Search: The Verb

First published September 3, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

“And now the times are changin’Look at everything that’s come and gone”

Rob Griffin’s thought-provoking column on “The Death of Search”  started by poking fun at my summertime nostalgia, likening it to Bryan Adam’s lyrics. Well, Rob, two can play that game.

Search: More Than an Industry

Here’s the thing. In the column, and the resulting feedback, Rob and others talk about search as an industry,  a channel,  a technology. All these things are way too limiting: search is a verb. Search is something we do. And, as such, it reaches past technology and channels and even Google. The only reason search became such a strong channel is because it’s so well aligned with our intent. We want to find something, and search is the way to do it. Trying to pigeonhole search into a “snapshot in time” definition that relies on technology is pointless and a little silly. It’s like trying to explain communication by the definition of Twitter.

What Rob does put his finger on is the speed of shift that technology is enabling, and if we use the definition of our industry as supposedly stable ground, we’re fooling ourselves. It’s the wrong reference to set your bearings to. What you have to do is look for the common denominator, and as I, Kaila Colbin, and others have always said, there’s only one: people.

Balancing Asymmetry

The reason that search is so powerful in consumer interactions goes back to a paper written by economist George Akerlof in 1970 called ” The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism.” Akerlof introduced us to the idea of information asymmetry, the problem that arises when the seller has more information than the buyer. That dynamic has been in place for the entire history of marketing. It’s the foundation that advertising was built on. But the Web is changing things  by providing an explosion of information — and search is the means by which we can reach out to connect all this info. That’s why search is so powerful.

If we’re being asked to part with money in return for something, human nature will dictate that we try to balance out information asymmetry. Our acceptance of a reasonable balance depends on how much risk is in the purchase. The more risk, the more information we’ll need. To seek that information, we’ll take the path that has proven to be the most reliably informative in the past. Right now, for most of us, that’s Google.

There are two solutions for information asymmetry: signaling and screening. Signaling is when we accept signals in lieu of personal knowledge about a purchase. For example, if we’re buying a used Toyota, we don’t know the mechanical reliability of the car in question, but we do know (through our research) that Toyotas are generally reliable and have a high resale value. That’s a signal. Screening is the process we go through to learn enough information (whether or not the other party is willing to share it) to balance out the information asymmetry. Again, in the case of the used Toyota, taking it for a mechanical inspection would be an example of screening.

If All Else Fails, Look At People

Forget about search as a technology, or a channel, or an industry. For a moment, think about search as a verb, namely, “searching” for information to help me make the right purchase decision. That human objective isn’t going anywhere. You can count on it. Now, all you have to do is look at the new ways we can do that.

I suspect Rob is right. Search as the industry we know has days that are numbered. That’s why it’s important to keep looking at people, not technology. Technology has already changed in the time it took to read this column. But people’s basic and inherent drives are remarkably consistent.

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