On Friday, fellow Search Insider columnist Janel Landis started a discussion around the viability of demographic based search engines. This is in the wake of recent publicity around IAC's
RushmoreDrive, which themes its algorithm as a "search engine for the black community," and is based on Ask.com search history, geographic research (also referred to as "geo-biasing") and focus group
research. After a few days of reviewing the results, it appears to me that demographically targeted engines may have a strong shot at developing a user base, and that IAC may have a shot at
regaining some lost credibility as a top-tier search provider.
Earlier this year, I was a bit perplexed when it was announced that IAC was turning its centerpiece search technology into a demographic search engine for women. At the time, Ask.com and its new Universal/integrated landing page was a sleeping giant, arguably one of IAC's greatest assets. Search marketers and strategists like myself were in marketing rooms across the country discussing the new shift in search engine results containing multiple digital asset types, being led not only by Google, but also by Ask.com. Ask.com's search engine results page afforded more to the user in terms of layout and variety of displayed assets, though it still lacked the robust delivery and freshness of Google. As a follower of Ask.com's Teoma search technology from the very beginning, I was more than comfortable mentioning them in the same breath as Google when it came to the future and direction of search engines. All it would take is one slight ripple in the landscape, and Ask.com would be positioned to pull user share. It might not necessarily become a "Google killer" -- and it didn't have to be one -- but it could have viably taken a chunk of user share in an industry where one percent is worth $1 billion.
But now a targeted engine in the form of RushmoreDrive exists as an example of what demographic "geo-biased" results might look like. While the results are still not as fresh or broad-reaching as Google's, there is a noticeable difference in relevance. Here are a few other observations about why Rushmore Drive and other demographic engine concepts are a good idea in general:
Demographic search is a viable alternative to personalization. One of the problems I have with personalization is that it represents a shift from the objective search results (what the engine thinks is the best answer), to the subjective result (what the engine thinks you think is the best answer, based on history and other factors about you). While Amazon is the best example of a personalized engine that delivers sometimes scary-good results (I once went to order a book, and it had already pushed and featured my predetermined title on the front page), general search results are another story. I don't always want to know what I think should be no.1 -- I want to know what you think should be no.1. And I also want to be able to turn it off and on as a filter. Demographic targeted results give some of the feel of personalization, yet they remain objective about the best answer.
Privacy, and search engine brand trust perceptions could spark a shift in the share of market toward other engines like RushmoreDrive. There is clearly a demographic divide when it comes to whether or not you feel creeped-out by hyper-personalization, as well as the data policies of the search engines. Young audiences are not as bothered by sharing their personal data with online providers, but fickle older generations may quickly abandon a trusted brand if there is even the slightest perception that their data has been misused, sold, or leaked in any way. Ask.com's privacy track record, along with a demographic engine's potential to deliver relevant results, while at the same time being less personally invasive, may provide a safe alternative to an engine that is perceived to be abusing personal data.
Rushmore Drive listened to its audience. Not only did its creators listen to the data, but they also listened to their human target audience via focus groups to help formulate results delivery.
A filter for local search? RushmoreDrive claims to be pursuing several patents based on the success of its methodology, and its strategists cite other possible demographic applications. But with a "geo-biasing" algorithm in place, what's to stop them from creating geographically-targeted local engines, or at least a more locally-enhanced filter on standard search results?
Whether demographic search becomes wildly successful or not, there is certainly a place in the market for it, particularly as an alternative to personalized results. This may not replace a Google, MSN, Yahoo, or even Ask.com, but demographic search just might become a strong primary or secondary destination for a solid user base looking for enhanced results, and marketers will have to pay attention as these target audience shift between multiple search touch points.