Search Breaks Out of the Box in Park City

First published December 9, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Wow! The Search Insider Summit is in full swing in Park City, Utah and for the first time in six or seven Summits, I’m not there. I don’t mind saying, it’s feeling kinda weird.

Laurie Sullivan and the team, including your emcee Aaron Goldman, did a bang-up job putting the show together. I did have some limited involvement, looking on from the sidelines as they lined up the speakers and nailed down the agenda. They’re touching on all the hot topics: the convergence of display and search, social and search (pretty much everything and search); new platforms to allow for more effective targeting; the ongoing changes on the SERP; using data to make smarter marketing decisions; and yes, once again, how mobile will change everything (and this time, it’s really true!).

The agenda is a broad one, reaching into virtually every aspect of online activity. And really, that’s what any search agenda has to be. One of the ongoing challenges of programming the past several Summits has been where to draw the line. Despite the best efforts of many to define the search “box,” search is not a box, a channel, or a tactic. It’s what we do. And as such, it connects everything. We search in social networks. We search on mobile. And if we happen to see an ad that triggers our interest, the odds are very good that we will — you guessed it — launch a search. So a Search Summit has to be, by necessity, a Social/Mobile/Testing/Analytics/Display/Target and Segmentation Summit. You can’t keep search in a box.

I started writing this column way back in 2004. Since then (for almost 300 columns), I’ve been watching how search has seeped into every nook and cranny of online behavior. It’s become the gold standard for intercepting a consumer with intent. Search inventory forms the core of any performance marketing strategy worth its salt. Most of the things Goldman and Company will be talking about, nestled in the silver frosted peaks of Utah, revolve around extending the accountability and performance of search into other channels. Once you’ve tasted the search Kool-Aid, it’s hard to settle for any other flavor. The problem is, of course, with the keyword-restricted limits on search inventory, there’s only so much Kool-Aid to go around.

But another thing struck me while I ran down the Summit agenda: we’re talking about things we would have never talked about in 2004. We’re talking about the users on the other side of that search interface as real live people, not just volume numbers in a keyword discovery tool. Tony Fagan from Google will be talking about how constant testing helps hone your marketing skills against actual behaviors. Eli Goodman from comScore will share some tasty data about how Google Instant is changing behaviors on the results page. And, of course, you can’t dive into social media without understanding how people behave when they’re traveling with the herd.

If there’s one thing I’ve found lacking in search marketing, it’s the “marketing” part of the industry. More often than not, search plays out as a technical exercise, full of algorithms, rules and tools, rather than what marketing should be: a drive to forge relevant connections to people with needs, fears and dreams. When I programmed the Summit, I always tried to bring that perspective to the stage. I’m glad to see Laurie and her team have also kept the human part of search very much alive at this Summit.

Have fun, Search Summiters. I’ll miss you (and will see you in Captiva)!

Google: Caught in the Act of Balancing

First published November 18, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In last week’s column, I talked about the number of changes I was seeing on the Google results page, and, in particular, how they might maintain the delicate balance between driving revenue from the page and maintaining user trust. No sooner did the digital ink dry on the column than I received an email from an old friend, Chris Knoch, formerly of Omniture and now vice president of marketing at Ready Financial. In his email, Chris included a screen shot of a rather interesting beta that Google is running:

Google-Screen-ShotIt’s hard to say, given Google’s love for beta testing, how widely spread this test is and how indicative it might be of future ad presentations, but there are a number of fascinating implications to consider here. For today’s column, I’d like to focus on one of them: the elimination of the side ads.

Side ads generate a small percentage of the sponsored clicks from the page. For most results, the top two or three ads generate over 80% of the paid clicks on the page, with the seven or eight running down the right rail splitting the remaining 20%. That’s a lot of real estate to devote to underperforming ads. Will Google’s expandable alternative, with the user choosing to see eight more ads, generate more clicks? I suspect so. Here’s why.

We judge the relevance and quality of blocks of information as a group, rather than consider them individually. The first ad in any block will dictate the performance of the block as a whole. If it’s a high quality ad, it’s saying to the user, “I’m relevant. Chances are the rest of the ads in this group could be relevant too. At least, you should spend a few seconds deciding for yourself!” But if it’s a low quality ad, it sends the message, “Don’t waste your time here. I’m not relevant, and everything below me is even worse.”

