Fear, Greed and the Google Parallax View

First published December 18, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

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.

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!

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