There's something about a crisis that makes me crazy about search engines.

It's not as if I like calamities. Yet when they occur, it's exciting seeing how these events are reflected in search. It's analogous to living in Manhattan through Sept. 11, the Northeast blackout in 2003, and now the mass transit strike. I don't want bad things to happen, but when they do, it's a thrill to see them unfold firsthand.

It's important to note the nature of this recent catastrophe versus others, such as Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 attacks, and the tsunami and earthquake in Asia. With the transit strike, there was no relief effort, no one died, and most people affected by the strike live within a 60-mile radius of a single city. Granted, the city is an international hub for tourism and finance, so the wide interest is warranted, but this was hardly a life-or-death situation for the victims.

On that note, let's explore how this crisis unfolded in the search engines.



During the strike, advertisers across all search engines tended to fit into two categories: media properties covering the strike, and companies offering remote working solutions. As someone sitting in the middle of this stricken city, for me the ads were fairly relevant. I worked from home, only leaving to take photographs of the carpool checkpoints and stock up on groceries (veggie burgers, comfort food, and as much beer as I could carry).

Checking out the natural results, I first tried typing in "transit strike" on all the engines. The results delivered were largely targeted to the strike in New York, generally combining a mix of news sites and local resources, such as the site for NY's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Some blogs also gained prevalence. A quick tour of the engines:

Yahoo!: Its natural search results for "transit strike" were the most diverse, incorporating several links from such remote environs as Toronto (which flirted with a transit strike in April) and New Jersey (OK, fine, New York commuters live there too). Sponsored links included and Both were well targeted, with the former pleading, "Don't let the MTA strike affect you..." and the latter linking to a special page of strike coverage.

AOL: It uses Google's results, but it has its own interesting spin. For instance, one way AOL suggested to refine a search on "transit strike" was to include the word "bracing." In New York, we brace for everything: strikes, snow, a surge in tourism, a decline in tourism, Woody Allen movies. AOL may be my new favorite engine.

Google: Google attracted the largest number of advertisers by far. Some only advertised for specific searches such as "transit strike NYC." This approach was misguided for two reasons: 1) Who else was using the word "transit strike" besides those interested in what was happening in New York? And 2) New Yorkers are among the most geographically elitist people on Earth, so few would have bothered refining their search by location; we just assume that if we're searching for something, the results better be about us. So these targeted advertisers were missing the lion's share of traffic.

In general, whether targeting New York or bidding on broader terms related to the strike, advertisers included publishers iVillage, NYTimes, LogMeIn, and 7Online, and teleconferencing services LogMeIn, IMConferencing, and BeamYourScreen. DirectDegree creatively advertised distance learning, WorkingPodcast welcomed New Yorkers to vent about the strike, and CommuterLink advertised ride sharing. Most of these advertisers had such ads up within hours of the strike's kickoff; perhaps some will be so kind, at least anecdotally, to share how these ads performed.

I also spent a fair amount of time on other engines. Ask Jeeves scored well for its related search queries. Some provided useful refinement, while others offered curiosities, such as information on previous strikes in 1980 and 1966. MSN was cut and dry--standard vanilla there. Dogpile was fun to play with; its Search Comparison Tool showed how Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and Ask Jeeves had very few results in common. This trend was probably compounded by the large number of news articles listed from a variety of sources.

One last site of interest was BlogPulse's trend tool, which showed the word "transit" and phrase "transit strike" both jumping from being mentioned in less than 0.1% of all searches to between 0.7% and 0.8% right when the strike hit. In the last six months, the only other time "transit" spiked was during the London subway bombings in July.

"Transit" is a word people only use during a calamity, when it's the only word that fits. Writing before the strike's resolved, I can only hope it ends well before this article is published [Editor's note: David's wish was granted; as you probably know, the subways began to roll again Dec. 23], and I further hope we don't have to use the word "transit" at all in the year to come. Here's to all your 2006 wishes coming true. Happy New Year.

Next story loading loading..