'United 93''s Blockbuster Search Experience

"United 93": a tale of patriotism, heroism, terrorism, and... search engine marketing?

Maybe that didn't fit on the movie posters. After watching this film, a powerful dramatization that serves as a case study on the intersection of history and entertainment, I discovered it also offered insight into how quickly search engines are evolving. We'll focus on three aspects of this today: semantics, hyper-relevant results, and comparing the buzz to the box office.


Search engines and marketers are paying attention to subtle differences in how people might search for the film. First, there are searches on the movie title itself. Natural results for "United 93" queries are largely dominated by film-related listings; in Google, eight of the top 10 listings refer directly to the movie, and that rises to 9 in Yahoo. On the paid listings side, one of the actors who played a German passenger, Erich Redman, advertises in Google and links to his Web site touting his work. Creative Artists Agency, beware--Google has inadvertently entered the talent business.



There are other ways to search on the subject. Searches for "flight 93" account for the most searches of any of the movie-related terms, according to Google's AdWords Traffic Estimator. The natural results for "flight 93" and "United flight 93" queries are predictably a mixed bag, with links to film reviews, movie sites, Flight 93 memorials, and news roundups. For searches on "flight 93," Yahoo! runs the most ads, but its featured ads in the shaded box don't appear until the bottom of the first page of results, rather than up top, where there are only links to news results.

Also telling is how most engines are aware of the dangers of matching keywords too broadly here. Only MSN offers travel deal ads for "flight 93" searches. Orbitz, Expedia, BookingBuddy, and others might not find the best conversions with their ads running there. The point is not to single out MSN, which has just rolled out AdCenter updates; rather, it's impressive that both technology and editorial prudence have become so sophisticated that this is an exception rather than the rule.

Hyper-Relevant Results

For searches on the movie title, all five major engines offer Hyper-Relevant results, the featured listings that rank above the natural search listings. Consider a search on, which brings up a section about the movie, with several links to movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, a link to the official site, and a field to enter your zip code for local movie listings. That's smart, but it's also becoming commonplace.

Ask's more inventive strategy comes from a second Hyper-Relevant section focusing on the historical event. There's a synopsis from Wikipedia, an array of links (such as to's image search and a Discovery Channel feature), and drop-down menus to search for the names of the hijackers and selected passengers.

Buzz vs. Box

Box office grosses and buzz do not necessarily go together. As hot as buzz monitoring is, and as much as it can be used to support other market research, it holds limited value for predicting trends. Blog search sites IceRocket and BlogPulse both offer free trend monitoring tools, and both showed considerable spikes in "United 93'"s buzz in late April based on blog mentions. The buzz for the movie was far higher than buzz surrounding the other two movies opening against it, "RV" and "Akeelah and the Bee" (both of those scored nearly identically for most days).

The box office figures had no correlation with the buzz. During the April 28 opening weekend for the three films, "RV" came in first with $16.4 million, "United 93" followed with $11.5 million, and "Akeelah" limped into eighth place with $6 million. The three films are expected to end their domestic runs with about $60 million, $30 million, and $20 million respectively, according to Gitesh Pandya of Granted, without the buzz, "United 93" may well have done only half as well, if not worse.

That's a Wrap

Search engines are all in the entertainment business. They need to put on a show for their customers, though the episodes often only last 10 seconds or less. It explains why some entertainment moguls such as Terry Semel and Barry Diller are so enamored with search, and it also gets to why search engines pull out all their stops when Hollywood sends them a great story to work with. The engines are just like everyone else in Hollywood; all they really want to do is direct.

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