Look Who's Searching

"Mom, you're going to be in one of my next columns."

"What do you mean?" she asked. "What do I have to do with whatever you're writing about?"

"You might not believe this," I told her, "but mom, you're the future of search."

It's true. My mother is a key part of the industry's future. She's a beacon, and if you look where her light is shining, there may be entire new businesses that can emerge for her, along with millions of her peers.

Though it's not polite to discuss age, my mother, who is also blessedly a grandmother (a young and unassuming one at that), won't mind disclosing she's in the 50-plus demographic. She's a late adopter of technology, and until recently, she would not have qualified as an Internet user by any measure. She's among the last bastions of Americans who expressed no particular interest in going online while being physically and economically able to do so.

All this changed when she started renovating her kitchen.

My mother has a dire need for both information and products. Her "to buy" list includes kitchen tile, a door to the patio, cabinets, appliances, fixtures for the adjacent bathroom, tables and chairs, and dozens of items that, I'm convinced, the contractors are making up to pad the bill.



Having an eye for design, my mom takes a hands-on, proactive approach. With all of these decisions and purchases to make, she let go of her qualms, went to the study, and kicked her grandson off the computer for the first time ever.

She was hooked.

The first place she turned, it almost goes without saying, was search. Suddenly, driving around to every home furnishings store in the state seemed a little silly. She searched site after site for fixtures, patterns, and even stool samples (referring to the seating - my father, a gastroenterologist, searches for the other kind, and due to this lexical ambiguity, you are ill advised to do an image search on the subject). She pored over natural and paid results, clicking on both. The only thing that mattered was relevance.

My mom called me one day to say she found my company listed in a search engine. It's worth noting because it's a moment like that where search became very personal and very real. She experienced the power of search to make connections.

It also leads to transactions. eMarketer cited an NOP World report this month that said of Americans who made a purchase in the three months prior to the survey, 25 percent of them bought a household item, and 10 percent bought home furnishings, up from 5 percent in 2003. NOP's report doesn't make a connection to search, but it's precisely categories such as this that are leveraging search (natural and paid) to grow their customer base.

Another study also made me think of mom. Danny Sullivan wrote a ClickZ column covering a ChoiceStream survey on personalization that found out the 50-plus demographic, far beyond any other, is most interested in personalized search. The demographic is more interested in that (at 35 percent of respondents) than personalized books (30 percent), news (22 percent), or travel (21 percent). Why would personalized search be so much more appealing than any other type of personalization to this demographic, and why is this age group more interested in personalized search than anyone else?

Search is the most practical application online. It's the epitome of functionality. People can search for themselves or look for the latest googlebomb (e.g., typing "weapons of mass destruction" in Google and clicking "I'm feeling lucky"), but search is overwhelmingly something engaged when Internet users are on a mission. The 50-plus group is done playing around. Few will spend five hours trying to find a downloadable version of their favorite song, legal or otherwise. When they're using something as practical as search, they want it done as efficiently as possible.

For the younger set, this may not matter as much. It's a matter of seconds to switch search engines, scan pages of results, and refine queries. It's part of their fast-paced, hyperlinked, wired and wireless upbringing. They'd rather have personalized music downloads (as reported by ChoiceStream). That's something cool, something they can blog about and tell their old college buddies on IM.

Yes, generalizations abound here, but all of this helps bring the bigger picture into focus. What will create enough interest for non-Internet users to go online? It's when the Internet fills a need.

My mom won't see this column online until my dad shows it to her. She's not into e-mail just yet, and honestly, when I instant messaged her while she was logged on with my father's account, it was a little creepy, a little too distant. Some things work better offline.

There's no going back for my mother though. She found search, and it came through. It made her a smarter consumer, it led to some purchases she's crazy about, and those contractors better deliver... or she'll go online and search for better ones.

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