Le Search, C'est Moi!

Nearly 40 percent of survey respondents admit to searching for themselves, according to a Harris Interactive and Microsoft study. Is this narcissism or harmless fun? Regardless, there's a way marketers can take advantage of it.

The survey results aren't a big surprise, especially for journalists and columnists who, if I may speak on behalf of my peers, do this quite regularly. Writing about this provides some vindication; it feels good to know this is a common activity. It's nothing new. People tend to look themselves up in phone books, too.

Yet "me searches" are a small percentage of total searches. Overture's bid tool, via, says there are only about 170 searches for "John Smith" per day. Consider how many John Smiths there are.

Here's the payoff question: how do you reach John Smith when he's not searching for himself?

Now it gets interesting.

Search for "furniture" in Yahoo!, and one leading furniture site's description in the natural results says, "Official corporate site for the furniture company." A search for "Las Vegas hotels" brings up a natural listing for a famous casino, with the description reading, "Located in the heart of the famed Las Vegas Strip." Look for "chicken recipe" in Ask Jeeves, and a fast food chain site description discusses the company's history.



What does any of that do for the searcher?

Imagine if the furniture company said, "Everything you need to design your dream home on a budget." The casino might say, "Best views and live entertainment on the Vegas Strip - four nights for the price of three." The fast food chain could write, "Why do the dishes? Find the restaurant nearest you."

There's a massive difference between the marketer serving the potential customer and the marketer serving him- or herself.

Most likely, it's an issue of companies neglecting to fully grasp what natural results say about them. The Interactive Advertising Bureau last month released a landmark study revealing how well sponsored text ads in search affect branding metrics, but no branding studies were done on the natural results - a crime. Paid search gets all the fame and glory.

Yet the descriptions in the natural results are more honest. With copywriters working 'round the clock on the paid side (many of them doing stellar work within the space constraints and other limitations), the natural listings reflect what the site is really like. If the site cares about the visitor, that shows. If the site is a way for the company to say how great it is, that shows too.

There are some sites that make natural listing descriptions work. Amazon does particularly well. Searching for "Bull Durham DVD" in Google, Amazon is the first natural result, and the description excerpts a review saying, "Overall, 'Bull Durham' is a great film." Yes! The searcher who wants this probably thinks the exact same thing, and he might go on to buy every great Kevin Costner movie ever made (a paltry investment at that).

Another great example comes from A search for "framed art" brings up Art Find as number one in the natural listings, with its description reading, "Buy framed art prints from over 1,000 artists. Save up to 50% everday [sic]. Free shipping plus a money-back guarantee." Typo aside, it's a compelling summary that reads like a sponsored ad, and it should earn initial trust from a consumer who may not have heard of the site before.

The first step for companies is to take a lesson from people and search for themselves. In a more practical sense, that means a company should encourage every employee, from the summer interns to the CEO, to run searches on the company and brand. Everyone should conduct the spot checks. While a vice president may not notice an affront to the brand buried on page five of the results in his or her favorite search engine, an employee may be startled to find the same link on page one somewhere else. As seen by examples above, even high-ranking, company-approved results may come short of doing justice to the brand.

The story of Narcissus in Greek mythology tells of how the striking lad, spurning Echo's love, was cursed to love only himself. Upon gazing in a pool of water, he was transfixed, staring at himself until his death.

Companies don't have such a curse. Some even forget to look at their reflection at all. Search, however, is a radiant reflecting pool. Don't be afraid to look.

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