A Tale of Two Houses

First published May 21, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I have a difference of opinion with Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore. Actually, it’s not so much a difference as a question of context. He believes there’s room for more visual branding on the search results page. I believe this is a potentially dangerous area that has to be handled very carefully on the part of the engines.

This issue came up during the opening session of day two at the recent Search Insider Summit, when I posed a question  two different ways to the audience. First, I asked them, as marketers,  how many would like to see richer branding opportunities on the results page. Almost every hand went up. Then I asked them the same question, but this time as users. Some hands went down immediately. Many others wavered noticeably, as the paradigm shift exposed underlying hypocrisy. Others remained resolutely high on the idea.

The reason for the mixed reaction was that, for users, the ideal search experience depends on the context of the situation. Visually richer is not always better. There’s some subtle psychology at play here. So let’s explore it in a story.

It’s a Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood

Imagine we both live on the same street. In fact, we’re next-door neighbors. I travel a lot. I happen to know you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. So begins the story of My House and Your House:

Your House

In this story, the reason I travel a lot is because I’m a commissioned travel agent. I get paid if I book you on a trip somewhere. And you don’t know it, but I get paid a lot more if you go to Disney World. So every morning, I come over to your house and knock on your door wearing my Mickey Mouse ears, carrying in one hand a portable stereo blasting “When You Wish Upon a Star” and in the other a fistful of Disney travel brochures. Each day, I visit with a determination to book you on the next flight to Orlando.  Now, if Disney is in your travel plans, perhaps this isn’t as obnoxious as it sounds. But if two weeks in the Magic Kingdom sounds as appealing as the Bataan Death March, my neighborly welcome will wear a little thin. Sure, I got your attention, but you also listed your house for sale shortly after my visit.

My House

Now forget all of the above. This time, I travel a lot because I’m worldly, adventurous and wise. I’m also wonderfully informative. Over the backyard fence, you mentioned that you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. In neighborly fashion, I invited you over for a coffee and to ask me any questions about past trips I’ve taken, in case any of my previous destinations might be appealing. You take me up on the offer and ring my doorbell. We sit down and I ask, “So, any particular areas you’re thinking of visiting?”

“Hmmm, I’ve always dreamed of the Mediterranean. Perhaps the French or Italian Riviera?”

“Cinque Terra is wonderful, so is Nice, Cannes and Monaco, but don’t rule out Spain or Portugal. I’ve been to them all.”

A House Divided…

Think of your reaction, first in your house, then in mine. As you no doubt realized, your house represents typical advertising; my house is search.

And the context is different in subtle but important ways. That’s why it becomes dangerous when we start trying to combine the two. In my house, you’re engaged and curious. You’ll ask me what I love about Portugal, or why I didn’t recommend Cannes more enthusiastically.  And you’ll trust me more if you know you’re getting my objective opinion. After I know a little about your preferred destinations, you might be interested if I introduce you to my friend, the travel agent.  You would even find that helpful. You’re open to a sponsored message, as long as it’s relevant to your interests and fits into the rules of the overall experience.

All this gets to the context of my difference of opinion with Gian. Visual richness is appropriate if it’s relevant and welcome. It’s annoying if it’s intrusive. And that line would be in the control of the engines and the advertisers.

If I come to your house uninvited, my job is to convince you to open the door. But if you come to my house, my job is to inform and help. You came through the door on your own. The house we live in is a great place, but there are rules we have to live by. Otherwise, no one will come to visit us.

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