Can Search Help Customers be Heard?

First published on March 31, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’m on vacation right now with my family. In fact, as most of you are reading this, I’ll be flying back from Orlando. While here, I saw a television ad that got me to thinking. The ad was for a real estate company, and the premise was this: Wouldn’t it be nice if every company we did business with had a customer satisfaction rating posted prominently? Right up front, you could see if the business you were dealing with rated a 97 percent or a 43 percent.

While the ad’s message was that this particular real estate company did post their approval rating for every potential customer to see, the thoughts this stirred up in me were a little deeper and more fundamental.

We all know that the Internet is transferring power from the marketer to the consumer. In fact, the use of the label consumer is probably no longer valid. Ray Podder, a brand strategist, hates the use of the term. It conjures up images of a vast mindless herd of Pavlovian dogs eagerly consuming whatever marketers shovel our way through advertising. Ray recommends using the term “empowered customers” instead. So, in this column, I’ll follow Ray’s lead and use his wording.

The Internet and the proliferation of self-publishing options give us the power to build or dissemble brands instantly. Suddenly, the intended market is sharing the straight scoop on products, without corporate filters or advertising spin getting in the way. We share our real life experiences from our perspective, not from a Madison Avenue idealized one.

But to get back to the commercial I saw, so far no one with enough market traction has taken up the task of aggregating this information into an easy-to-digest rating system. There is no “seal of approval” that comes from customers. But for the first time, the potential is there.

There have been a few players who have attempted to do this. Trip Advisor is one that shares real-world ratings of hotels and other travel related services. And Epinions.com has also offered readers the opportunity to post reviews on a number of products. But neither service has tapped into the online market to any great extent. According to Alexa, Epinions.com is ranked around 1,000 for site popularity. It hasn’t gained the critical mass needed to turn it into a hot online property. And considering that it’s been around for some time, it may never get there.

This, by a long and circuitous route, leads me to the topic of this column. How about search engines? Can they provide customers with a podium to be heard from? They’re already the most popular sites online, so critical mass and traffic certainly won’t be a problem.

Search engines rank sites by their own criteria of what makes a good site or a substandard one. They’re already in the business of aggregating information and using it to rank alternatives for the user. They are generally considered objective and non-partisan. And they’ve already drawn a line between their advertising and the editorial section of their page that is recognized by most users. And as they continue to become more vertical (Ask Jeeves’ recent acquisition will certainly heat up this race) it seems they’ll be looking for a competitive advantage to offer their users. This seems to be a compelling one.

We are on the nexus of the switch to the customer-controlled marketing model. At this point, most empowered customers are totally unaware they wield this much power. Only the adventurous few who have staked their territory online have learned how the Internet gives each of us a powerful voice that can reach millions. In a few spectacular and oft quoted examples, online buzz has synergized to the point where new product introductions took off. Online takes word-of-mouth to a whole new dimension. Like many thing in our fragile society, the relationship between marketers and customers is on the verge of a fundamental and earth-shaking shift. Advertisers, don’t tell us how we’re supposed to feel about your products. We’ll tell you, and you’d better listen!

As a relevant aside, we’re starting to hear more and more from companies who are fighting customer launched attack sites who have achieved higher rankings on search engines than the official site for the brand. In this case, the balance of power has swung from the advertiser to the customer. This is unfamiliar territory for the corporate world.

But to this point, there’s no online destination with enough market penetration and critical mass that is dedicated to acting as the focal point for customer opinion. In fact, most customers turn to search engines when looking for published information on a product and sift through blog and forum postings. If they’re already turning to search, why not close the loop and help aggregate the information they’re looking for? Why not find a way to measure online buzz, both good and bad, and present it to us in an easily understood way?

This makes even more sense when you consider that search will aggressively try to place itself at the intersection of all online customer behavior. The areas they’re currently looking to control include shopping search and local search. Both have huge potential wins from a revenue potential. If customers could also find an easily digested capsule of popular opinion to help in the making of their decision, I believe it would present a compelling package.

And that places Ask Jeeves in a unique situation. As a recent acquisition of IAC, they join the corporate family of Citysearch, Expedia, and Match.com. Suddenly, Ask Jeeves is in the ideal position to pursue a vertical strategy. And a vertical search destination would be a great place to start a customer rating system. In fact, Citysearch already has both reader and editorial ratings for restaurants and other tourist destinations. After gaining a foothold here, it could be expanded to all the Ask Jeeves search properties.

There’s no doubt that customers will speak, and speak loudly online. But will search engines provide them the forum to be heard?

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