For side ads, this means that the top ad determines the depth of scanning engagement with the entire block. The position and visual treatment of the ads reinforces that it’s a “sidebar”, of secondary importance to the main purpose of the page. We won’t invest a lot of time scanning here, and if the first ad sucks, the rest of the block is doomed.

Google’s treatment provides a compelling alternative to the user. It restricts the number of ads shown to only the highest quality ones (you’ll notice that this presentation appeared on a broad query, where there would be sufficient inventory to provide high quality ads). The ads should be just as relevant to the intent of the user as the organic results, and given the query, probably more relevant. The user should be hooked. The presentation of two ads (I’d bet big money on the fact that Google will be testing both two and three ad presentations above the “more ads” button) gives a ready-made consideration set for the user. We’ve known for some time now that users “chunk off” a result set in groups of two or three results (maximum four) and consider them as a group. There are natural visual barriers (the related search suggestions) that reinforce the visual presentation of the top ads as a group. What this means is that the user will judge relevancy, and if the first two (or three) ads pass the test, there’s a high likelihood that the set will be expanded.

When the set is expanded, the entire visual balance of the search results set is changed to the benefit of the advertisers, but the user initiates it. The user has given the ads an implicit vote of confidence, and by doing so, all organic results are pushed down out of visual scanning range. My guess is that this will result in much higher engagement with the ads, virtually eliminating the sidebar blindness that has typically plagued right-rail ads.

It’s a perfect example of maintaining user trust while driving more revenue. Based on this beta, I’d have to say, “Well done, Google!”

Google’s Recent Changes: Here There Be Monsters

First published November 11, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Something’s brewing in Mountain View. Google’s geared up the SAR (Screwing Around Rate) of its results page to unprecedented levels. We have Google Instant, Place Search and Google Previews all rolling out in the last few months. And from around the blogosphere, there’s rumors of testing that allows users to show 11 sponsored ads on top and also the telling switch of the label “Sponsored Links” to simply “Ads.” So what do Google strategists have up their sleeves?

The recent changes at Google prompted me to dig out a research paper we wrote a few years ago called “Search Engine Results: 2010.” In it, I interviewed Marissa Mayer along with a dream team of search pundits and usability experts. A lot of what we’re seeing today was hinted at in those interviews.

For example, Mayer said: “If you imagine the results page, instead of being long and linear, and having ten results on the page that you can scroll through — to having ten very heterogeneous results, where we show each of those results in a form that really suits their medium, and in a more condensed format. When you started seeing some diagrams, some video, some news, some charts, you might actually have a page that looks and feels more like an interactive encyclopedia.”

Michael Ferguson, who was the UX lead at Ask, which had just rolled out Ask 3D (which, in hindsight, was well ahead of its time), went further: “There might be a time you might see people advertising and providing content not just on web pages and blogs etc. but with short discrete self-contained video answers and audio answers that come up either as sponsored or relevant content. So you might have a breaking down of search marketing that takes some of the things that have been learned like optimization and designing good text ads and seeing how that would work when you’re delivering an audio 20 second pitch or delivering an audio content that drives traffic to your site.”

There’s a delicate balance that must be respected when you’re combining the presentation of advertising and the way we search for information. As the results themselves become increasing rich and interactive, advertisers won’t be very happy if the ads start to lag behind in terms of visual prominence. Mayer touched on this: “As you know, my theory is always that the ad should match the search results. So if you have text results, you have text ads, and if you have image results, you have image ads. So as the page becomes richer, the ads also need to become richer, just so that they look alive and match the page. That said, trust is a fundamental premise of search. Search is a learning activity.”

It’s this trust that makes the presentation of advertising a precarious proposition on the search results page. We’re not there to find ads, we’re there to find relevant information. If ads are highly relevant, we’re receptive. If they’re not, we’ll skip over them. We accept ads not as ads, but as potential paths to relevant information.

This is an important distinction. If ads start to look too much like ads we start to skip over them. And that decision is made in milliseconds, before the relevance of the information that lies on the other side of the ad is even considered.

