Search engines have never been as important as they would like us to think. Now, that truth is suddenly coming home to roost in more ways than one for companies like Google. They would like us to think that we are constanyly “searching” for things online – but we aren’t. We are “locating” stuff we already know about, a lot of the time.
According to Bill Tancer, a researcher with the search intelligence company Hitwise, there is frequently a pattern to searching – often triggered by events outside the Internet. He says in his book “Click” that even the word “sex” has a “spike” in search requests in the days before Christmas (why?). But he highlights an interesting case that had his research juices flowing. He had noticed a massive surge in “search” for “prom dresses” in January. Yet graduating high school girls don’t need such items until May or June. Why were they searching for information on prom dresses when they clearly didn’t need them? The answer to this conundrum – which took quite a lot of research time it seems – was simple, and was revealed to Bill following a speech he had given. Magazines for teenage girls publish their guide to the year ahead’s fashions in January. The high school girls were not really “searching” for prom dresses – merely trying to “locate” them following the offline trigger from the printed magazines.
There are other examples in this book of patterns of search behaviour whereby it might seem at first sight that we are just looking for things, but upon analysis it can be seen that we are merely locating things that we want to find following some offline trigger. And if you think that’s not the case, where do most of the big brands promote their web site? Via search marketing? A bit. Mostly, though via offline advertising and public relations. In other words they trigger us to locate them – not search for them. Almost all of the Top 100 search terms are actually for web domains and brands. People even “search” for “google.com”.Most “searchers” already know what they want to find – they are not actually “searching”.
Now we also hear that some web sites are getting most of their traffic from Facebook – rather than search engines. With recent chatter that Twitter is providing a form of “search” for people, it’s easy to see why Google is being rather quiet on future plans. Add to that the fact that people are now seeking answers to questions rather than searching for general information it means that traditional search engines are going to have their work cut out in the months ahead. This is especially true as the next “Google killer” (believe that if you must…!) hits the web in a couple of months.
So what does this tell us about getting people to your web site? It suggests that search – and therefore search engine optimisation (SEO) – is not going to be as important to you as it once might have been. Much of the data on so-called search, highlighted in Bill Tancer’s book, shows us that people are not really searching, but pin-pointing information they have been triggered to look for by some offline activity, such as reading or watching TV. When people want to find out information, they now appear to be asking their friends in Facebook and on Twitter for advice on where to go. And if that’s not enough, they ask actual questions in search engines. Newer, cleverer search engines will be better able to cope with such requests than traditional search, like Google and Yahoo!
You need to prepare for this “new world” of traffic generation. There are several things you can do. Firstly dramatically increase your OFFLINE promotional activity – it is a significant generator of traffic. Secondly, make sure you are using social networking sites to influence people to visit. And if that’s not enough, prepare several web pages that are answers to questions – because that’s what more and more people are looking for. True, SEO can help – but its effect could well be short-lived.