Search: What is it Good For?

by Bill Conticchio December 4, 2015
December 4, 2015


How well does Search serve us?

Something I believe we all take for granted, or overlook entirely, is the nature of search. When we think of searching for something, most of us invariably look to Google. This almost reflex reaction gives Google incredible power and effectiveness. If we “Googled” Search Engines, we’d discover there are indeed alternatives, but with some limitations as well. My take comes from a recent TED Talk I viewed by Andreas Ekstrom in which he makes an important distinction between searches for isolated facts that are indisputable like What is the capitol of Turkey? Conversely, a search like Why is Tim Cook Apple’s President? could provide biased results. In the first example, the answer is an indisputable fact, and in the second, it is subject to interpretation from people of varying familiarity with the subject, resulting in wildly varying viewpoints or conclusions.

In fact, Mr. Ekstrom quotes some students of his as trusting Google “for the best, unbiased search results” without question.

Recently, a well-known marketing consultant I work with acquired a contract to create a search solution to define business problems identified by marketing people at an exclusive luxury brand. When I learned of the business problems they identified and tried to frame them into a search solution strategy myself, I realized something was missing. The marketing people were acting in a silo on behalf of a wholesaler, whose sphere of influence and understanding went only as far as that wholesaler’s online presence. What was missing was context, or in this case, specifically, a familiarity of the retail component importance to those business solutions. More specifically, they needed a brick and mortar solution that could contribute to an emotional buying decision that is being overlooked.

Mr. Ekstrom sees a potential built-in bias to searches based on queries to anything other than established facts. But he goes on to prove that there is a difference between desperate facts and knowledge. He maintains that regardless of this, Google is implicitly providing certainty or truth in its search results, while ignoring the possibility of other conclusions based on differing points of view, though they could be based on equally strong facts. He adds the dimension not yet covered by algorithms; namely inclusion of the humanities, behavioral science, or even morality. And while Google measures relevance based on timing and volume, it rarely makes a judgement as to right or wrong. For example, a public personality you may like or dislike has a certain online persona. If you like that person, your activity around the search for them will reinforce that public persona. However, if you choose to defame them by repeating a negative quality about them, true or false, sooner or later Google will take it into account. That is with one important and little-known exception. Google sometimes, at its own election, makes that moral judgement itself and rights the wrong. There is no way to know for whom or for what query they do so. What we do know is that it is rare.

Returning to my example of the upcoming search work done for that luxury brand, I’m reminded now of the nuance in search as we seek truths about products and their brands. Not just in the what, but in the why, how, and where. How relationships with brands color our view of them. And how those relationships, mostly on the retail level, are indeed part of the solution to their defined business problems.

How is it that we as an industry are so driven by the quest for positive search ranking results that we overlook the organic nature of business transactions and experiential shopping? How often is it done in the silos of wholesale and retail? How does it not take the consumer context into its work, omitting the type of product and locational content so vital to solving its business problems?

Often when we search, we seek a convenient yet qualitative answer to a question, never asking ourselves if it is at the same time a truthful or comprehensive one. A search tool such as Google can morph from a noun to a verb like Kleenex or Clorox and never be questioned.

As we know, SEO involves thoughtful choices, code, and analytics resulting in an investment in time and money. As Google has evolved, each generation of its latest search algorithm has claimed to be more humanities driven or values oriented while ever more revenue generating. Within the practice of SEO it still lacks nuance, and the filtering effect of context. Those who draw an inference from either internal website search or search engine activity often overlook the complex answers to seemingly simple business problems only a brick and mortar partner’s online presence can help solve.

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