This phenomenon is called banner blindness. Jakob Nielsen explains: “If they put up display ads, then they will start training people to exhibit more banner blindness, which will also cause them to not look at other types of multimedia on the page. So as long as the page is very clean and the only ads are the text ads that are keyword driven, then I think that putting pictures and probably even videos on there actually work well. The problem of course is they are inherently a more two dimensional media form, and video is 3 dimensional, because it’s two dimensional – graphic, and the third dimension is time, so they become more difficult to process in this linear type of scanned document ‘down the page’ type of pattern.”

I believe that Google is now responding to the multi-screen search challenge. Search on a desktop needs to be different than search on a mobile device or on a tablet. Mayer’s “encyclopedia” format makes sense here. But experimentation and the resulting change come at the potential price of alienating users.

Why have ads been the least changed part of the search page? It’s certainly not because advertisers have been demanding that they remain as boring lines of text. It’s because Google, along with Bing and Yahoo, are acutely aware of how important that trust is. The nature of our engagement with ads on a search page is far less straightforward than you might think. There’s a lot of subtle psychology at play here.  In the words of Hector Barbossa, “You’re off the edge of the map now mate, and here there be monsters!”

Google Defines “You” on the Fly

First published November 4, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Google’s ramping up of local results last week made me realize something: our Web presence is rapidly being taken out of our immediate control. Case in point, the Place Page.

Beyond the Walled Garden…

For over a year now, I’ve been pushing a mind shift to our clients, asking them to stop thinking of their online presence in terms of a “website” and more in terms of a portfolio of digital assets; some under their control and others either completely or partially out of their control. For every entity that lives online, there is a ripple effect. At the core is our website. Spreading out, usually with lessening degrees of control, are the “rings” of our presence: portal sites and extranets, mobile apps, information or products on channel partner sites, online ads, videos, interactions in the social space, comments, reviews, references and third-party apps that may access either our data or pieces of our functional infrastructure. The sum of all this is our online presence. As such, it is incumbent on us to be aware of what that looks like, and how visitors might interact with it.

The challenge is daunting for any company that has been online for a while. Even as an individual, according to Google I “live” online and in over 10,000 separate locations. And that’s just what can be easily identified in Google’s index. I suspect the number is even higher. Today’s column will have its own ripple effect, adding to the collective total of what is “Gord Hotchkiss.” My company’s online presence is the sum of over 25,000 individual parts.

Bringing the Web to Your Neighborhood

Now, consider a tiny two- or three-person company in some small town somewhere in America. The odds are pretty good that they may not even have a website, or if they do, it may not have made much of an impact on the vast ecosystem of the Web. At least, that’s been true up to now. But Google’s Place Pages provides a prescient view of how our Web presence might be defined.

Place Pages aggregates at least some of the various pieces of a local business’ online presence. The interesting part is that these Place Pages exist even if there’s little or no input from the business owners themselves. It’s an online presence defined by an algorithm — or rather, multiple algorithms. It’s a small digital snapshot of “you” as defined by Google. Google decides which parts of “you” it exposes.

Place Pages are important in Google’s local search strategies because they solve a problem that restricted the growth of the hyper-local online market. People will only search if there’s something there to find. Google had to create a scalable on-ramp model to give local businesses an online presence. The company did it by leveraging its strength: finding and organizing information. In this case, the presence is created from the information that defines the business on the Web. It’s carrying a search results page one click further, making it specific to one company and structuring the data in a more cohesive way.

“You” on the Fly

This is interesting and important on two different levels. It shows that an online presence can be created through algorithmic aggregation alone, even in the absence of an official website. It shows how extensive our identities are online. Like it or not, we leave footprints on the digital landscape, and no one is in a better position than Google to gather those together to create online destinations on the fly. If this is true for the tiny Mom and Pop shop in Cannon Ball, N.D., it’s even truer for bigger, more established entities, whether they be organizations or individuals. Will our online selves be increasing defined by Google, with or without our input?

The other thing to ponder is that this is scalable and driven by technology. Google has an open door to aggregate and present different types of information, specific to the type of company it is. I suspect a lot of what you see in the current Place Pages is simply a placeholder for new things to come.

The creation of Web destinations on the fly is quite probably a game-changer for Google.  It’s a natural extension of the company’s mission, organizing the world’s information. It provides a new outlet for something that Google has been doing for well over a decade now: gathering together the ripples that define us online.

