Q&A With A Data Geek

Bill Tancer, general manager of worldwide research at Hitwise, is a self-described data geek who's not only a number cruncher but also has an eye for spotting trends. Bill has also been one of my most engaging clients and inspiring peers. I sat down with him to get his perspective on a few key issues.

Search Insider: You've been head of research at Hitwise for two years, studying the way consumers search, and what drives search marketing performance. Given your perspective, what is the state of search today?

Tancer: I believe that we're currently entering the second stage of the search engine wars. The first stage was the battle centered around which search engine could deliver the fastest, easiest, most relevant search experience. I believe the second stage will focus on which search engine can deliver content, along with search results, as close to the information request as possible. For example, don't just give me listings of sites where I can find a digital camera; I want to see specific information on the camera I searched at the top of the search results.



SI: What are the long-term trends or changes in the way people search?

Tancer: One interesting trend we're noticing is an increase of navigational searches - i.e., searches on a domain or url -- even among the most sophisticated Internet users. This may signal a trend that search engines may ultimately replace the url bar as the predominant method for navigating Internet content. Of course, as the sophistication of Internet users increases, we are seeing more sophisticated, specific search missions.

SI: How do search analytics and search-behavior data compare with other forms of market and media research?

Tancer: To make informed online marketing decisions, I believe that the marketer needs two key data sources: site analytics and competitive intelligence. A colleague of mine has a great analogy for describing the difference between these two: If your marketing program is a race car, site analytics represents the dashboard of your car, providing you with insight into speed, engine performance, oil pressure, etc. Online competitive intelligence represents the windshield of your race car, allowing you to put all of that other data into perspective--such as how well you are doing in relation to competitors, who's in the lead, what tactics are winning.

SI: Which clients or industries are the most sophisticated at search marketing? What are some of the best practices?

Tancer: There's no easy answer to this question. In my experience with clients, it's the individual online marketer--not the company or industry--that dictates how sophisticated a company is in search marketing and online competitive intelligence. As far as best practices go, there are several excellent tools on the market that can help you maximize your search marketing campaign by optimizing the words in your campaign, but there are few tools that will help you discover what words you don't have in your campaign. And that's where competitive intelligence comes into play. The next "best practices" in search will center around how well you can discover what's missing in your search campaign.

SI: What are some of the most innovative uses of search-behavioral data?

Tancer: I think the most exciting analysis is the application of search behavioral data to inform the seasonal plans of online marketers, and the application of search data to gain insight into online brand equity. We're capturing billions of search queries by millions of searchers across all search engines. If you think about that, we're talking about a massive source of unaided recall, among the best sources we'll see to represent what is top-of-mind for consumers.

SI: What will the search landscape look like in two years?

Tancer: Two years from know I think we'll be seeing two major trends. First, the race will continue among search engines to minimize the gap between query and actual content desired... The next big trend, which has been discussed for years, is the advancement of personalized search.... I expect in the next two years we'll see the engines develop more robust technology to understand the person behind the search, and deliver content that will be relevant not just to the search query but also to the person behind that query.

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