What’s in a Word?

First published September 8, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I served for six years as a director of the Search Engine Marketers Professional Organization. Every six months or so, we’d get together to talk about the future of the organization. As you can imagine, the future of an organization catering to industry professionals is inextricably linked to the future of the industry itself. So, our conversations weren’t so much about the future of SEMPO as they were about the future of search — and by extension, the future of search marketing.

Every time we embarked on this task of joint navel and crystal-ball gazing, we ran smack dab into the same dilemma: How do you define search? What is search? Should it even be called search any more? Esther Dyson, among others, thinks the term “search” may have outlived its usefulness. Perhaps “connection,” “fulfillment” or “action” has a better connotation. At least these words imply there’s something of substance on the other end of the search. They hint at successful outcomes. When Microsoft debuted Bing, the company sought to differentiate the product by calling it the “Decision” engine – “Bing is a search engine that finds and organizes the answers you need so you can make faster, more informed decisions.”

For me, words are important, so in trying to define the future of our industry, the words we choose to represent the concept tell us something about our feelings towards it.

Let’s start with “search,” the generic label we currently use: to “search” is to attempt to discover something. We search for a needle in a haystack. We search for a missing child or a runaway fugitive. We search for the truth. All seem to indicate an expenditure of significant effort but no guarantee of success. Given the state of the Internet when search engines debuted, it was an apt moniker. But today, that’s no longer the case. Today, I suspect, we launch almost every search with a clear expectation that somewhere out there, the information we seek exists. All we need is the right connection to it.

Given that, perhaps a “connection” engine is a better choice. To “connect” is to link known entities. Unlike with “search,” when we use the term “connect” we know our objective exists and we’re just trying to find the shortest path between points A and B.  The word better captures the navigational usage of search, which accounts for a huge percentage of total queries. I’ve used the term myself in the past when I’ve said that search is the “connection” between intent and content.

But even “connection” implies a certain statelessness. While it better captures our intent than does the verb search, I don’t know if it adequately represents the dynamic and participatory nature of our online activities. Whereas the verbs we used to use to define what we did online implied passive observance — “look,” “browse” and “surf” (I never did get that one, but at one time using it made you sound uber-cool) —  we now “book,” “post,” “comment,” “”tweet,” “buy” and participate in dozens of much more active ways, using more active verbs. Where once we went online to seek and consume information, we now want to “do” things.  We expect to do things. And so we use Google or Bing to find the right tool to allow us to do those things. That’s the rationale behind suggestions like “fulfillment” (to carry out, to satisfy or to develop to full potential) and “action” (something done or performed). Certainly, for some search tasks, calling Google or Bing an “action” engine would be a more appropriate description.

For some tasks — but not all. And that’s the problem we kept running into when we tried to define what search is. It’s tough to keep in any one box. It tends to be squishy and amorphous. And it has the habit of expanding into the ever-developing niches and crevasses of the online landscape.

So, was Bing right to call itself a “decision” engine? Is that the missing label that encapsulates all we look for in an engine? Do we need something to help us make better decisions (to compare and choose between alternatives)? It’s at least as good as “search”, and probably better, because it takes it one step further. It makes the assumption that the information about the best alternatives will be served to us by the engine.

While you might think this is just a frivolous exercise in semantics, I disagree. I think this question speaks to something fundamental in the evolution of search. We use words to label concepts — and when the labels no longer fit, it’s because the concept itself has changed. If we have trouble applying a word to something, it’s probably because we think of it in a different way than we used to. I believe this is true of search. And if we think of “search” differently, it means we must also think of “search marketing” differently.

Until next week…

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