A Tale From the Trenches: 14 Years in the Search Biz

First published October 28, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Maybe you’ve heard the news. I’ve got a new gig. This week, the Yellow Pages Group in Canada acquired the company I co-founded. As I said to my partner, Bill, as we walked out of the office Monday, “Today is the last day we worked for Enquiro.” Although we’ve been ear-lobe deep in the deal for the past several months, for some reason that’s when it hit us. Tuesday, we came to work for a new company: Mediative.

The deal is interesting in a number of ways: a traditional publisher with a strong digital foothold in a market where the consumers are light years ahead of the marketers in Internet savvy, all set on a stage right next to the springboard of the digital revolution. It may not be “The Social Network” (and I’m certainly not Aaron Sorkin) but there are at least a couple good columns there. However, that’s for the future.

Today, it’s all about me.

But, as I pondered this, I realized my story is also the story of this industry. I’ve been doing this since 1996. No one was really doing it before that, so we made it up as we went along. Eventually this Internet thing gained enough critical mass that I had to find other people to do the same thing I was doing. Before I knew it, we had a company. And, because the Internet was growing like a runaway express train, our company became one of the fastest growing companies in Canada. We ran hard, just to keep from being run over.

Somewhere along the line, in addition to inventing an industry on the fly, helping clients who are desperately trying to figure out what the hell just happened to marketing and doing the cha-cha with Google’s algorithm, we also had to figure out how to run a company. As I soon found out, it’s one thing to do something yourself to earn a buck. It’s an entirely different thing to get a bunch of people doing the same thing and somehow transform that into a company — preferably a company that makes money. There are no guidebooks on how to build a search agency. And the headaches you have with a search agency of six people are entirely different than the headaches you’ll get with 13 people, or 23 people, or 34 people. I’ve had them all at various points in the last 14 years.

Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, throw in a year like 2000 or 2008. It’s one thing to run an Internet company when everyone’s scrambling to throw money at you. It’s an entirely different thing when everyone goes into lockdown mode and companies are disappearing faster than free beers at a search conference.

Speaking of search conferences, those turned out to be our group therapy sessions, but you really had to read between the lines to get to the truth. I saw my friends and colleagues go from wild-eyed enthusiasm to world weary yet dogged determination. We kept hearing stories of people getting rich in search, but it was tough to nail down the facts. By and large, we all just kept plugging away, making enough money to keep the lights on and knowing that working anywhere else, while undoubtedly more lucrative, just wouldn’t be the same thing.

It’s been a 14-year gauntlet and I’ve got the collection of bruises to show for it. Somewhere on this decade-and-a-half ride I got old. I went from being an “upstart” to being a “village elder” (yes, I’ve actually been called that on more than one occasion). I went from being “bright” to being “wise.” I suppose there are worse things to be called.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a swan song. I’ll still be very much part of the search biz in my new gig. But, as I found out when I walked out the doors of Enquiro on Monday night and in the doors of Mediative Tuesday morning, this is a new chapter for me. Indulge me as I thumb through the ones that preceded it.

But you know what? In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing. All things considered, it’s been a hell of a ride!

Will Canada Get Some Google Respect?

First published September 16, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Just in case our friends to the south haven’t driven it home to us repeatedly, Canada is inconsequential. We’re a rounding error in revenue projections. We’re a few scattered bodies somewhere north of the 49th, a far-flung geographic extension of Montana, Minnesota and other assorted northern states. We’re an inconvenient expanse of land separating the mainland from Alaska, bad news for air commuting but good news for the cruise business. In general, we often get the feeling that life would be easier for the rest of you if we just went away.

A Really Soft Launch

But haven’t you heard? Google is investing in the Canadian market! The company is ramping up its sales team here. Well, you can be forgiven if you haven’t heard, because the news was barely a drop in the PR bucket next to the roar that was the launch of Google Instant.

And that, in a nutshell, is the story of our lives up here in the Great White North. You really don’t care. I remember being in Oklahoma once the morning after the Canadian federal election. Naturally, I was somewhat curious who won. I picked up the copy of USA Today that was dropped outside my hotel room and thumbed through the entire paper to find out who the leader of Canada might be. That, by the way, would be your single largest trading partner, not to mention your primary source of oil, wood, grain and several other essential natural resources. But somehow, the vast editorial resources of USA Today couldn’t be bothered to devote even one column inch to the future of your neighbor to the north.

