Commentary

Fear, Greed And The Google Parallax View

Greed is right.

Greed works.

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind.-- Gordon Gekko, "Wall Street"

Yesterday, I listened to an interview with Canadian businessman Stephen Jarislowsky. Jarislowsky is one of Canada's richest men, our version of Warren Buffet. And he said something simple but profoundly important in the interview: Greed is strong, but fear is stronger.

Gekko is right. Greed does drive us. It is evolutionary. It's hardwired into us. Harvard professors Nitin Nohria and Paul Lawrence identified the drive to acquire as one of the four primary drives of humans But as Abraham Maslow pointed out, there is a hierarchy of human needs and drives, and fear will always trump greed.

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Our society has been defined by greed but I don't agree that greed is right. It forces a zero-sum mentality, which, due to the blessings of fate, has resulted in a inequitable division of resources for us here in North America. The world's possessions are seriously out of balance, and there is no way to redistribute without severe pain for those that currently have the possessions. Bill Clinton has been warning us about this for years, and it's now beginning to happen. That is the pain we're just beginning to feel, and we're afraid. So, our evolutionary transmission has geared down into the first gear of survival: fear.

The interesting thing about this, from our own little slice of the world, is that we see our collective human consciousness captured in the query logs of Google. As we switch from greed to fear, we see search volumes reflect that. That's why, in the past year, we've seen number of searches for "recession" catch and surpass the number of searches for "mortgages." We've gone from dreaming about acquiring to worrying about defending, and whatever we're thinking about, we search for.

This is a powerful demonstration of the power of search. It shows just how accurate a barometer it is of our collective mood. And mood determines reality. Our emotions are the jet fuel of our drives. They are our internal guidance systems that keep us on track to realize our goals. Our emotions, in aggregate, swing the economy, and the nation with it, from boom to bust. And there's no better indicator of that then the searches we do on Google. John Battelle had it right. Google is the database of our intentions.

There has been endless speculation about whether search will weather the financial crisis. The question is really not worth asking. The fact that search has so accurately reflected the shift of our confidence shows how essential it is. Yes, people will use it less to search for things to buy and use it more to search for ways to survive, which will impact advertising revenues and cause pain (and hence, fear). But it is what it is. The search patterns show who we are and what's on our mind.

But there will also be an interesting side effect that search marketers will have to adjust for. Kevin Lee called it aspirational searches. Just because we go into defend mode doesn't mean we stop dreaming. Greed can be pushed out of the driver's seat temporarily by fear, but soon we start planning our escape. Fantasy is a favorite activity of ours. Look at the boom of the movie industry through the depths of the Great Depression. Even though we can't afford a new car or a trip to Mexico, we can still pretend that we can, and this ersatz consumer activity will also show up on Google's query logs, causing much head-scratching about the sudden drop in conversions.

We'll adapt to the new reality and we'll survive. That's why fear exists. It allows us to marshall our resources and focus on the threat. And eventually, greed will once again turn on the tap. The balance between these two forces has been swinging back and forth for hundreds of thousands of years. But never before have we had such a clear view of how it happens, thanks to search.

P.S. Just realized, because of the way the holidays stack up on the calendar, that this is my last column for 2008. It's been a true pleasure spending each Thursday with you talking about search, branding, the brain and anything else that crossed my mind. Thank you for listening (and responding). I look forward to picking up the conversation again in 2009!

Editor's Note: Want to see (and hear) firsthand what happened at the Search Insider Summit? Click here for video coverage. And now, click here for the first videos from the Email Insider Summit.

7 comments about "Fear, Greed And The Google Parallax View".
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  1. Patrick Reiter from Haworth Media, December 18, 2008 at 10:13 a.m.

    Well put and, to some extent, a contrast to the polarizing positions that propone a myopic viewpoint of one type or another.

  2. Hans Suter from STZ srl, December 18, 2008 at 10:24 a.m.

    Poor Gord, living in a world made of greed and fear. Have you friends, a family, ever felt pity with somebody ? Moved by the mishaps of others ? All around you moved by fear and greed ? Never touched by or with generosity. Shall I believe this ?

  3. Thomas Pick from Webbiquity, December 18, 2008 at 10:52 a.m.

    Great column Gord, except this bit of mental flatulence: "The world's possessions are seriously out of balance, and there is no way to redistribute without severe pain for those that currently have the possessions. Bill Clinton has been warning us about this for years, and it's now beginning to happen."

    No. Striving and aspiration, or "greed" if you will, lift all societies. As a global population, we are wealthier every year. True, the distribution is unequal, but that's the price we pay to raise all boats. Bill Gates became very rich off of Microsoft, but he did so by creating a very valuable company. Lots of people made lots of money, and have interesting jobs, and have created a lot of cool products that have enriched lives thanks to the "greed" of Bill Gates.

    Look at the growth rates in India in China. Yes, their economies are still much smaller than that of the U.S. and they still have far more (real) poverty than we have here, but their relative growth rates are much faster - they are catching up. They are able to do that only because of the affluence of the west. And now they are enjoying higher societal standards of living, without causing "severe pain" for western countries.

    And you are way too smart to look to Bill Clinton as a source of wisdom.

  4. Susan Kuchinskas from freelance, December 18, 2008 at 11:23 a.m.

    I like the idea of "aspirational searching." The concept of aspiration is used all the time in magazine content, from the gorgeous architectural homes that only the ultra-rich can afford to fashion and cooking magazines. Somehow, magazine publishers and editors have been able to use readers' aspirations to sell ads to marketers who believe they have things those dreaming readers will actually buy. (Okay, indulge me and let's not get into falling ad revenue and folding magazines.)

    My point is, would there be a way for marketers to tap into that aspirational aspect?

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 18, 2008 at 12:03 p.m.

    Beautifully said and as best as I've ever heard it all said. Someplace around 2000 years ago, one of the universe's most prominent and effectual search and marketing representing fear and greed began a pagan ritual celebration. As many philosophers over the centuries of our vast history have said that the finding is in the journey. Happy Holiday Hunting!

  6. Michael Mostert, December 18, 2008 at 1:05 p.m.

    An interesting read. I particularly enjoyed the insight that advertisers could possibly see decreased conversions due to an increase in "dreaming." I think most people have at one point or another clicked on that luxury car ad and built a dream car just for heck of it. I know I have.

  7. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, December 18, 2008 at 4:01 p.m.

    In picking through the comments, there's a couple I want to follow up on:

    Bob Frumpe: In general, I believe we're not very nuanced. We have the capacity to be, certainly, but we usually kick down to the sub cortical level and go on gut instinct. And yes, we are social animals, but there are mounds of literature showing that altruism is not the driver for that: Trivers, Dawkins, Diamond, Wright...the list goes on and on. Of course, the subject is still up for vigorous debate.

    Tom Pick: The capacity is there for us all to win..in the long term, but I believe a fundamental and painful shift is inevitable, due largely to the engrained sense of entitlement in North America. Frankly, as a North American I much prefer your scenario, but I really don't think it will play out as neatly as that. It's naive to think that our manufacturer base, just to give you one example, can compete with the Asian juggernaut and that all can win.

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