Here's Looking at You, Search

The search space is getting a new look.

Search engines have typically been very left-brain - analytical, ranked sequentially, powered by algorithms, and heavy on text with little imagery.

Granted, that never stopped the phone book from gaining readership, nor has it affected sales of bestsellers such as, oh, the Bible. Popular sites such as Monster and Craigslist can also get away with this approach. If it's useful, text trumps glitz every time.

Yet there are new sites emerging that can display results visually, and while they may have limited appeal for the casual surfer (they won't unseat the major engines), there are ways marketers can make use of them. Ultimately, your creativity and time are the limiting factors here, not the resources.

Today, we'll take a closer look at Grokker, a public search engine just launched by Groxis, a company that's been working on visual search applications since 2001.

When entering a search in Grokker, Yahoo!'s search results are delivered in a visual field resembling a series of artists' palettes, with results grouped conceptually, and you can keep drilling down. For instance, search for "hotels," and some of the larger groups include "hotel guide," "luxury," "resorts," "special offers," and "Thailand." (Search for "Thailand," and the largest group is fittingly "hotels in Bangkok.")



Clicking "hotel guide" opens a new field, with bubbles for "travel information," "luxury," and "China." Individual squares in each bubble indicate specific sites, where you can see a summary, its Yahoo! rank, and a screenshot. You can also click the link to the site. Slider bars in the "show tools" feature let you further refine results by date and rank. While it might take a bit of effort to get to a given Web site, the information you can glean in the process makes this a market research goldmine.

For instance, search in Grokker for "Wal-Mart," and results include some obvious ones, like "stores," and "low prices," and less obvious ones, such as "female employees" (due to the lawsuits), "music downloads" (thanks to overrepresentation of search-friendly coverage by technology publications) and "New York" (from bylines on articles).

This gives you some concept of the aggregate depiction of the brand on the Web. The "New York" results show three sites together ranked 14, 81, and 106 - two of which searchers will never see, though they might when searching for "Wal-Mart New York."

If you're a marketer, or provide services to marketers, try a number of brand searches. It's such a fresh perspective; you could spend the day or the month on this. But imagine the returns. For instance, you could identify new opportunities for building content based around concepts that you want to be better represented in search. You could also discover your brand is associated with terms countering what you think the brand stands for. In that scenario, you could then devise strategies, such as launching a paid search campaign or building a series of search engine-friendly microsites, to make your brand's intended attributes more prominent. Groxis CEO R.J. Pittman, in an interview with the Search Insider, said he understands the potential applications. I asked Pittman if he was reaching out to the open-source community. That's a key part of his vision. He said, "If we're only as good as the content sources we plug into, let's give people what they want and let the community help us expand." Just as Groxis will pursue new applications and partnerships (including viewing other search engines' results, and versions for job and dating sites), open-source developers can take it in other directions.

Pittman said Grokker is not competing with other search engines (making the partnership appealing for Yahoo!). He added, "We look at ourselves as a layer on top of search content that can take you broader and deeper across a search engine's database."

There's also a paid search component to Grokker. Search ads run alongside the visual results display, and alongside the ads the deeper someone drills down, thus increasing the ads' relevance. Grokker is too new to make any conclusions on the data, though Pittman implied that it might make a compelling case study.

For a searcher, Grokker is more akin to than Yahoo! Grokker is a way to manage information overload, viewing results conceptually and holistically. It won't be your everyday search engine, but you will see things your everyday search engine can't readily reveal.

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