It's okay. You're not alone. Heck, it even happens to lawyers--even a lawyer investigating a case involving the senior advisor to the President of the United States.
In the ongoing hunt for information on how CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity was allegedly leaked to various reporters, lawyers have been hunting for a paper trail that sheds any light on who knew what when. Of particular interest are possible discrepancies in testimony given by senior White House advisor Karl Rove relating to his conversations with Time reporter Matthew Cooper. In its October 17 issue, Newsweek reported on a recently surfaced e-mail from Rove dating to July 2003 that may contradict statements he gave to investigators.
Newsweek asks a pivotal question in the story, which is online at MSNBC.com (thanks to MediaPost's own Gavin O'Malley for the link).
Why didn't the Rove e-mail surface earlier? The lawyer says it's because an electronic search conducted by the White House missed it because the right "search words" weren't used. (The White House and Fitzgerald both declined to comment.)"
Let's put aside politics; it doesn't matter who's being investigated or which administration's advisor is in the hot seat. Far more interesting for our purposes is that in this investigation involving senior staff members at the White House, an e-mail wasn't found for a couple of years because "the right search words weren't used." Whether this e-mail is the smoking gun (or, for a more recent reference borrowed from the O.J. Simpson trial, "the shrinking glove"), it underscores just how important search terms are.
It's hard enough to find information on a subject such as fencing, depending on your interest (a quick scan on Google shows natural search results dominated by references to the sport, while all the top paid search results advertise fence building). As the White House lawyers now realize, search may seem simple because it's so intuitive, but it's easy to get stuck. One naturally enters words from his or her own lexicon, yet such language may or may not sync with what's required to get results.
One need not look too hard to find other examples, including one even more relevant to our industry. Recently, in the course of a water cooler conversation, some colleagues and I were mulling over the popularity of the terms "Internet advertising" versus "interactive advertising."
There are several ways to see which wins out. The stupid-simple approach is simply checking the number of results in search engines. For instance, in Google, "Internet advertising" yields 231 million results compared to nearly 66 million for "interactive advertising." In Yahoo!, there's a similar skew: 282 million for "Internet advertising" topping the 56 million for "interactive advertising." (An aside: in both engines, searching for "topping" doesn't bring up Cool Whip anywhere in the first page of results. What gives?)
This confirms that there is much more content around "Internet advertising," yet that doesn't necessarily imply how people are searching. For a more scientific study, let's check the handy Overture Keyword Selector Tool at inventory.overture.com (one of the few remnants of Overture not yet swathed in Yahoo! branding). In September 2005, there were 78,389 searches in Yahoo!'s network alone for "Internet advertising," compared to 813 for "interactive advertising." That means searchers, from Yahoo!'s vantage, are over 96 times as likely to search for "Internet advertising." The latter term wouldn't even be a blip on a "Family Feud" survey board.
For a little more fun, I compared "Internet Advertising Bureau" to "Interactive Advertising Bureau" searches, the latter being the name of the U.S, trade group. Sure enough, there were 494 searches for the former, 252 for the latter. Again, this doesn't include Google and its partners, so ignore the raw numbers; far more interesting is the preference.
The IAB changed its name from Internet Advertising Bureau to Interactive Advertising Bureau in April 2001, a move designed to "more accurately reflect its membership," according to the association's press release. Yet, by this rudimentary research, its members and their constituents seem to be stuck on Internet advertising.
Karl Rove's investigators and the IAB both serve as case studies in the need to choose our words carefully, both as consumers and marketers. Slip up, and it might take years to find what we're looking for--or our audience might not find us.
Granted, if we're being investigated, perhaps the goal is not to be found. Most investigations, however, are for the benefit of both the searcher and the party being searched.
The choice is yours.