, useful info) on a somewhat routine basis to keep everything growing. Some marketers, like poor gardeners, often forget to pay attention to the garden. It takes patience.
    That's about all you can do. Just let it grow!
    Good refreshing article.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 16, 2010 at 1:09 p.m.

    Look and think before you speak. Works for private and public conversations.

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