Canada’s Coming-Out Party

Google has had a sales office in Canada since 2002, but it hasn’t been an easy task selling to Canadians. I myself have gone on record in the past saying Canadian marketers may have a somewhat obtuse view of digital marketing, due to their contorted vantage point. We’re a Canadian company that does 85% of its business with U.S. companies because of this lag in our native marketplace.

But Google apparently believes we’re worth further attention. Maybe it’s because Google’s CFO, Patrick Pichette, is Canadian. He boasts of having a picture of a Tim Horton’s sign on his Nexus One. I haven’t had a chance to connect yet with the Canadian ex-pat, Chris O’Neill, who’s currently in transit from Mountain View to Hogtown (that would be Toronto, for you non-Canucks) to unfurl the Google banner. According to his bio, O’Neill is as Canadian as they come. He grew up working in his parent’s Canadian Tire store, for heaven’s sake. I look forward to having a polite chat and a frosty Molson’s to welcome him home. Perhaps we’ll even strike up a game of street hockey and celebrate with some poutine after. A word of advice though, Chris: Don’t forget your toque — it’s getting a little nippy up here in the evenings.

Full Speed Ahead… Maybe

Seriously though, I suspect Google’s timing might be bang-on. I think Canadian business is ready to get serious about digital. I know Canadian consumers made that decision long ago. And once Canadians get over their natural fear of just about anything involving any degree of risk, they do tend to make up for lost time. When you combine these factors, I suspect the Canadian marketplace is ripe for some serious digital revolution. But, to be on the safe side, maybe we should strike a Royal Commission on the subject and wait two or three years for their report.

In any case, it will be great to have a few more voices preaching the digital gospel in the Canadian wilderness. When you have this much room and this few people, it can get mighty lonely up here.

More Ways B2B Search Marketing Differs from B2C

First published July 1, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I looked at ways that B2B search marketing is different from search campaigns aimed at consumers. I looked at how risk avoidance was an overriding concern. Also, a B2B purchase is almost always an item on someone’s to-do list, so they have little patience for being “immersed” in experiences or heading down navigational dead ends on a Web site. Today, I’ll look at two other ways that B2B buying behaviors differ from those in the consumer marketplace:

Unfamiliar Territory

In the consumer world, billions of branding dollars are spent to create a sense of familiarity not just with a product but also with a brand. Even if we’ve never bought a product before, there’s a good chance that we have some idea of the competitive landscape within the product category.  If we were looking to make a purchase for ourselves, I would venture to say there are very few things we would consider buying where we wouldn’t even know the name of the product. Yet, this is an everyday occurrence in the B2B world. Often, we’re asked to make informed purchase decisions about products and services that we hadn’t heard of yesterday.

When we strike into unfamiliar territory, we create a challenge for the B2B marketer. If we don’t even know the name of the product we’re looking to buy, how do we start looking for it? Where do we begin? It’s pretty hard to Google something when you don’t know what to call it. This makes keyword discovery one of the most challenging and important parts of any B2B search campaign.

Often B2B purchases are not only a buying decision, but also come with a steep learning curve. Buyers have to identify a potential solution, learn about the product category, identify the potential vendors, and determine decision criteria — all tasks that must be accomplished before buyers even start evaluating their alternatives.  Imagine trying to buy a car or a flat-screen TV if you had no idea what those products were — or even if they existed at all.

Decision by Committee

Sometime ago in my life, as I hung out my advertising consultant shingle, I was introduced to the joys and tribulations of committee-driven decision-making. I uncovered the sad truth behind the joke, “How do you determine the average IQ of committee? You take the lowest IQ in the group and divide it by the number of people in the committee.”

B2B purchases are often driven by committee. And, as we found in the BuyerSphere research, different members of the committee have different agendas. In high-risk, long-cycle purchases, the internal politics involved in a purchase can rival anything you’ll find on Wisteria Lane. These differing agendas mean that signals from committee members can seem to be at cross-purposes, making life exceeding difficult for the vendor.

Here’s the big challenge from a search marketing perspective: If different committee members are looking for different information (as determined by their own objectives) they will also expect distinctly different experiences. Your Web site and search campaign somehow has to be able to offer clear and compelling paths through this tangled knot of prospect behaviors. Clear segmentation options, relevant messaging, and highly intuitive navigation are three ways to guide different buyers with different objectives to the right destination.

