Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Google this, Bing that, Search Me

It's been a busier than average few weeks in the world of search engines.

With over 80% of web journeys starting with a search engine (according to some recent EIAA stats) , it's little wonder that in the last round of IAB/PWC figures that PPC / paid for search accounted for circa 60% of digital media spend in 2008. Success in search whether it's natural search rankings of paid for listings, is all about being at the top. Page position is everything.

Search is an interesting marketplace. Google has become a verb. But B.G (before Google), we all happily used Yahoo or Ask Jeeves, and before that those of us who've been navigating the interweb for over a decade can probably recall using AltaVista. Search wars are nothing new. They've just got a bit more interesting recently, as people try and challenge the dominance of the almighty G.

A few weeks back we saw the launch of Wolfram Alpha a "computational knowledge engine" that process queries and returns results in a very different way to Google. A simple search for "London Weather" in Wolfram Alpha gives me current weather across a range of metrics (pressure, dewpoint, temperature), details about the weather station used, graphed trends over time, whereas Google gives me a snapshot for the next few days and text links to the BBC and Met Office. WA has been called the search engine of choice for scientists and techies. I like it. For certain searches I will almost certainly use it over Google because I get a more holistic view of related information and answers in easy to process format. Try it.

Last week saw the much discussed launch of Bing, the latest incarnation of search offering from Microsoft. Although they are positioning it as a "decision engine" rather than a search engine. It's visually arresting without question, with big beautiful pictures that change everyday, and the reason we're all supposed to love it is because it's taking a "vertical" approach to search so that we get actual results relating to our searches (e.g integrated price comparison results) that we can interact with without leaving the search results page. Full functionality on this level hasn't hit the UK yet but most of the reviews I've read seem quite positive, and I do rather like the fact that video search results auto-play in the results page when you hover over them, which plays nicely into that notion of content snacking and removes the frustration of you ending up on a click-chase to find the content you were actually looking for.

But the fact remains that in the time-stretched world we live in, we're creatures of habit and it's going to take a lot of motivation and perceived benefit to convince the masses to shift from the habitual Google search to trying something new and getting used to processing the results in different ways. I hope the media buzz does succeed in convincing people to try it though. It's healthy to have a competitive marketplace.

For me search-wars don't stop there either. Visual search is going to play a big part of the future. Younger generations process information in increasingly visual ways rather than the text-based world I grew up in. So why wouldn't they want search results presented in the same way? More and more kids start their information searches with YouTube, not Google.

I increasingly play with Search Me, I like the interface and the way it presents results. Like Bing, I can get an at-a-glance view of results that enable me to judge much more quickly whether a suggestion is what I am looking for or not.

Mobile search is going to get bigger and bigger as penetration of smartphone continues to grow rapidly and the networks facilitate mobile web use via sensible data packages that remove the barrier of un-predictable pain in the wallet. Image recognition based search apps like Kooaba and SnapTell might still be relatively fledgeling but the potential of this for consumers and marketers alike fills me with excitement.

But search engines still only reach the consumer actively seeking information, and there are times when brands need to interrupt people to get their message across, so getting overly-obsessed with search engine marketing would be potentially missing the chance to talk to lots of potentially valuable prospects, via paid for advertising or deeper consumer connections created in a myriad of ways.

So challenge yourself, go play, there's much more to search than Google if you can be bothered to try.

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