The World’s Intentions at Our Fingertips

First published January 7, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

We’ve made Google a verb. What does that mean? Well, for one thing, it means we have a better indication of prospect intent than ever before. Google (or any search engine) becomes the connector between our intent and relevant online destinations. John Battelle called Google the database of intentions and predicted that it would become hugely important. Battelle’s call was right on the money, but we still haven’t felt the full import of it. Our tapping into our zeitgeist (defined as the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of an era) is usually restricted to a facetious review of the top 10 search terms of the year.

Keep Your Eye on Intent

A couple of columns ago I indicated that consumer intent was one of the most important things to watch in the shift of advertising. Intention changes the rules of engagement with advertising. It switches our perception of ads from that of an interruption we’re trying to avoid to that of valuable information we’re looking for. With intention in place, the success of an ad depends not on its ability to hijack our attention, but rather on its ability to deliver on our intention. Ads no longer have to intrude on our consciousness; all they have to do is inform us.

To this point, some 15 years into the practice of search marketing, the majority of our efforts have been restricted to effectively meeting the intentions of our prospects. And, to be honest, we still have a long way to go to get that right. Landing page experiences still fall far short of visitor expectations. Search ad copy is still irrelevant in a large percentage of cases. Even when the keywords used give a clear signal of intent (unfortunately, a fairly rare circumstance) most marketers come up short on delivering an experience that’s relevant and helpful. Poor search marketing is the reason quality scores exist.

The Keynote Avinash Never Gave

But there’s an immense store of untapped potential lying in this “database of intentions.” When Avinash Kaushik did the keynote at last month’s Search Insider Summit, he intended to touch on three topics. Unfortunately, the third topic had to be dropped because of time limitations. He talked about attribution models and the Long Tail. The third topic was to be the use of search as a source of intelligence. Kaushik was going to explore how to leverage the “database of intentions” to better inform all our marketing efforts.

When it comes to tapping into this extraordinarily rich source of intelligence, even search marketers are slow to realize the potential. And we’re the ones that supposedly “get” the importance of search. For more traditional marketers, most are completely unaware that such a thing even exists. I believe two things are holding us back from effectively mining the “database of intentions” – the isolation of search marketing within an organization, and a lack of tools to effectively mine the intelligence.

SEM is an Island

Search marketing lives as an isolated island within most organizations. It lives apart from the main marketing department — as well as the day-to-day pulse of the corporation. The bigger the company, the more true this is. That means that the one department that has a hope in hell of understanding the importance of all these collected searches has little or no voice in the overall marketing strategy. All those signals of customer intent — indeed, the best barometer of consumer sentiment ever built — lies locked away behind the imaginary door of the search marketing cubicle.  The traditional marketing folks have no idea that this crystal ball, offering a real-time view of the goals, thoughts and aspirations of their target market, even exists, let alone how to use it.

Wanted: Better Mining Tools

Even the relatively minimal efforts Google has made to provide tools to dig into this data have proven to be amazingly valuable for marketers. Google Trends and its bigger brother, Google Insights, provide a glimpse into the power of Google’s query database. Unfortunately, these tools provide a rather anemic interface, considering the wealth of information that could be gleaned. Privacy is one stumbling block, but surely we could have more powerful tools to examine and slice the data, even in anonymized, aggregated form. I would love to hitch the sophistication of a comScore-type application to Google’s back-end data.

Battelle said this about the Database of Intentions:Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture.

Isn’t about time that we marketers clued into it?

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