B2B is different from B2C. It’s more complex, more challenging — and, in my opinion, much more interesting.

How B2B Search Marketing Differs from B2C

First published June 24, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

As I write this, I’m at the B2B Search Strategy Summit in San Francisco. Mary O’Brien, the summit organizer, told me that many potential attendees — and yes, even some panelists — questioned where B2B search marketing was really all that different from B2C. Shouldn’t the same basic practices apply?

I answer that question the same way I answer all questions about marketing: Let’s look at it through the eyes of the buyer. And when we do that, we find some significant differences as we step from the consumer side to the business side.

It’s All About Risk

When we make decisions in any part of our lives, we have a “brake” and a “gas pedal” that governs the decision-making process. Call it risk and reward, prevention and promotion, loss and gain. Whatever you call it, in most decisions, there are opposing forces, and the ultimate decision depends on the balance between the two. If reward overcomes risk, we buy. If risk rules, we don’t.

On the consumer side of our lives, there’s often a strong emotional investment in the reward part of the equation. For example, I really want a new road bike. I can’t rationalize the purchase, seeing as I have a perfectly good used road bike, but that doesn’t quell the pangs of jealousy I feel when I see someone wheeling down the road on a new Cervelo or Trek Madone. Someday, I know, reward (the joy of saying “look, me too!”) will overcome the risk (parting with a significant chunk of cash) for me.

But think about most B2B purchases. If we’re looking at buying a new rack of servers, or supply chain management software, where’s the fun in that? The only real emotion at play here is the risk of screwing up and being fired. Emotions in B2B purchases are heavily biased towards risk mitigation. And that directly impacts your search strategy. Messaging has to minimize risk in the eyes of the buyer, rather than try to build on the emotional reward side of things. I can’t say the same would be true if you were bidding on terms like “convertible roadster,” “touring motorcycle” or even “iPad.”

It’s Their Job

The second difference is directly related to the first. B2B purchases are part of someone’s job. They’re not doing it because they simply love buying enterprise software or industrial supplies. No one makes a hobby out of buying O-rings or heavy-duty water pumps.

How does this affect a search strategy? It heightens the need for efficient retrieval of information. While a consumer looking at a sports car or booking a cruise might want to get “immersed” in an “experience,” typical B2B purchasing agents want to get in and out, allowing them to put one more check mark beside their ever-growing to-do list. They will not be in a forgiving mood if you send them down dead ends or tie them up in confusing navigation. This is all about making their job easier. And that becomes crucial when you think about landing page strategies and the path that leads from them.

Next week, I’ll cover the other two ways that B2B differs from B2C: the fact that often buyers are in unfamiliar territory, and that B2B purchases are typically group decisions.

Next Week in Captiva: Shaking Things Up, TED-style

First published April 8, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Today you sit there, an audience spread across the digital marketing landscape, scraping together a few precious moments on your daily calendar to read this column. Next week I hope you’ll all be basking in the sunshine of Captiva Island, Fla., your cranium brimming over with tidbits and brain-bombs about search and the industry we toil in. The Google-gods willing and major algorithmic overhauls aside, we can all get away from the daily grind long enough to step back and take a look at where this whole thing might be going.

A Summit Three Years in the Making

I’ve been fortunate to work with MediaPost to help program the Search Insider Summit for the past five shows (I think, the brain’s a little numb at this point). Over time we’ve refined and tweaked to the point where we had a pretty smooth-running operation. This time, however, I decided to change all that. I’ve never been a particularly loyal adherent to the maxim: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I believe in mixing stuff up on a pretty regular basis. In this case, the catalyst for change was a chance to attend the TEDActive conference this spring.

I loved how TED managed to lodge particularly toothsome concepts in my brain (at a breathlessly unrelenting pace, to be honest) and then throw me loose amongst the TED-sters (yes, it is a little cult-like) to try to digest in my limited downtime.

The resulting conversations were nothing short of amazing. The first day at lunch, I was sharing a picnic basket with five other strangers and eavesdropping on a conversation happening beside me. The topic? The role of mirror neurons in determining the vicarious enjoyment on thrill rides at an amusement park. I didn’t catch names at first, but one speaker owned an amusement part in New Jersey, and the other was a professor of neuroscience at UC Irvine.

