The whole search engine marketing business was much easier when the search engines were the arbiters of relevance. In the old paradigm, to parrot Stephen Colbert, the search engine was the decider. It decided what was most relevant, and you'd accept it. You didn't question the search engine. You were the searcher, the engine was the decider, and everyone could get along just fine. We all knew our roles and we had no power to question them. Life was pretty good.
Now, we have tagging. With the engines' new services, anyone can label a search result as he or she sees fit, and the search engine recognizes the categorization (within reason). The old model might be viewed as a benevolent dictatorship or even as enlightened absolutism; the new model is a democracy--power to the people. Yet most people won't take advantage of this power.
For comparison, consider our record with voting. In the United States, half the eligible population tends to vote in a major election. A review by International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Editorial Assistance) ranks the US 139th out of 172 countries in voter turnout. Besting Thailand, Haiti, and Sudan is hardly a crowning achievement for the presumed model democracy.
That being said, the turnout in the U.S. (48.3 percent), Brazil (47.9 percent), Pakistan (41.8 percent) and even Colombia (36.2 percent) may be viewed as a tremendous success compared with how the democracy of search is going to turn out. Google, Yahoo!, and the like are shifting from dictatorship to democracy, but in the process, they are potentially creating an aristocracy. It's this Aristocracy of Relevance that may well write the future of search.
There are a number of factors that will determine whether the Aristocracy of Relevance takes hold; it's not yet a given. The biggest question is how quickly the engines will shift from dictatorship to democracy and how much power will be given to the people. The more power offered to hoi polloi, the more the Aristocracy will seize it for themselves.
What constitutes power? Power is determining relevance. Relevance shapes ideas, influences perception, and alters fortunes. Anyone whose Web site has ever been "sandboxed" or "blacklisted" by search engines knows this on a very personal level. To not be visible when people are looking for you (directly, via searches including your brand, or indirectly, via non-brand searches) can cause extreme hardship. Some businesses even attempt to sue search engines when, often for a reason no more malicious than a shift in the engine's algorithm, the business gets knocked out of the natural search results.
As search engines bring about the shift to democratic listings, the most prevalent new model involves the engine offering user-selected results to people who have explicitly agreed to receive them. For instance, with Yahoo's My Web, people who sign up for the service will be shown other users' tagged and bookmarked My Web listings atop the natural search results. With the new Google Co-Op, one must subscribe to others' feeds in order for those feeds to be prominently highlighted when conducting relevant searches.
Considering that My Web and Co-Op will remain the playground of early adopters for the foreseeable future, and only users who opt in to those services will find their listings affected by other users, then only the early adopters will notice the impact. Or, to put it into the context at hand, an aristocracy is being created, but the aristocrats are talking to themselves. They have their social club, and no one else will notice. Only when the aristocrats' recommendations take prominence over the search engines' own algorithmic rankings for all users, logged in or not, will the Aristocracy of Relevance gain power.
Even if the Aristocracy gains power, it may wind up benefiting everyone. The Aristocracy is open to everyone. While previous aristocratic societies may have been determined by lineage or financial means or valor in battle, this is an Aristocracy of the willing, and those not taking part are making a choice not to do so. Additionally, the results the Aristocracy tags may well make the listings more relevant, leading to a better experience for hoi polloi and aristocrats alike. This could then also lead to greater search engine loyalty and higher ad revenues.
The Aristocracy isn't a conspiracy that will inspire a "Da Vinci Code" sequel. It's simply an evolutionary step in search engines' development. Given its potential role in how consumers access information and how marketers reach them, it would be helpful to take advantage of this democratic Aristocracy and join in.