This past week, as I was zipping past TV channels, I saw a familiar face. There was my neuroscience prof! He was appearing as himself on the crime drama “Criminal Minds.” He just happens to be one Dr. James Fallon, a world-renowned expert on the psychology and neurology of psychopaths! Now, where else could you just happen on a conversation like that?

The Convergence of Conversations

That was the spirit I wanted to create at Captiva (minus the psychopathic stuff).  Like TED, we have an atmosphere that invites conversations. The informal and intimate atmosphere is conducive to brainstorming. And this time, I wanted to borrow from the TED concept and transition what happens up on stage to be more forward-looking and strategic in nature. I wanted to give more people a chance to share their thoughts, so I borrowed the TED format of a mix of 18-minute and five-minute (TED actually limits to three-minutes) talks. Plus, we retained unique Search Insider traditions like our roundtable break-out sessions.

The challenge I threw at presenters was to crystal-ball the question: Where is search going from here? I divided the question into five parts: the core technology, the user experience, the marketing strategies, the search marketing industry and the data and tools. Then, with the help of our advisory board (Gian Fulgoni – Comscore, John Nicoletti – Google, Stefan Weitz – Microsoft, Chris Copeland – GroupM and Frank Lee – The Search Agency) we created a 3-day agenda from the pitches we received. It’s promising to be a fascinating summit. And for good measure, we’re bringing Ball State University back to re-envision Google through Gen-Next eyes.

It was a little hairy, taking a tried-and-true format and reinventing it, but I think you’ll be pleased with the results. See you soon in Captiva!

Search May Not be Sexy Anymore, But It Pays the Bills

First published August 5, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Is it just me, or is search getting boring? It’s been months since we’ve had a good, ruckus-raising tidbit to get our teeth into. The Bing-Yahoo integration? That’s the best you can do? Yawn.

Is it me…

I suspect that it is, in part anyway, me. To be honest, I haven’t been much of a “Search Insider” lately. In the past few months, precious little of my time has been spent pondering the industry. I’m way behind on industry news and haven’t attended a search conference or event for a few months. My days have been full with the busy-ness of running a business. I’ve had other things on my mind.

My first Search Insider column ran six years ago and since then, I’ve written 276 columns, counting this one.  That’s a little over 220,000 words — most of them at least tangentially relevant to search. Perhaps the well has just run dry.

Or is it search?

But then again, perhaps it’s the industry.  Maybe search just isn’t that sexy anymore. Remember the day when Google was going to change the world? Remember how marketers just couldn’t wrap their heads around this “search” thing? Back then, I could get righteously indignant and bang out a column wondering when the world would “get” how important this it. But now, they’ve got it. It seems silly to proselytize search now that Google has become a verb. Search has come, has conquered, and we’ve all moved on. Again…yawn.

Sure, there are always new search entries in the marketplace, but when’s the last time somebody used the words Google Killer? Is it because Google is invincible, or is it just that we really don’t care anymore? Even Aaron Goldman, who surely has squatter’s rights on “Google Killer,” hasn’t squeezed it into a column since last May. In the last year, only three Search Insider columns have used the term. When we Insiders stop caring about the world after Google, imagine how disinterested the rest of the population must be.

Search and the Oxygen Cycle

As I watch my family’s day-to-day routines unwind, I realize that search is like air. We use it without thinking about it. We just accept it. And so, the industry that lies behind the query box falls into the same category as the biochemical process that ensures we have oxygen. I don’t care how it works, as long as it does work.

So, maybe search is boring. Maybe it’s lost its luster, ceasing to be a bright shiny object. Maybe the cool people have all moved on to social media and mobile, where they attend conferences wearing block logoed T-shirts, sipping free mimosas and talking about how no one gets Foursquare. It’s the same group you used to see at the search shows, waiting to board the bus to the Google Dance.

But I can’t help thinking that perhaps this is a good thing. You can only be cool for so long. Sooner or later, you have to grow up and do some real business. It’s the difference between a bar pick-up and a marriage. Social might be sexy, but search pays the bills and puts food on the table.

On second thought, maybe a little diversion is just what the doctor ordered. Look over here, all you journalists and financial analysts! Look at what’s happening where the really cool people play. Ooh and aah at these social widgets and nifty apps. Meanwhile, we search people will drudge along, cranking out a few more billion in search revenues.